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Tigers looking to claw back to top

1/24/2011 - MLB Detroit Tigers

Somewhere between the chaos of free-agent signing season and the warm, comfortable sensation that accompanies the phrase "pitchers and catchers are due to report," there lies the quiet bustle of the Major League Baseball winter caravan. It's a time for players, coaches, broadcasters and the manager to pile into a van and drop by the Rotary Club or mall and give fans reason to feel good about spending their hard-earned cash on tickets.

The Detroit Tigers kicked off their 2011 winter caravan last week with a two-day, 37-stop whirlwind that included visits to Children's Hospital of Michigan, the General Motors plant in Flint and the Hausbeck Pickle and Peppers factory in Saginaw. Long before the Tigers served as celebrity crew members at the McDonald's in Rochester Hills, general manager David Dombrowski was hearing upbeat reviews of the team's offseason activity.

"Just going around town and living here, the reaction to what we've done has been very positive," Dombrowski said. "People feel really good about it. But you better be good if you're going to win our division."

In response to an 81-81 season, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch spent money on upgrades that went beyond a coat of paint here and some new shutters there. After locking up third baseman Brandon Inge and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers invested $50 million in catcher-DH Victor Martinez, brought back Magglio Ordonez, added Brad Penny to the rotation and signed reliever Joaquin Benoit to a three-year contract. It's hard to find many people in the industry who subscribe to making $16.5 million investments in setup men. But Detroit's bullpen was middle of the pack in most categories in 2010, and Benoit pitched incredibly well in Tampa Bay, limiting opposing hitters to a .147 batting average in 60 1/3 innings.

For the Tigers to improve upon a so-so offense, they need a few hitters to step forward and provide support for first baseman Miguel Cabrera and his new sidekick, Martinez. Can center fielder Austin Jackson avoid a second-year letdown? Is outfielder Brennan Boesch the guy who slugged .593 in the first half, or a pathetic .222 after the All-Star break? And can Ordonez and Carlos Guillen still be productive hitters with a combined 27 years worth of mileage on them?

If anything is going to buy the lineup some time to provide the answers to those questions, it's a loaded pitching staff. The Tigers have enough dynamic young arms to turn Motown into "Throw-town."

Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer give manager Jim Leyland a formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Rick Porcello, the third-place finisher in the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year race, is poised for a bounce-back season at age 22. The Tigers signed Penny for a reasonable $3 million, and they're going to give Phil Coke a chance to start for the first time since he was dealing for the Yankees' Double-A Trenton club in 2008.

When it's suggested that the Tigers have the potential to emulate the San Francisco Giants, who rode five starters and a nondescript offense all the way to a World Series championship, Dombrowski's mind flashes back to another team with his fingerprints all over it. In the late 1990s he brought Josh Beckett, Penny, Braden Looper and A.J. Burnett to Florida, and they helped bring a title to Miami in 2003 after Dombrowski had departed for Detroit.

Since 2003, the Tigers have used eight of 10 first-round or supplemental picks in the June draft to select pitchers. Kyle Sleeth failed to pan out, but Verlander, Porcello and reliever Ryan Perry are important contributors in Detroit, and Andrew Miller helped the Tigers land Cabrera from Florida in a trade three years ago. Dombrowski has acquired Dontrelle Willis, Edwin Jackson, Scherzer and reliever Daniel Schlereth in trades in recent years, and the Tigers viewed Jeremy Bonderman as a rotation staple before injuries derailed his career.

The point here: Nobody has to tell Dombrowski about the importance of cultivating young power arms.

"Philosophically, we've done that for years," he said. "Sometimes it takes a while to acquire those guys, because it's not easy to do. Sometimes they don't work out as well. But ideally, if you're going to win, you need that type of foundation."

There aren't many 1-2 tandems with better stuff than Detroit's guys. According to FanGraphs, Verlander had the second highest average fastball velocity (at 95.4 mph) among big league starters behind Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez last season. Scherzer, at 93.2 mph, was tied for 14th. Verlander ranked fourth in the American League with 8.79 strikeouts per nine innings, and Scherzer was sixth at 8.46. Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez was right behind both of them in seventh place.

But stability means everything to the success of a big league staff, and it's imperative for the Tigers to find a reliable 3-4-5 contingent. Now that the Tigers have traded Armando Galarraga to Arizona, the next line of defense consists of prospects Andy Oliver, Jacob Turner and Charlie Furbush.

The Giants got 33 starts each from Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito last year, and 29 from Todd Wellemeyer and Madison Bumgarner in the fifth spot. The Tigers need a return to form by Penny, whose reputation as a "horse" has taken a few dings in recent years. He made only nine starts in St. Louis last year because of an oblique injury. But Tigers trainer Kevin Rand, who has a longstanding relationship with Penny going back to their Marlins days, reports that Penny has committed himself to conditioning this winter and is in terrific shape. No one will know precisely how terrific until the Grapefruit League games begin.

"When you look at teams like the Giants, Padres and Rangers, you say, 'What kind of production did they get from their third, fourth and fifth guys?'" said Detroit pitching coach Rick Knapp. "I think Brad gives us that continuity. Everything I've heard about the guy is, 'He's a horse,' and 'he's a competitor.' He's our fifth starter, but who's to say he won't be better than that?"

Porcello, in the estimation of hard-core Tigers watchers, is pivotal to the team's success. He showed exceptional poise and maturity on his way to winning 14 games in 2009, and the Tigers protected him by diligently monitoring his workload. But Porcello seemed lost at times last summer, and the Tigers demoted him to Triple-A Toledo in June so he could catch his breath, escape the pressure and work on his slider.

"Sinkerball pitchers who try to throw too hard end up flattening out," Knapp said. "It was like a snowball that kept going down the hill and getting bigger. We would work on stuff in the 'pen and he would be nails. Then he would go into the game and he couldn't feel it. He couldn't repeat it. He would stride a little long or pull off a ball. His release point got inconsistent to the point where he couldn't command anything off-speed."

Porcello regained his footing in August and September, and now the Tigers are chalking it up as a formative experience -- the kind of thing almost every young player must go through at some point. Even Lincecum floundered last season before recommitting himself and leading the Giants to the promised land.

"It's called life," Leyland said at the winter meetings in December. "That's what the major leagues are all about. You have some trial-and-error periods and I think it was nothing more than that for Rick Porcello. He's going to be an excellent pitcher for a long time."

Coke, 28, has a bigger adjustment in store with his transition from the bullpen to the rotation. The Tigers encounter lefty hitters Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Jim Thome on a regular basis when they play the Minnesota Twins -- and now they have Adam Dunn to contend with when they face the Chicago White Sox -- so Coke could be a significant factor as Detroit's only left-handed starter.

Coke stagnated as a starter in the Yankees' system, failing to rise above Class A in five seasons, before ramping up his conditioning and making a smooth transition to the 'pen in the Eastern League in 2008. Now he's back in the rotation, and he'll have to deal with some of the challenges that Joba Chamberlain has faced in bouncing back and forth between the two roles.

"He's got a chance to be really good," Knapp said. "As a reliever, he could come in high-strung as a one-inning guy. But as a starter, he can't just rely on the running fastball and the hard slider to get lefties. He has to figure out that he can use his changeup and turn it over and change speeds with his fastball. There are some things he can do now that he wasn't able to utilize in his role as a reliever."

A lot of nights, six innings will suffice for Detroit's starters, because a bullpen with Perry, Benoit, Joel Zumaya and Jose Valverde has some serious dart-throwing ability. Zumaya is reportedly healthy and raring to go in his comeback from a fractured elbow in June. But as Leyland is quick to point out, the Tigers must find a way to keep him healthy from April through September.

Or, in a perfect world, October.

There's a lot to chew on in Detroit as the Hot Stove season winds to a close. Hope, free-agent signings and positive pronouncements aren't everything in baseball. But they can sure help a fan make it through a long, cold winter.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.