Commentary

Tigers pitchers try to rewrite their script

Production from Verlander, Bonderman and Zumaya "critical" to team's success

Originally Published: March 13, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Want proof of how fast the world can spin you to a very different place in life? Don't look at the S&P 500. Just look at the Detroit Tigers.

Spin the dial on the wayback machine to one year ago today. How scary did the Tigers look? How many baseball geniuses -- starting with this genius -- thought they were headed for big October things?

And boy, how wrong could we have been?

A year later, it's astounding how the last-place finish nobody saw coming has just about wiped this team off America's radar screen. And don't think the Tigers haven't noticed their newfound invisibility.

"I think it's funny how nobody talks about us anymore," said their ace, Justin Verlander. "We're yesterday's news. But everybody that touted us as World Series champions [should remember] we still have those same puzzle pieces in place."

True, but here's what else is funny: Verlander couldn't possibly have picked a better word than "puzzle" to describe some of those pieces, because, one year later, this team is a mystery James Patterson would be proud of.

What do we make of the Tigers? That's not a question that can be answered by any sportswriter, oddsmaker or talk-show know-it-all in America right now. It's a question, in fact, that can only be answered by the men who fit a single job description:

Pitchers for the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers scored more runs last year (821) than six of the eight playoff teams. So, clearly, that isn't their problem.

But now tell us what to expect from the men who pitch for this team. Is that even possible at the moment?

[+] EnlargeJoel Zumaya
AP Photo/Tony DejakJoel Zumaya has appeared in just 49 games over the past two seasons.

Tell us, for instance, what to expect from Joel Zumaya, the smokeballer who has spent 244 days on the disabled list the past two years.

Or tell us what to expect from Jeremy Bonderman, who was 10-1 when he arrived at the 2007 All-Star break and has won four games since -- and needed surgery last June to relieve a blood clot near his pitching shoulder.

Or tell us what to expect from even Verlander, a man who won more games (35) in 2006 and '07 than Johan Santana or Roy Halladay -- and then went 11-17 last year, with an ERA just under 5.00.

Three years ago, when the Tigers rode the magic carpet to their first World Series in 22 years, Verlander, Bonderman and Zumaya were 23, 23 and 21 years old, respectively -- and looked like the kind of arms this team could construct a staff around.

And now? Now let's spin the dial forward again to the second week of March, 2009. We've just mentioned those same three names to the manager of this outfit. And here's the word Jim Leyland used to sum up how important those three pitchers are to the fortunes of the 2009 Tigers:

"Critical," said the manager. "Very, very critical."

In dropping that C-word, Leyland said, he didn't mean to minimize the talents or importance of anyone else on his staff. But …

"But," the manager concluded, "are they critical? Absolutely. And you'd be B.S.-ing to say they're not."

So howwww critical are they?

They're so critical that when Leyland was asked about a simulated game that Bonderman and Zumaya are scheduled to pitch in Saturday morning, on a back field in Tiger Town, the manager actually answered: "That's a huge day, for me."

Now this wasn't a key September series in Chicago or Minnesota he was talking about, friends. This was a simulated game. On March 14.

It's not an event normally associated with an adjective like "huge." But Jim Leyland really used that word. Twice.

But that wasn't the only window into the manager's innermost thoughts about his most important pitchers.

Asked later how badly this team needs to have Verlander and Bonderman win more than 14 games -- which is the mind-boggling number they combined for last year -- Leyland mustered a brief (uh, make that very brief) laugh.

"If they don't," he said, "I'll be picking [eggs] with the chickens."

And he's only half-kidding, much to the dismay of those chickens. It's the last year of his contract. His $130 million baseball team just became the first club since 2003 to finish behind the Royals. And his front office still expects these Tigers to contend, whether the rest of North America does or not.

So even simulated spring-training games have become pivotal events all of a sudden. That's how dramatically the Tigers' world has shifted between last spring training and this one.

But that doesn't mean there isn't hope here. Or talent. Lots of talent. And the manager looks for every occasion to remind us of that, too.

With pretty much zero prompting, he said the other day: "I really like our team. I like the caliber of our players. I like the character of our players. … So I'm going on record as saying I like our team a lot."

But he also knows he'll like his team a lot more if it gets health and pitching, not necessarily in that order. And that brings us back to Zumaya, Bonderman and Verlander.

Had real life followed the 2006 blueprint, Zumaya would have been one of the most electrifying closers on earth by now. But the blueprint didn't know he was somehow going to rupture a tendon in his finger while warming up in the bullpen in 2007. And the blueprint didn't know he was going to blow out his shoulder the next winter moving boxes to escape an approaching California wildfire.

So two discouraging years later, this was supposed to be the spring when he restarted his engines and resumed his path toward bullpen stardom -- at age 24. But two outings into his spring, he didn't like how his shoulder felt. Which led to the five words no team wants to hear in spring training: "Going to see Dr. [James] Andrews."

After an exam last week, Zumaya was told that what he felt was just normal soreness. But his simulated trip to the mound this weekend will be the first test of exactly how ready he is to put all his mishaps behind him.

"I think when you're not right, it takes something away from your mental psyche," Leyland said. "And that's part of his game. He gets pumped up, he gets ready to go. I think he needs that to be successful. So the whole key to him is just the health issue. If he's healthy, he'll get right back into it."

In a bullpen with who's-the-closer issues following the retirement of Todd Jones, there's no bigger difference-maker than Zumaya, a guy who continues to pump 98-mph heat waves and 86-mph change-ups. So the sooner this team gets Zumaya established as its ninth-inning, game-finishing monster, the better it figures to be.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Bonderman
AP Photo/Tony DejakNew pitching coach Rick Knapp, right, and Jeremy Bonderman probably have much to talk about this spring.

But the other half of Saturday's simulated-game tag team, Bonderman, might be just as big an X-factor.

It was only a season and a half ago that Bonderman seemed to be on the verge of stardom. Then the mysterious tingling in his fingers began, and he wasn't the same guy. His velocity began sinking. His movement disappeared. And no one knew why.

"I just never could figure it out," he said. "I kept trying to tweak stuff to maybe do something different. So once I finally found out I had that blood clot … it basically explained a lot of the reasons I was having fatigue and loss of velocity."

Unfortunately, though, he had to stagger through nearly a full year of frustration and discomfort first -- until one morning he woke up and found a lump the size of a softball below his armpit.

"I said to my wife, 'Boy, this doesn't look right,'" he said. "So I went to the hospital. And that was it."

That was it for his season, anyway. He underwent surgery last June to relieve a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome, and hasn't pitched in a game -- any kind of game -- since.

That long wait was supposed to have ended a week and a half ago. But Bonderman, too, didn't like the way his shoulder was responding. So he had to leave camp, have the shoulder looked at and be reassured that there was no new injury.

He resumed throwing a few days ago. And now his manager isn't the only one who's looking at that simulated game as "huge."

"It'll feel like it's nationally televised to me," Bonderman laughed.

"If I'm healthy," he said, "I feel like I'll have a big year. My arm's got some whip to it again. It's not heavy. It's not dead all the time. So I feel like if I can stay healthy, I can help this team get back to where it was in '06 and '07. And I don't feel like stealing money. That's the biggest thing. I don't want people looking at me like I'm a player who just took the money and ran. I'd rather go out there and get my butt kicked every day than not play. So I just want to stay healthy and be part of this team again."

In a spring in which Dontrelle Willis (7.50 ERA) and Nate Robertson (9.00 ERA) haven't done anything to show they're ready to be depended on, it's clear the Tigers are just as ready as he is to get the old Bonderman back.

But maybe most of all, they need Verlander to be the ace, rocket-launcher and Sports Illustrated cover boy he was during his first two seasons in the big leagues.

What happened to Verlander last year still isn't fully clear. His fastball velocity was down, from an average of 95 mph to 93. His strikeout rate dropped, from 8.2 to 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. And his walks were up, from just below 3.0 per nine innings pitcher to nearly 4.0. So a guy who went a spectacular 35-15 with a 3.64 ERA in 2006-07 wound up going 11-17, 4.84 in a strange and humbling season.

"I found out this game isn't easy," Verlander said. "It seemed like my first couple of years, everything went right. And last year, everything went wrong. Just Murphy's Law."

Leyland's theory is that, when things began to avalanche downhill all around Verlander, "I think he felt like he had to be The Guy. … And he didn't need to do that."

But Verlander politely disagrees with that premise. When he looks at last season, he sees a spring-training game plan that went wrong. He spent the first few weeks "throwing 90 percent" to work on his command, he said. And by the time he tried to crank up his fastball again, he'd lost his delivery -- and never got it right.

So his No. 1 goal this spring, he said, is to "get my velocity back." He and new pitching coach Rick Knapp have retooled his landing and "tried to get back to basics." And even though the results have looked messy so far (9 1/3 IP, 9 BB, 5 K), Leyland continues to say: "I'm not worried about Justin Verlander at all."

But at some point, the manager is going to need to see more strikes, more zeroes and more reminders of 2006 from all three of these guys.

In the meantime, though, this is a team that feels as if it's learned some important lessons, and made some critical adjustments, in the wake of last year's journey to the bottom of the AL Central.

This pitching staff walked more hitters last season (644) than all but three teams in baseball. So out went pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. And in came Knapp, who spent the last 12 years as the minor league pitching coordinator for the heavyweight strike-throwing champions of the world, the Twins.

Then there was that Tigers defense, which earned a gruesome minus-64 ranking from the Fielding Bible last year -- the fourth-worst rating in the big leagues. So that, too, has been upgraded -- at catcher (Gerald Laird), shortstop (Adam Everett) and third base (where Brandon Inge takes over again full time).

And, finally, there's the area above the eyebrows, where the headache of 2008 is still pounding.

"I think everybody knows what happened, and I think everybody's somewhat embarrassed by it," Verlander said. "I know I am. And I have something to prove. Hopefully, it will light a fire under our butts."

A lot of pieces still have to fit together to get this team back to the precipice of greatness. But if that fire rages and it all clicks, the 2009 Tigers can still fulfill all the glorious predictions -- of 2008.

"Worst to first," that noted clairvoyant, Justin Verlander, predicted. "Been there. Done that. Done it in reverse. And we can easily do it again."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com