February 19th, 2014
While Tigers manager Brad Ausmus doesn’t have a season-opening rotation order yet, his rotation for the first few games of Spring Training is set. It’ll begin with prospect Drew VerHagen, who will start the team’s traditional opening exhibition with Florida Southern College next Tuesday at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Before you start speculating about VerHagen’s chances to knock on Detroit’s door as a potential sixth starter in case of injury, remember that Tigers top pitching prospect Andy Oliver started against the Mocs two years ago, the last time the exhibition led off the Spring Training game.
From there, the projected Major League rotation begins to slot in. Drew Smyly, back in a starting role, will lead off the Tigers’ Grapefruit League slate against the Braves next Wednesday at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, followed by Rick Porcello in the back half the home-and-home set against the Braves Thursday at Lakeland.
The Tigers’ first split-squad day Friday will feature the reigning Cy Young winner and an insurance starter. Max Scherzer will face the Yankees in Lakeland, while Jose Alvarez makes the trip to Clearwater to face the Phillies.
Ausmus had already ruled out Justin Verlander from the first turn through the Spring Training rotation as he builds up his workload following core muscle surgery. The goal is to get Verlander five starts this spring, which should be enough to stretch him out for the start of the season.
Alvarez, who filled in for Anibal Sanchez while he was on the disabled list last summer, could provide an insurance plan if Verlander suffers a setback and isn’t ready for the start of the season.
In many springs under Leyland, the early rotation would provide a clue on the Opening Day starter if you counted out five game days from each start. Sure enough, Scherzer’s start Feb. 28 would put his spot on turn for March 31 if everybody stays in order (and if you consider the Tigers’ off-day March 19 as a day for someone to start a minor-league game, as has been the case in recent years). Because neither Verlander nor Sanchez have been slotted in yet, it’s a little fuzzier, but for now, it looks like a much easier path to Opening Day for Scherzer than anyone else.
Brad Ausmus was surprised it took this long into Spring Training for him to be asked about an Opening Day starter. It was less surprising that there’s no answer yet.
“It could be a tough decision,” Ausmus said. “You really have three legitimate Opening Day starter type pitchers on the roster. You have a Cy Young/MVP winner who’s coming off surgery but as of right now looks to be on track. You have the reigning Cy Young winner. And you have an ERA champ. So you could make an argument for any of the three, really.
“To say I hadn’t thought about it would be a lie. To say I hadn’t discussed it with coaches would be a lie. I have, but we haven’t made a final decision yet.”
It should not be assumed, he warned, that Max Scherzer’s season makes him the automatic choice to start the March 31 opener.
“It’s possible it could be Max. We just don’t know at this point,” he said.
The one safe assumption Ausmus provided is that all three candidates — Scherer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez — would pitch in the opening series against Kansas City if everyone’s healthy. That at least means that Verlander won’t be held back until later to give him extra prep time.
Besides the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day, the one tangible difference for that day’s starter is that he’ll be the one pitcher to make two starts in that opening homestand. He’ll still get an extra day’s rest thanks to the April 1 off-day, though a rainout (or, heaven forbid, a snowout) on Opening Day would erase that rest day.
After that opening week, the Tigers are off for three of the next eight days amidst a five-game West Coast trip to face the Dodgers and Padres. That could lead to Drew Smyly or Rick Porcello being pushed back, Ausmus said.