Just prior to the July trade deadline in 2012, the Detroit Tigers snatched Anibal Sanchez from the Miami Marlins for three prospects. The trade gave the team five strong starting pitchers, and when the 2013 spring camp opened it appeared that the Tiger rotation might form the solid backbone of a dynasty-in-the-making.
But even though the team advanced to the World Series in 2012, the didn’t happen. Detroit’s “Fast Five” starting rotation only spent one season and two months together. Now, a few weeks into the 2015 season, only one of the five is in the rotation at all. Yet the team sits at 9-2 and looks as strong as ever.
What happened to the plan to build the future of the team around the rotation? Does it even matter? Can the Tigers get to the postseason again and finally win the Fall Classic without Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer?
The answer lies somewhere between “sure they can” and “hell if I know.”
The Fast Five were the hard-throwing Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, and long tall Doug Fister, along with groundball specialist Rick Porcello. Verlander was the reigning MVP and Cy Young winner when Sanchez was acquired. He nearly won the Cy Young again in ’12 (probably should have), and Mad Max won it in 2013 and followed with another amazing season in 2014. Sanchez led the American League in ERA in 2013 and nearly threw a no-hitter. Fister set an AL record when he struck out nine straight batters. Porcello kept getting better. The team even had lefty Drew Smyly in reserve, a crafty, gutsy young pitcher who could have been in the rotation for many teams.
In 2013 all five won at least 13 games and started 156 of the team’s 162 games. Three of them (Verlander, Sanchez, Scherzer) struck out 200 batters. Combined they had three Cy Young awards, an MVP, three no-hitters.
But after Detroit was bounced from the ALCS in 2013 by the Red Sox in a series they should have won, Dave Dombrowski did the unthinkable in the offseason. At the Winter Meetings, Trader Dave shipped Fister to the Nationals for two young pitchers (Ian Krol and Robbie Ray) and a journeyman utility infielder (Steve Lombardozzi). The move puzzled fans and experts. It still stands as the most unpopular and unsuccessful transactions orchestrated by Dombrowski in his Tiger tenure. It’s so bad that it makes you wonder if Fister had some deep dark secret that prompted the move. Did he sleep with Mrs. Ilitch? Was he a member of ISIS?
At any rate, the five right-handers were split up, and when Sanchez struggled to stay healthy and Verlander just plain struggled in 2014, the rotation suddenly seemed like a question mark. David Price was added in midseason in a move that reinforced why Dombrowski is (Fister clunker aside) the best GM in the game. But Smyly was lost in that trade, and then Porcello was traded for Yoenis Cespedes, and Scherzer left for a bank vault sized contract from the Nats. That left big holes in the rotation.
Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon were summoned to fill the open slots, but even though they’ve pitched good to great so far in 2015, the rotation is not as scary as it once seemed when Max, Vintage JV, Fister & Co. were around. Verlander has yet to throw a pitch this season and it’s very possible he might need an extended stay on the shelf after many years of throwing so many innings and oodles of pitches. Price is a master and the Tigers need to resign him, but who knows what the Tigers will get from Verlander going forward? Simon is a short-term innings-eater, so Detroit will need to find another rotation arm (or two) in the next few seasons.
So far the rotation has been very good, helping to produce four shutouts and generally going deep into games (though Sanchez’s newfound habit of giving up home runs is troubling). Price is in a contract year and you can expect him to be great all season long. Greene might be an upgrade from Porcello. Simon has been better than advertised, but he has a history of tiring as the season wears on. Kyle Lobstein is no Verlander, but he keeps the Tigers in the game for the most part. Every Tiger fan fears the bullpen, as they should, but in previous years there was a tendency to feel like the starters could cover up for that glaring weakness. With so many new faces and with Verlander hurting, how far can this new “patched-together” rotation lead the Tigers?