Things to watch for this week with your Detroit Tigers

Chris Sale of the White Sox and Justin Verlander will battle each other in a high-profile pitching duel on Tuesday in Detroit.

Chris Sale of the White Sox and Justin Verlander will battle each other in a high-profile pitching duel on Tuesday in Detroit.

We all thought for sure that the Detroit Tigers starting pitching would once again be a strength in 2014.

It has been, and in the four-game series against the Chicago White Sox that starts tonight at Comerica Park, we’ll see four of the best pitchers in the American League, three of them wearing the home whites of the Tigers. 

The Detroit rotation features two recent Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer), one of whom also won the MVP (JV), and the defending ERA champion (Anibal Sanchez). Last year, each of the Big Three struck out at least 200 batters, and two guys have tossed a combined three-no-hitters in their careers (JV with two, Sanchez with one). Toss in Rick Porcello, a “fifth starter” who won more games before the age of 26 than any other active pitcher in baseball, and Detroit

The Tigers rotation is loaded and they’ve been pitching like it so far. Through their first 14 starts of the season (Drew Smyly is the only other pitcher to make a start), Detroit’s top four starters have put up a stingy 2.59 ERA wgile striking out about a batter per inning. Considering the Tigers have won five one-run games already and their offense hasn’t yet clicked fully, the rotation looms large in their present and future success.

Sanchez faces the ChiSox on Monday night
Sanchez pitches Monday after a slow start to his ’14 season. The Venezuelan Comet lasted just four innings in his first start, though he only allowed a pair of runs. He’s gone five in each of his last two outings and he’s getting his fastball going, having notched eight K’s in his last start against the Indians last week. Sanchez has the stuff to strike out 220+ batters, as he exhibited in his masterful 17-K game last year at Comerica Park against the Braves. Like Verlander, Sanchez can shut down a team on any given night, and last season he also nearly fired his second no-hitter, losing it with one out in the 9th inning against the Twins.

Heavyweight matchup on Tuesday: JV vs. Sale
In some ways, Verlander hasn’t really seemed to find his groove yet. His command has been off: his walks per nine innings are up and his pitch counts have been much too high, forcing him out of games early. On Tuesday night he’ll square off with Chicago ace Chris Sale, a tall 25-year old left-hander with nasty stuff who seems to have a Cy Young Award in his future, maybe as soon as this season. Verlander vs. Sale will be a game you won’t want to miss this week, both pitchers will be vying to top the other, and JV usually loves such matchups that serve as a challenge to his supremacy as one of baseball’s elite aces.

Smyly tries to get in the groove on Wednesday
Don’t blame Drew Smyly for his ineffective start last week against the Angels. The young lefty was skipped over twice by Brad Ausmus due to rainouts and offdays in the first three weeks of the season. Instead, he made two long relief appearances, earning a win and a hold in six shutout innings. It’s tough to step into the rotation from the bullpen after only seeing action in two games over 15-20 days like that. It’s much easier for a minor league starter who has been in a regular 5-man rotation to come up and make a big league start than what Drew did last week. All in all, Smyly did as well as can be expected against a tough LA offense. Expect the southpaw to be better prepared on Wednesday in game three of this series against the Pale Hose. The Sox are loaded with a number of righty bats, so Smyly will have his work cut out for him.

Thursday afternoon: Max finishes up the ChiSox series
A slew of K’s might be in store for Thursday afternoon’s game between the Tigers and ChiSox, when Scherzer toes the rubber. His opponent will be Jose Quintana, one of the better young pitchers in the league. Scherzer is once again among league leaders in strikeouts, he’s coming off a dominating performance against the Angels, and he looks every bit like the Max of 2013. In the afternoon sunshine, Scherzer and Quintana may rack up a lot of whiffs.  

Weekend series: at the Twins
The Tigs make their first trip to Minnesota this weekend for a three-gamer against their traditional division opponent. We’ll see Porcello, Sanchez, and Verlander on the mound in that one at Target Field. So far, the Twins have shown that they can outslug opponents occasionally to make up for their shaky starting pitching. In 8 of their 9 wins, Minnesota has scored at least 7 runs. Their rotation has a dismal combined 5.31 ERA thus far in 2014. If the Tigers’ offense is to get on track, it might happen this weekend against the Twins.

Gonzalez is gone, Worth is back…again
The Alex Gonzalez experiment lasted three weeks and is now over. You can’t blame the Tigers for giving it a shot: Gonzalez was hitting the ball really well for the Orioles in spring training and Detroit needed someone to step in to give them some reps at shortstop in the void that followed the devastating injury to Jose Iglesias, which may keep him sidelined all season. But Gonzalez didn’t bring his hitting shoes with him to Motown, and his defense was a nightmare that few could have imagined. We knew he would be limited somewhat in range, he’s 37 years old for goodness sake, but his range was even worse than imagined and his hands were jittery. I counted five errors he committed in 9 games, though the scorekeeper only charged him with three. All we can hope now is that Tigers’ players will have to vote to determine a World Series share for Gonzo’s brief trial in Detroit. He’s gone and he won’t be missed. Ironically, the guy who delivered the game-winning hit on opening day has probably played his final major league game.

One man’s exit is another man’s opportunity. Enter Danny Worth, who starts his 8th stint with the Tigers in five seasons. “Yo-yo” might be an appropriate nickname for the middle infielder who has now spent parts of seven seasons with the Mud Hens. I’m not sure if Worth owns a house in Toledo, but he probably knows every good restaurant, every clean restroom, and every pothole in the city. The Tigers will shuttle Worth in and out along with Andrew Romine at shortstop for the foreseeable future. The problem with Worth is that he”s a utility infielder in a game that no longer values such things. With the Tigs using 7 relievers (8 for a little while), that leaves only 3-4 bench spots, and one has to be a catcher. Another two are usually outfielders, which leaves on extra infielder, and teams want a spare infielder who can hit as opposed to pick the ball. The era when teams could carry a utility infielder for emergency situations and to give an occasional breather to the starters is long gone. Worth is a career .250 minor leaguer with little power, and even though he can play short, second, and third, he’s not particularly eye-popping with the glove.

But the organization has few options, and Worth has at least tasted big league cuisine (he spent the entire 2012 season with the major league club). So, this what we’re stuck with, but at least a Romine/Worth platoon of sorts will be an upgrade from Gonzalez.

Shortstop options outside the organization
Don’t be surprised if Dave Dombrowski acquires a shortstop sooner rather than later. Unsigned free agent Stephen Drew is still dangling out there, and he has a few things going for him: he’s a left-handed bat (which Detroit sorely needs to balance out their lineup) and he’s proven he can hit for stretches of time at least. He also has postseason experience. But several teams are sniffing around Drew, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Braves or some other team snatched him up and moved him to second base. Drew’s range is better than that of the ancient Gonzalez, but it’s not Iglesias-like by any stretch. The Tigers may also revisit their interest in fuzzy-faced Chris Owings, a 22-year old shortstop with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kirk Gibson’s team is off to a miserable start and they may be interested in moving some pieces. The Tigs reportedly showed interest in Owings in the spring, but it might be that the asking price for the young infielder was too high (Rick Porcello was rumored to be coveted by the DBacks). But would the Tigers let go of something to get Owings, who has looked solid in his first full-time month in the big leagues? I think they could. The Tigers want to win a championship right now. Sure, they have Iglesias in the wings and they could be set at short for 10 more years with Jose, but remember this is the franchise that signed Prince Fielder when Victor Martinez was lost for the season. Owings would come a lot cheaper, maybe at the price of pitching prospect Robbie Ray and one of Detroit’s two younger middle infield prospects like Hernan Perez or Eugenio Suarez. Arizona could afford to take the long look at young shortstops like that, while Detroit wants to win now.

Matchup to watch this week: In their stellar careers, Joe Mauer and Justin Verlander have faced each other more than any other pitcher/batter. The three-time batting champ has gotten the best of it thus far, hitting .371 against Verlander with 7 extra-base hits in 74 battles against him.

Trending up: After a pair of rough outings to start his Detroit career, Joba Chamberlain has not allowed a run in five straight appearances and he’s fanned 7 batters in his last 4 innings.

Trending down: Torii Hunter hit homers in three straight games in the first week of the season, but after suffering a minor injury to his leg he’s hitting .160 since.

Interesting number:  162 — that’s how many stolen bases the Tigers are on pace for this season after swiping 15 in their first 15 games. Though speed demon Rajai Davis has 6 of them, there has been a team effort to inject some action on the bases: 6 different Tigers have pilfered a bag. Last year the Tigers stole 35 bases for the entire season. The last time Detroit swiped as many as 100 bases was 2007, and the team hasn’t stolen more than 160 since 1997.