DETROIT -- Tigers officials had predicted a few years ago that 2006 would be the year the rotation became the strength of the club. Now, 2007 could be the year it becomes the strength of the league.
What had been a group of potential-laden but unproven young arms matured last year into statistically the best rotation in baseball. Symbolic of Detroit's sudden rise as a team, they all seemed to emerge at the same time -- Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson out of the mildly successful seasons of years past, and Justin Verlander out of the label of potential. Whether they can repeat those kinds of numbers is one of the more intriguing questions in Detroit's American League pennant defense.
Between the voids to fill in the Twins rotation and the trades that shipped out two White Sox starters, Detroit's starting pitching arguably looms as the most dominant factor of any area in the AL Central. The young Tigers don't boast the career resume to match Johan Santana or Mark Buehrle yet, but Detroit's rotation as a whole offers no holes for opponents to poke, and more than one starter who could soon reach that category.
The balance provides the potential separation. Chicago and Minnesota will likely have Spring Training competitions to decide their fifth starters. The Tigers will trot out Mike Maroth, who was on his way to a breakout season in '06 before undergoing surgery for bone chips in his elbow. If he's recovered fully, as he insists, that's one decided edge for Detroit.
"We'll see when we get there," Maroth said, "but there's not going to be any doubt in my mind [about the elbow]. I'm not going to be going out there every day throwing, thinking how my arm is doing. I'm not going to be really concerned about it. I'll do the things I need to do normally, and if something comes up, we'll adjust from there."
Maroth was the most proven of Detroit's young starters going into last season, improving from 21 losses in 2003 to a .500 season for a 2005 club that finished 20 games under .500. When he's been healthy, Maroth has averaged better than 200 innings in his three full Major League seasons. He wasn't on the postseason roster, yet he was still the symbol of the Tigers' rise from 119 losses in '03 to the World Series last year.
Maroth has been on a normal offseason routine. He hasn't thrown off a mound yet, but he's pain-free. If he's healthy and effective, he'll further establish himself as a workhorse finesse lefty in the mold of Kenny Rogers, Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer. For at least one more season, the Tigers still have the mold with Rogers, who keeps raising the standards.
Rogers' start in the All-Star Game last summer at 41 years old was the midway point of a season that defied age, from his team-high-tying 17 wins to a modern postseason standard of 23 scoreless postseason innings. Yet in the typical Rogers storyline, even he has something to prove going into the year.
The controversy surrounding what was on Rogers' pitching hand and pointed out by Cardinals manager Tony La Russa in Game 2 of the World Series will probably leave some residue, even though he shut down the Cardinals once it was off. He's bracing for it in case it happens, but he isn't going to apologize for any success in the aftermath.
"I don't have a problem trying to prove people wrong," Rogers said during the Tigers' Winter Caravan. "It's usually added incentive."
While the postseason brought Rogers' season-long success to an international stage, October was vindication for Bonderman. His struggles down the stretch in the regular season, capped by a frustrating outing against the Royals in the regular-season finale, put his potential in question. His three starts have since erased doubts, from a borderline dominant ALDS win over the Yankees to a Game 4 performance in St. Louis that at least gave his club a chance to even the series if not for defensive miscues after he was out.
The Tigers were convinced, signing the 24-year-old to a four-year, $38 million contract over the winter. Considering Bonderman's first purchases after the deal were new trucks for his dad and father-in-law, money shouldn't affect him much.
"He's a guy with some severe talent," Rogers said. "You saw some glimpses of how great he can be. He was only 23, and I think we lost track of that last year at certain points when he wasn't pitching as well as he'd like to. The sky's the limit for Jeremy, and I think they did a great job signing a guy who's a true No. 1. When he's on, he's as dominant as anyone. There's not many of those guys out there."
The irony over Robertson's success is that he sometimes received more attention on the days he didn't pitch. What started as a good-luck charm by chewing gum became a local sensation by season's end, and it overshadowed what he was doing on the mound.
Though he was the one Tiger to make at least eight starts and not have a winning record, Robertson became known as the battler of the group for his low-scoring duels. He gave up one run over 21 1/3 innings in a three-start April stretch that included a 2-0 win at Seattle and a no-decision in a 2-1 Tigers victory over the Angels. He took a no-decision the next month in a 1-0 win over the Reds, outpitched Roger Clemens in a 4-0 win in June, lost 2-1 decisions at Tampa Bay in August and Minnesota in September, and outdueled Baltimore's Kris Benson for a 2-0 victory down the home stretch.
The one Tigers starter linked most to a potential drop off, rightly or wrongly, is the one starter who hasn't had a follow-up season before. Justin Verlander's rookie success in just his second pro season at any level was dominant, but it begs the debate over a sophomore jinx that haunted so many Rookie of the Year pitchers before him. Add to that an ERA that was a run and a half higher after the All-Star break than before it, and there's recent performance on top of precedence.
Verlander eventually admitted that he tired down the stretch before finding a second wind in the playoffs, and the Tigers have tried to eliminate the fatigue question by focusing him on rest this offseason. How manager Jim Leyland uses him after racking up 186 innings as a rookie could be another point, but the biggest determining factor will be how he fares on the mound, the same way Leyland evaluates all of his pitchers.
Leyland didn't see his pitchers smacked around very often last year. The less often they do it this season, the more likely the Tigers will find themselves in the division race.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.