DETROIT -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland knows the questions critics have about his bullpen. His answer to that rests in part with his starting pitching.
"I'm not as worried about the bullpen as everybody else is," Leyland said earlier this month at TigerFest. "I think the big key is going to be the starting pitching. We've got to get an extra out or two-thirds of an inning more from our starters than we were getting. If we get that, I think the bullpen will be fine."
The Tigers averaged just over six innings per start in 2006, accounting for 976 1/3 innings and 75 victories on their way to the American League pennant. The innings total ranked fifth in the American League and seventh in the Majors. Last year's team, by contrast, received 932 innings from its starters. That dropped them to ninth in the AL, 20th in the Majors and less than six innings per start.
No matter the might in the offense, Leyland points out, it's pitching that wins. History supports that notion in October. So does the Tigers' performance the last two years. Expectations on offense will mean little if they can't meet or exceed expectations on the mound.
"That's the only way we're gonna win it. We've gotta pitch," Leyland said. "It doesn't matter how many you score. On a freak year once in a while, you might outslug somebody, but that's not going to happen very often."
The innings deficit last year didn't come at the top of the rotation. Justin Verlander averaged well better than six innings per start on his way to 200 innings in his second full Major League season. Jeremy Bonderman, too, hit the six-inning average before midseason elbow problems eventually shut him down. Take away Nate Robertson's disastrous start on June 5 at Texas, where he didn't record an out, and he averaged six innings per outing.
The struggles to fill innings came with everything around that trio. With Kenny Rogers injured and Mike Maroth -- though he, too, averaged six innings a start -- traded at midseason, Detroit was left with unproven arms and innings to fill. Try as they might, Andrew Miller, Chad Durbin, Virgil Vasquez had to battle escalating pitch counts, at times, along with opponents.
With Dontrelle Willis, the Tigers have someone to fill those innings. And Detroit arguably has as much depth in its rotation as any team in the American League.
"Everybody's talking about who's one, two or three [in the rotation order]," Leyland said. "But we've got five starters, and whoever's pitching that day is your No. 1 starter. If you've got one great pitcher and four that aren't very good, you're not gonna win anything."
The one Tigers starter who was great down the stretch was the biggest question mark entering the season. Nobody knew for sure how Verlander's arm would react after more than 207 innings in his first full season, including the playoffs. However, Tigers coaches hoped that the lessons he learned from pitching without his peak velocity down the stretch and the energy he saved by curtailing his offseason training would help him in 2007.
All he did for an encore to his Rookie of the Year campaign was top his win total, taking 18 victories, top 200 innings in the regular season, nearly duplicate his ERA and become that strikeout pitcher many thought he would. He went 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA over his final seven starts. Oh, and he pitched a no-hitter.
Nobody has won more games than Verlander through his first two full big-league seasons since Dwight Gooden in 1984-85. Only Josh Beckett and Chien-Ming Wang have more wins than Verlander over the last two seasons. With a full offseason of rest and training, he's primed for potentially more.
"You can always improve, I think," Verlander said. "I've worked harder than I ever have this offseason. Hopefully that'll add some things to my game."
The Tigers' bigger hope is that their other starters can add some things, too. Health would be a start, and it was a focus on the staff in offseason training plans.
"The ability's there," said Robertson, who admitted he was strongly advised to take more time off before beginning his workout routine this winter. "I think we can perform. We just have to stay healthy. That's what we're looking forward to most is getting out there as a unit and staying healthy."
The aforementioned Texas start landed Robertson on the disabled list for three weeks. He came back to average six innings per start over 18 outings after returning, but still had some quick exits.
Rogers essentially had a lost season, surrendering nearly three full months following surgery to repair arteries in his shoulder before battling a sore elbow down the stretch. He said at TigerFest that his health is fine, and that he has backed off a little on offseason throwing to adjust to his age.
Bonderman was dominant for the season's first two months, going 5-0 with a 3.27 ERA over his first 10 starts. He went 6-9 with a 6.06 ERA after that, and while he still could eat innings, he had two exits in the third inning or sooner.
But with the elbow injury, he received an extra month of rest. The team's medical staff gave him a program with which to work his arm, which he says feels great now.
"There's a lot of things I did really well," Bonderman said. "The second half of the year was disappointing for me, but I had to try to get healthy. I did everything I was supposed to do [rehab-wise], so I feel like coming in this year, I'm as ready as I've ever been."
These are the bits of news Leyland wants to hear.
"I don't ever like to single out people and say this guy's got to do this or this guy's got to do that," Leyland said. "But I think Willis and Bonderman and Nate Robertson are really big keys for us. We're hoping Kenny stays healthy, but they've got to step it up a little bit. It's time to get over the hump. They're good Major League pitchers with the chance to be better than good Major League pitchers. And if we're going to win, that's what they've got to be."
Willis, of course, has a very good stretch in his history with Florida. After starring as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003, he was a bona fide ace when he won 22 games with a 2.63 ERA and five shutouts in 2005.
Last year brought the toughest struggles of his career, but the Tigers are banking on two beliefs. First is the idea that Willis wasn't completely strong in midseason. He went 1-8 with a 5.80 ERA over a 14-start stretch from mid-June through August. In that train of thought, they believe his solid starts down the stretch came when he was feeling healthier.
Time will tell, not only on that but how he adjusts from the National to the American League while having the advantage of another pitcher's park. But one factor in his favor is his ability to eat innings.
"He's been an inning-eater, there's no question about it," Leyland said. "He's been an inning-eater his whole career, and I think he'll do the same thing here. I think he certainly has the potential to have a big year. With the type of ballclub we have, he fits right in."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.