Coming out of Spring Training, the Tigers looked to have one of the deepest starting rotations in the American League. They had a preseason Cy Young Award favorite, 18-game winner Justin Verlander, at the top. They had a fully recovered Kenny Rogers behind him, with a bundle of talent in Jeremy Bonderman and the sturdy Nate Robertson following in the rotation. And they had Dontrelle Willis, the 2005 National League Cy Young Award runner-up, in the No. 5 spot.
That rotation, plus a start-studded lineup, made the Tigers a favorite to win the AL Central.
But the season hasn't followed the game plan.
First, there's Verlander, the Tigers' ace and one of the best young arms in the Major Leagues. In his two years prior to this season, the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year boasted a 35-17 record and 3.74 ERA. He might near that loss total this season. He's 8-13 with a 4.77 ERA and has allowed more runs in his past four starts than in any other four-start span in his career.
"I'm not picking on anybody. I'm not mad at anybody," Leyland said. "But [Verlander's] had a tough year. You don't count on something like that from a guy like that."
The Tigers have played most of the season without what Leyland calls, "his horses," meaning the front-line pitchers in the rotation. They lost Bonderman for the season in early June after a severe blood clot. Willis, meanwhile, has pitched at Class A Lakeland since a poor outing June 9 and recently advanced to Triple-A.
That's two thoroughbreds who have haven't carried the load the organization expected.
"It makes a big difference when you have your horses," Leyland said.
Strangely enough, two players not in the original rotation have shined the brightest. Armando Galarraga leads the team in wins, and Zach Miner has posted a 3-1 record and 2.15 ERA in his five starts. Galarraga came to the Detroit system in a quiet February trade, and Miner started the season as a reliever.
"Funny, huh?" Leyland said. "You always have a few pleasant surprises."
With a bullpen that has converted only 24 out of 45 save opportunities and saw Todd Jones losing his closer job, the Tigers' pitching has strayed way off the intended track.
"We thought [the pitching] would be pretty good," Leyland said, "but, obviously, we have some things happen."