The battle for the back end of the Tigers starting rotation has been the story of the spring for Detroit fans. The Tigers are counting on two of the Jeremy Bonderman – Nate Robertson – Dontrelle Willis trio to bill out the last 40% of the starters innings. Bonderman has pretty much had the 4th spot assured leaving Robertson and Willis battling for the 5th spot. But with Robertson outpitching Willis by most measures, it appears that Robertson is on the block and Willis has that last spot. A dangerous proposition to say the least.
Willis has been turning heads due to his 1.20 ERA in all of 15 innings this spring. This has been buoyed by the fact he’s only allowed 9 hits this spring. But he is still walking a batter every other inning and not striking out enough hitters (10 in 15 innings). Without seeing the games I really have no idea if Willis is limiting hits due to fooling guys or if it has been some combination of luck and defense. Given what we know about batting average on balls in play, I’d give more credence to the latter rather than the former.
The results for Willis are encouraging, but only if you’re comparing to his past performance. It’s one thing to be hopeful that Willis is turning a corner based on his spring play, but it is another to think he is ready to be a member of a big league rotation.
Meanwhile Robertson has pitched quite well in his 19.2 innings on the mound. Robertson has adjusted his game and is fanning a batter an inning and has walked only 1 less than Willis. Just like Willis though we shouldn’t make too much of limited spring stats. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness neither pitcher received considerable game action in 2009, but Robertson did more with his opportunity as a starter. After getting his elbow cleaned out Robertson made 6 starts and posted a 3.86 ERA (with a 1.714 WHIP). He walked too many (4.5/9 innings) and didn’t strike out enough (5.8/9 innings) but it was still ahead of Willis.
In 7 Dontrelle starts (including his good start against the Rangers) he walked 28 in 33.2 innings and only struck out 17 while allowing a 7.49 ERA).
Both players are huge question marks, as is Bonderman. Which makes the rumors that Robertson is being shopped all the more surprising. If Robertson is moved the safety net for Willis becomes Eddie Bonine. One tier down is Armando Galarraga. The Tigers are going to have to pay Robertson regardless (they’d have to eat a big chunk of his contract). I would prefer to see him try and contribute to the Tigers.
The speculation has been that whoever doesn’t make the rotation would be released. Willis, Robertson, and Bonderman have options left, but both could refuse assignment. While I understand that none of the 3 would want to toil in the minors, the chances to have significant playing time with the Tigers are still pretty good.
A trade of Robertson would be hasty at this point. While he probably has the most trade value of the 3, the Tigers likely can’t afford to lose his arm. He has outpitched his main competitors both this spring and in recent history and is in a similar salary situation. The Tigers are carrying the payroll of a competitor and have enough talent given their division to have a shot at the playoffs. Experimenting with a questionable 5th starter for too long could prove too costly. Kind of like in 2009.