How the Tigers fare this season will be closely tied to what Rick Porcello does in the rotation.
Will he be the 14-9 pitcher with the 3.96 ERA he was as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009? Or will Porcello be the 10-12 hurler whose ERA rose by nearly a run last year, necessitating a midyear tuneup trip to Toledo?
Manager Jim Leyland said Porcello needs his secondary pitches to return to their rookie consistency in order to be a solid starter.
"He needs his slider to be more consistent," Leyland said. "He needs everything to be more consistent. But Porcello knows that."
Porcello was very good following the midseason trip to the minors, but still occasionally had the inconsistencies in his sinker and slider that plagued him from the beginning of the season.
"Of the two pitches, my slider was still the more inconsistent at the end of last year," Porcello said. "In some games, it was where I wanted it to be. In others it wasn't quite as sharp.
"It's definitely getting there, but those are the pitches I need to be able to throw on any count to any hitter."
Detroit enters the spring feeling confident in what it will get from its top two starters, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, both of whom showed ace qualities a good portion of last year.
The Tigers have confidence that Phil Coke will be able to carry his dominant stuff from the bullpen to a starter's role simply because he was used extensively as a starter on his way to the majors.
Brad Penny has to overcome injury issues that have bothered him the last few seasons, but when healthy he has been a dominant starter. His injury history is why he was able to get only $3 million in guaranteed money from Detroit, but his track record is why the Tigers gladly included $3 million in performance incentives.
A solid season from Porcello would help Detroit skate by any issues that crop up with Coke and Penny, and is why he's seen in many quarters as being a key to how the Tigers fare this season.
"I enjoy that being said about me," Porcello said. "It means that people have confidence in you to make a difference. When there's no pressure on you, it means you are non-factor. I don't want to be non-factor."
Having gone through two spring trainings and two seasons in the majors will be a plus for Porcello, who would be finishing up his career at the University North Carolina had he not signed with Detroit out of high school as their top draft choice. He turned 22 in December.
"I'll just keep grinding away and working on it," Porcello said. "Hitters made adjustments to me. I have to be able to make counter-adjustments to them."
--RHP Rick Porcello, now a wise old man of 22, accepts the pressure of being called a key figure for Detroit's upcoming season. "I enjoy that being said about me," he said recently. "It means that people have confidence in you to make a difference. "When there's no pressure on you, it means you are non-factor. I don't want to be non-factor." His sinker and slider were so inconsistent at the beginning of last season that Detroit mandated a trip to the minors to smooth them out. "He needs his slider to be more consistent," manager Jim Leyland said. "He needs everything to be more consistent. But Porcello knows that." Said Porcello: "Of the two pitches, my slider was still the more inconsistent at the end of last year. In some games it was where I wanted it to be. In others it wasn't quite as sharp. It's definitely getting there, but those are the pitches I need to be able to throw on any count to any hitter." He won 14 games with a 3.96 ERA as a 20-year-old two seasons ago, but his ERA rose by nearly a run as he won 10 games in 2010.
--CF Austin Jackson is thinking in terms of stealing 40 bases in his sophomore season in the majors. "I think it's just setting a goal to try to reach it, because I think I'm capable of stealing more bags," said Jackson, who stole 27 bases in 33 attempts as a rookie. "I think I need to try harder at it." Only two Tigers in the last decade have stolen 40 bases in a season, OF Alex Sanches in 2003 and OF Roger Cedeno in 2001. Timidity on the part of manager Jim Leyland was not a factor because he has managed a 41 base stealer (SS Edgar Renteria) and a player who stole 52 (LF Barry Bonds). Jackson had the green light most of the time but Leyland didn't like to run him late in games because it meant opposing managers would walk 1B Miguel Cabrera with first base open. That could change this year with RF Magglio Ordonez returning to third in the batting order and designated hitter Victor Martinez hitting fifth. "I have speed and that's a part of my game and I definitely think that I could use it more on the basepaths," Jackson said. "It's really just stealing a bag, maybe getting in scoring position a little more, try to score some more runs. I think it's a thing you just have to kind of learn. I think it's a thing I need."
--RF Magglio Ordonez will be bucking the age issue as he seeks a return to 100 RBI this season. Ordonez turned 37 Friday and in the last four seasons no player who turned 37 before mid-season has driven in 100 runs. Ordonez had 59 RBI in 84 games when he broke his right ankle sliding into home on July 24. Six players in the past four seasons who were at least 37 reached 90 RBI but none had more than 96. The last player 37 or older to drive in at least 100 runs was Frank Thomas, who was 38 when he drove in 114 for Oakland in 2006.
--OF Brennan Boesch says he learned a lot from his drastic up-and-down rookie season in the majors. Boesch hit .342 with 12 home runs and 49 RBI in 243 at-bats the first half of the season, but sagged to .163 with two home runs and 18 RBI in 221 at-bats the second. "You obviously don't plan on having a kind of season like that, up then down, but at the end of the day, I feel there's little more than what I encountered in 2010 that can go on in a season," Boesch said. "From us being in first place, from the injuries the team had, to my personal struggles and successes, the year presented an array of challenges, but opportunities as well. I feel I grew a lot. People say about sports all the time that they build character. It feels to me that I matured a couple of years in one year. But it also feels good to me that I came out on the other side of a wild year for the better." Manager Jim Leyland said he was more disappointed in Boesch's defensive struggles than anything.
--C Alex Avila will catch more than DH/C Victor Martinez but says he will draw heavily on his new teammate's experience this season. "Everybody I talk to tells me how hard he works and all the special things he brings to a team," Avila said of Martinez. "He's doing something right because he's been successful throughout his career. It's going to be great to talk to him." The two will begin their adventures together Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report for spring training. "I've been thrown in the fire and had to learn on the job a bit," Avila said. "But for me that's the best way to learn. I'm just getting my body ready so it can take the physical beating during the season. Working with Victor, he will be able to help me with all of that, as well as offensively. He knows how to separate the defense from the offense and get results."
--RHP Justin Verlander wants to pretend March is April in order to avoid his fourth straight poor first month to a new season. "Instead of just working in spring training to get my body feeling good and feeling like I can throw the ball, I'm going to treat it like April, and I've already had my bad starts in April," Verlander said recently. Verlander's lowest ERA for the first month of each of the past three seasons has been 5.53. He had conversations with pitching coach Rick Knapp and bullpen coach Jeff Jones late last season on how to remedy that. "When I talked to them, I made five or six bullet points of what got me locked in right after my bad starts in April," Verlander said. "There were a few things we really worked on that I feel really clicked. Those are things I'm going to work on in spring training this year." Said Jones: "These are mostly mechanical things. When he got off to a bad start last year, his delivery was a little bit out of whack. In spring training this year, he'll try to keep his head over his feet a little longer, slow his tempo down -- things that you might not be able to see from the stands, but things that are very important for him to start out with. We're talking about preventive maintenance. It's going to be a big focus of ours right from the get-go in spring training." Added Verlander: "I'm not going to overwork myself in spring training. But I'm going to treat it much more seriously than I have in the past. I'm not going to treat it as if this is just spring training, and my arm is feeling good, so I'm ready to go. If I'm not quite where I want to be, I'm going to be upset."
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman won't be offered even a minor league contract by Detroit, general manager Dave Dombrowski said recently, reversing an earlier stance. "We are not signing Jeremy Bonderman," Dombrowski said. Bonderman was told at the end of last season, when he went 8-10 with a 5.53 ERA in 30 games (29 starts) he would not be offered a contract, but Dombrowski had held the door open for a possible return by saying Detroit might sign him if he couldn't hook on elsewhere. "Wherever Bondo signs, he's going to be a manager's dream, because he was a dream here," manager Jim Leyland said. "Never a problem, always wanted the ball, and competed as hard as any player I've ever had. I'm sorry he's gone through the injury problems he's gone through, but if it means he's getting a major league contract elsewhere, I'm happy he's not coming back."
BY THE NUMBERS: 18 -- Starts last season by Detroit pitchers not among the Tigers' top five starters. The Tigers enter this season with one preseason rotation member transferring from the bullpen and one who was unable to make more than nine starts because of injury.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I enjoy that being said about me. It means that people have confidence in you to make a difference. When there's no pressure on you, it means you are non-factor. I don't want to be non-factor." -- RHP Rick Porcello, on being called a key to Detroit's season.