Tigers’ rotation surrounded by question marks without Scherzer

Max Scherzer has the talent that turns a good team into a World Series contender.

Tommy Gilligan

The news that Don Kelly had signed a minor-league contract with the Miami Marlins made him Monday’s #1 trending Twitter topic in Detroit.

It was the guy in fourth place — Max Scherzer — who will be a lot harder to replace.

Kelly developed a cult following among Tigers fans as a gritty underdog who made the most out of his limited ability and was willing to do anything — even pitch and catch — to help the team. He’s also one of the nicest people in baseball, and will probably have a long career in the game as a coach and manager.

On the field, though, Kelly is the type of player that you are always trying to upgrade. The only reason he lasted as long as he did in Detroit — six seasons — is that the Tigers didn’t have a better option in the minors.

Scherzer is also one of the good people in the game — he and his wife do enormous amounts of charitable work — but he also has the talent that turns a good team into a World Series contender. Or in the case of the Tigers, could turn a four-time division champion into a team fighting for a fifth straight postseason appearance.

Even with Scherzer joining Doug Fister in Washington, the Tigers still have the makings of a very good starting rotation. David Price and Justin Verlander are recent Cy Young winners, Anibal Sanchez is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball and Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene have both shown signs of being quality starters.

The problem, and it is an issue that hangs large over the entire Detroit roster, is that there are a lot of question marks attached to that rotation and few obvious backup plans.

Price, like Scherzer, is almost a sure thing — he had an outstanding health record and he’s a legitimate ace. Verlander should be back to his 2011-2013 form after a full offseason of workouts — last winter was ruined by his core-muscle surgery — but "should" and "will" aren’t the same thing.

Sanchez, on the other hand, has still pitched at a high level when he’s able to take the mound, but he has spent three stints on the disabled list in the last two seasons. Unless Dave Dombrowski makes another move, the Tigers don’t have anyone that is projected to provide a quality replacement if Sanchez gets hurt again.

That could also be a problem with Simon and Greene, who don’t have anywhere near the track record of Detroit’s Big Three starters. Simon converted to starting last year at the age of 33 and went to the All-Star Game for Cincinnati, but went 3-7 with a 4.52 ERA in the second half of the season. In 2011, his other attempt at working as a starting pitcher went poorly, as he won just three of 16 starts for the Orioles with a 4.96 ERA.

Greene, on the other hand, has very good numbers as a starting pitcher — just not a lot of them. He joined the injury-depleted Yankees rotation in July, having only pitched in one major-league game, and went 5-4 with a very respectable 3.79 ERA in 14 starts. At 26, Greene has the potential to become a solid major-league starter, and he isn’t eligible for free agency until 2021, but 14 career starts isn’t enough of a track record to be fully confident in what he’ll do this season.

Behind that fivesome, the question marks get even bigger. Drew VerHagen and Kyle Lobstein would be the favorites to fill in if a sixth starter becomes necessary, but both have projected ERAs of around 5.00 for 2015, which would quickly become a serious problem for the Tigers in a pennant race.

Of course, the Tigers could still go after James Shields or make a trade, but Dave Dombrowski has indicated that the former isn’t likely, and the organization is quickly running out of trade chips to make the latter a strong possibility. 

Like many other parts of the Tigers roster, the rotation is more than ready on paper to get them back to October. There’s just not the same margin of error that Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus enjoyed when Fister, Scherzer and Rick Porcello were part of the organization.