Tigers' rotation built around Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander had a 5-8 record last season in 20 starts. Leon Halip/Getty Images

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Before we sort out what the Detroit Tigers' starting rotation has a chance to be in 2016, how can we not recall what the Tigers' rotation used to represent in this sport?

And to do that, we just have to ask the hitters who had to face them -- because they're still scarred by the experience.

"It was pretty simple," Jarrod Saltalamacchia said with a laugh. "We needed to get to the bullpen as quick as possible."

Saltalamacchia is a backup catcher for the Tigers now. But in 2013, he was on the other side. Catching for the Boston Red Sox and wondering how his team was ever going to get a baserunner in an American League Championship Series against the most unhittable rotation in baseball: Justin Verlander. And Max Scherzer. And the ERA champ, Anibal Sanchez -- who was "probably the toughest of all of them," Saltalamacchia said.

That was The Rotation in 2013. A former Cy Young. A current Cy Young. And a guy who led the league in ERA. Every one of whom flirted with a no-hitter in that series. And the Tigers somehow lost it anyway.

Then there was The Rotation the Tigers rolled out in the 2014 postseason, with David Price joining the band. First team to unleash an October rotation with three Cy Youngs since the 1999 edition of the Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz Atlanta Braves. And somehow, the Tigers still got swept by the Baltimore Orioles.

So then came last year. When the world turned upside-down. And what was left of The Rotation finished dead last in the American League in starting-pitcher ERA (at a messy 4.78). Yeah, really.

It was a year of injuries. A year of trades. And a year, Verlander said, when the "domino effect" of both of those developments took its toll.

But you want to know what's funny? After 2014, the Tigers never could have foreseen the fate that would befall their fabled rotation in 2015. But over the last few weeks of a lost season in 2015, something happened. Something that set the stage for everything the Tigers were about to put into place for 2016.

Amidst the rubble, amidst all those ill-fated starts by Buck Farmer and Kyle Lobstein and Randy Wolf down the stretch, there was one shining light. And its name was Justin Verlander.

Over his last 14 starts, while almost no one was paying much attention to him or his last-place team, Verlander was sending a message to the people who run the Tigers:

That he still had it in him to be one of the best pitchers in baseball.

His 2.27 ERA led the American League over that span. His fastball touched 99 miles per hour again. He was game-planning in a way he never had to in the past. And his bosses got the memo.

"Justin's finish," said Tigers general manager Al Avila, "gave us the confidence and the hope that we could go for it again, and rebuild this team and try to win a championship."

So what is Jordan Zimmermann doing here this spring? That's what. What are Justin Upton, Francisco Rodriguez, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson doing here? That's what. Why is Verlander sitting back at his locker these days, talking about what a "really special" season this could be? That's what.

If Verlander hadn't given Avila and the owner, Mike Illitch, the impression he could still be a force they could build a championship rotation around, "we might have had a different offseason," Avila said, frankly.

So when we talk about how the rotation of the 2016 Tigers has a chance to lead them, we begin with this premise: What Justin Verlander did over the last two months of 2015, he needs to do over six months in 2016. Period. And for what it's worth, he has spun nine scoreless innings this spring, allowing just three hits

He's now the last Bentley in this garage. Scherzer works in Washington now. Price has moved on to Boston. Between them, they'll be earning more than $400 million not to pitch for the Tigers. And it's not even worth asking why they're gone, because, in a market like Detroit, "you can't keep all that stuff," Verlander said.

Oh, and there's one more reason not to mourn. Those rotations of yesteryear were star-studded and cool, not to mention must-see TV on many electrified nights. But while they were "fun to talk about," the ace said, pointedly, "we didn't win a World Series."

So now this team will try to win a different way. With one of the deepest -- but also most right-handed -- lineups in the game. With a reconstructed bullpen, now fronted by K-Rod. And with a rotation that's still worth dreaming on, even if the only Cy Young trophies in the den now all belong to Verlander.

But his new No. 1 co-star in this rotation will be Zimmermann, who was so attracted to the Tigers' aggressive courtship in November that he jumped to take a five-year, $110 million deal to pitch for a team he now calls "a perfect fit for me."

Others second-guess Zimmermann's career-high home-run rate, increased slider usage and slight velocity dip last season. But the Tigers just saw minor glitches that were "easily correctable," Avila said -- and "no red flags." And if you're familiar with his work, you won't be shocked to learn that Zimmermann shares that lack of concern about his jump from a 2.66 ERA in 2014 to 3.66 last year.

"The biggest thing, for me, was home runs," the 29-year-old right-hander said. "But you can look. I think my average home run distance was the third-lowest [in baseball]. So there were a lot of fly balls that just snuck over the fence. I know I can remember a few where I went, 'Really? That ball got out?'"

Well, guess what? According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, he did indeed have the third-lowest average home run distance among pitchers who served up at least 20 gopherballs. His ground-ball/fly-ball rate was pretty much in line with his from previous years. And only the percentage of fly balls that left the park was up (from 4.7 to 8.2 percent).

So the Tigers are as stoked to have him around now as they were when they signed him. And one more thing to watch: Their new pitching coach, Rich Dubee, has taught him Roy Halladay's change-up grip. While Zimmermman loves the feel of it, he concedes, with a chuckle, that "I'm not splitting my fingers as much as he did. But maybe I'll get there. Who knows."

Of far bigger concern, though, is Sanchez. Missed the last month and a half of last season with shoulder issues. Then fell way behind this spring because of an inflamed triceps, followed by a case of bronchitis. The 32-year-old right-hander was finally able to throw a simulated game on Friday, but isn't scheduled to appear in a big-league spring-training game until early next week. So it's all quite worrisome, with the season less than three weeks away.

A bounceback season from Sanchez, who incomprehensibly led the league in gopherballs (29) exactly one year after allowing four homers all season, "might be the key to this whole staff," said one scout who covers the Tigers. But Sanchez's manager, Brad Ausmus, has tried to quiet those worries, saying: "I can tell you this. He's got some of the best stuff in the game."

Behind those three, the Tigers have Pelfrey, who is now in his second full season after Tommy John surgery and is "throwing as well this spring as I've seen him in years," said a National League scout. And behind that group, there's finally some high-upside depth, in Daniel Norris, Michael Fullmer and Matt Boyd, all of whom arrived via the trades of Price and Yoenis Cespedes last July. Meanwhile, ex-Yankee Shane Greene is also healthy again and having a big spring.

But if this rotation is going to be great, that means Justin Verlander has to be great. And not surprisingly, that's exactly what he has in mind.

"It was fun pitching well [at the end of] last year," Verlander said. "It was fun doing that after people had written me off. I don't want to say I showed myself that I could still do it, because I always believed that I could."

He understands now that what got in the way, for more than a year, was health issues no one could have pitched through at a high level. First came 2014 core surgery, which commonly requires a full year for complete recovery. Then came a late-spring injury last March, causing him to land on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

But what few people know, he said, is that it was not a strained triceps that sent him to the DL for the first two months. It was actually a strained lat, which meant he wasn't himself until mid-July. So by the time he finally got healthy and started dealing again, it was too late to keep his team from unloading at the deadline. And that just added to the frustration for one of baseball's most turbo-driven competitors. "So there was also that frustration of pitching well, but for a team where it didn't matter anymore," Verlander vented. "It was nice for me personally to pitch well. But at the same time, I thrive on pitching well when we need a big game or a big start. That's fun for me. It was kind of fun to show the naysayers that I could still do it. But it was all for naught."

Except it wasn't, really. Because Justin Verlander came back a changed man.

This time around, he was a man who realized he couldn't overwhelm hitters with pure stuff anymore. And a man who realized he was going to have to outsmart them, too. Which put a whole new emphasis on the preparation it took to do that.

"You know, there are times to make adjustments," he said. "And I think, along with being healthy again, that paid big dividends. ... All of a sudden last year, it was fun again for me. I was able to focus on getting guys out and letting it go when I wanted to. Those were all the things I'd done my whole life, that I wasn't able to do."

His manager watched him do those things and thought: That's what all the great pitchers do.

"I think all the really good pitchers who last, who have long careers, they reinvent themselves somehow," Ausmus said. "I look at Roger Clemens, who came up with the split-finger. Roy Halladay got sent down to the minors and came back a completely different pitcher. Roy Oswalt developed a two-seamer early in his career and then developed a change-up later in his career. ... So the pitchers who last for the long haul, there's a point of reinvention somewhere."

Considering that Verlander has four guaranteed years and $112 million left on his contract, at age 33, those adjustments don't just reassure his team about his ability to compete this season. They have significant long-term ramifications, on lots of levels.

"Here's a guy who signed one of the biggest contracts in the history of the game at the time," Avila said. "But what did he do? He didn't just lay back and say, 'OK, I've got my money.' He worked his butt off to get back, because he's prideful and he still wants to do it. And he wants to pitch for a long time. So if you're going to say to yourself, 'Did we invest in the right guy?' I think we did."

Because they saw what they saw and felt what they felt, they built a whole different team than they might have otherwise. So now, as they fit the pieces of that team together and gear up to try to topple the champs in Kansas City, the ace understands exactly what just happened. And why it happened. And he fully gets that there's a sense of responsibility that goes with it.

"Can we have the kind of rotation we once had here? I definitely think we can," Verlander said. "And obviously, it starts with me."