Up next in our four-part series about the Tigers and the upcoming 2015 season is the pitching staff. Click here to see the infield analysis and here for the outfield. The series will wrap up with a look at the intriguing puzzle pieced together with the relievers. OK here we go! The first four starters are set in stone, but who’s got the inside track on the other two slots?
We start by looking at the most experienced member of the starting corps. Last year was largely a forgettable one for the former “staff ace.” At age 35, his best years might be behind him, but his second half numbers from last year (3.07 ERA after June) show that perhaps he’s still got something left in the tank. Last year broke a string of 5 consecutive seasons with an ERA under 2.70, and he barely finished below 4 because of a shaky first half. Entering the first year of a new 3-year contract, Nohmi will look to keep his status as an upper-tier starter for the 2015 Tigers, despite the three pitchers “behind” him having had more success last year.
Since joining the club in 2010, the man has found his groove, getting better with each season. Despite major league offers in the 2013 offseason, Messenger elected to return to the Tigers for three more years. The first year of that contract proved to be his best in Japan, as he racked up a league-high 13 wins and 226 strikeouts while logging 208 ⅓ innings, a team high. While he had a few slip-ups here and there, he came through when needed the most, even going as high as 149 pitches in one outing. In what turned out to be the final game of the season, Big Mess kept the team in the game until his final pitch, his 134th of the game, yielded the lone run. Despite worries of offseason weight gain, this is one workhorse the team can count on for 200+ IP, 200+ K and over a dozen wins. Who knows, he could become the second foreigner ever to win the Eiji Sawamura Award. The other? Tigers legend Gene Bacque (1964).
Of the “Big 4” Iwata received the least run support from his mates, and by a long shot. Despite the best ERA among starters (2.54), he also only received an average of 2.89 runs support (per 9 innings), as evidenced by his 9-8 record in 22 starts. (By comparison, Messenger and Nohmi got over 4 runs support and Fujinami got nearly 6!) Still, 2014 was a breakout season for the 31-year old, and his confidence appears to have carried over to this season. His lower body is stronger than before and surely he also wants to prove that he can keep up with the best on this staff. Look for another solid (and perhaps under-appreciated) season from the occasionally bearded one.
Much coveted out of high school and still just 20 years old, the young phenom has lived up to all the hype but still has room for growth. He became just the second pitcher in team history (after legend Yutaka Enatsu, 1968) to record double digits in wins in his first two years out of high school. He has also drawn favorable comparisons to Texas Ranger ace Yu Darvish, and the numbers after two seasons are quite similar. Furthermore, those same Texas Rangers are said to be scouting Fujinami despite his being 7 years away from free agent eligibility. What makes him great? He’s got a strong fastball (average 151.2 km/h – 94 mph) and six other pitches in his arsenal to back it up. That will leave any batter guessing what is coming. Fujinami did, however, show a disturbing trend in 2014 of allowing too many runs too early (43 in 75 IP in the first three innings of his starts). Whatever the issue, he needs to get his head in the game right from the start. If he does, the sky is the limit for this young man.
As many of us know, the Tigers (and much of NPB) tend to use a six-man pitching rotation, occasionally skipping the last man and giving their aces extra starts in key games. The first four spots will almost definitely go to the men mentioned above, but who deserves spots 5 & 6? Let’s look at some of the candidates. If they are not mentioned here, it likely means they will be in the next report on the relievers.
The rookie lefty made several starts with the big team last year between stints in Naruohama. He impressed many by recording five wins despite being a sixth-round pick.
Another very young pitcher who had moments of greatness and other moments of ineptness. He has come on strong so far this spring, but it will take more than that to cement his place in the rotation.
Last year’s (2013) first round pick started a few games and pitched some relief, but never really found success in either role. His spring is also off to a rocky start, as he gave up 3 ER in 3 IP against the Korean Samsung squad. Scouts also say he needs a lot of work.
Saiuchi is perhaps better suited to the long relief role, but did start a few games last year. Consistency is a big problem so far in his short career.
The team’s #1 pick this year (2014) has started the year slowly, injuring his clavicle joint before training even started, but there is still hope he can contribute at some point. If anything, he may get called up later in the year, and April seems doubtful at this point.
The failed attempt to land free agent Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko leaves a gap in the rotation. The front four should all record double digit win totals, but the rotation after that looks shaky at best. The Tigers really have to hope for some pleasant surprises out of a few young developing players. Who knows, a fifth solid starter could blossom this year! (Other prospects include Takumi Akiyama, Hiroya Shimamoto, Shoya Yamamoto, Daiki Enokida etc.) If not, though, we could see the rotation shortened to five, especially if the race for the pennant is tight.