Dombrowski intently watching pitchers
Willis, Robertson, Bonderman attempting comebacks
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Manager Jim Leyland isn't the only one watching prospective Tigers starters and weighing the rotation decisions to come. So is team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, who also has to weigh the decisions that await the players who don't make it.
Dombrowski built a rotation with Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson when they came into their prime a few years back, added Dontrelle Willis a couple years ago, then rebuilt the rotation with younger arms at the front once injuries and inconsistency took a toll on their careers. Now as he watches their comeback attempts and turns impressions into evaluations, he's feeling a mix of emotions.
"I'm confident, yet I'm also anxious," Dombrowski said. "I can't describe it. It's one of those things. I think somebody will jump up. I've felt very good about how our guys have been throwing the ball. They've gotten better, too. But you've got two more weeks of Spring Training. I think everybody's got three more starts or four more starts, and you're in a position where a lot of things happen in the last three or four starts of Spring Training."
Dombrowski's anxious for a lot of reasons, and it's hard to blame him if contracts are one of them. But he emphasized that he isn't letting contracts shape the Tigers' final decisions.
"Contracts always come into play," he said, "but I'm also in a spot where I think we're committed [to good decisions]. If you haven't seen by now that we're committed to taking the best team going north, I don't know if you'll ever be sold on it."
Dombrowski held a 20-minute session with a handful of writers during batting practice at Bright House Field on Tuesday morning before the Tigers' Grapefruit League game against the Phillies. He touched on a lot of topics, with pitching foremost among them.
The evaluations pick up again Wednesday, when Robertson tries to continue his Spring Training tear against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla. Willis will start Thursday against the Astros in Lakeland, Fla., then Bonderman will face the Braves on Friday evening at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. Armando Galarraga gave up three runs against the Blue Jays on Monday, while Eddie Bonine is slated to pitch in relief Wednesday.
Though Leyland makes a lot of the evaluations as manager, the final decisions rest with Dombrowski, who's responsible for assembling the roster. He isn't anywhere near that point yet, but he's watching, and he's generally felt positive about it.
Robertson has thrown five innings of one-hit ball in his past two outings. Dombrowski pointed out two things about him.
"He worked on stretching and Pilates and all that," Dombrowski said. "He looks taller and more limber. I think he's gotten himself into position where he's helped himself with his program. Secondly, he's healthy with his arm. Nate, you forget, he was throwing the ball pretty hard, but his out pitch has always been his slider, and it looks like he has his slider. I think he has to make the adjustment, and it looks like he's making the adjustment."
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With Bonderman, Dombrowski said, research suggests pitchers who undergo the type of surgery he did for thoracic outlet syndrome -- a condition in which blood vessels in the shoulder are restricted -- always come back healthy throwing at his old velocity.
"I think the more he gets a chance to pitch -- and he hasn't really pitched on a consistent basis for a year and a half -- his arm strength will only continue to build," Dombrowski said. "We know he has a quality slider, and I think that [splitter] is the best changeup I've seen him throw. Now the key is he just has to throw it more."
Dombrowski agreed with the assertion that Willis has been a pleasant surprise.
"I guess so, because he's throwing strikes more consistently," Dombrowski said. "He worked very hard in the wintertime and he's thrown strikes. His stuff is fine; it was fine last year. But I think the best part of it is he's thrown the ball over the plate on a pretty consistent basis. Now, everybody has a walk here or there, but he's in a position where he's done that very well. If he does, he's a big league pitcher."
The trio combined will make $34.5 million this season. But when asked how much contracts complicate decisions, Dombrowski downplayed it. His recent history, including the $13.6 million salary Detroit ate to release Gary Sheffield last year, suggests they'll take their best candidates.
"You always have options come into play," he said. "Outrights come into play, free agency if you outright guys. Everything comes into play. But first and foremost is players' performance and what we think gives us the best club. Now, you also have to realize you have 162 games to play in six months and you're going to need your depth, too."
Not all of those pitchers will make the rotation, unless injuries are involved, but Dombrowski indicated it's possible one or more of them could pitch in relief.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.