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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Tigers camp report: Workload, expectations still same for Verlander

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Verlander has thrown 600 more pitches than anyone else in baseball during the last three years. (US Presswire)  
Verlander has thrown 600 more pitches than anyone else in baseball during the last three years. (US Presswire)  

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Every now and then, Justin Verlander will read that some team or another is thinking of going with a six-man starting rotation.

"I'm like, 'What the heck?'" Verlander said Thursday. "I'd like to try every four days."

You know what? I bet he could do it.

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Verlander threw a major-league high 115.9 pitches per start in 2011 -- the most by a big-league pitcher since Randy Johnson averaged 116.7 in 2001, according to research through baseball-reference.com.

You know what? I bet he could throw even more.

And in an era where heavy workloads followed by short winters always seem to carry a huge risk for starting pitchers, I tend to believe the Tigers people who were insisting Thursday that Verlander could be even better in 2012 than he was in his brilliant 2011 season.

Yes, he was basically unbeatable from the end of May on. Yes, he became the first starting pitcher in 25 years to win a Most Valuable Player award.

But when Miguel Cabrera said Thursday morning Verlander has "a good chance" to win the MVP again this year, I didn't argue with him.

"He has the same mentality he had last year," Cabrera explained. "He's very focused."

The focus on the Tigers has been mostly on Cabrera's move from first base to third base, and on the incredible early spring power displays that Cabrera, Prince Fielder and others are putting on in batting practice.

Fantasy Writer
Bust ... Doug Fister, SP: Fister pitched like a second ace for the Tigers after arriving via trade from Seattle in late July, going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and 0.84 WHIP. Fister has always had the reputation of being a control artist, but he took his strike zone mastery up a notch, walking a grand total of five batters in 70 1/3 innings with Detroit. Few Fantasy owners would expect Fister to repeat that extreme performance, but there is another reason to diminish expectations even further. Part of Fister's 2011 success was based upon holding batters to a .188 batting average on ground balls. The Tigers' infield defense overall should leave something to be desired, so Fister's WHIP will rise upward, even without a significant increase in walks. Owners may look to Fister as a No. 4 starter in mixed leagues, but in reality he may perform more like a low-end No. 5 starting pitcher or waiver wire option.
2012 impact prospect ... Jacob Turner, SP: Turner made his major league debut last July when he was recalled to make a spot start, and he made two addtional starts in September. He didn't look ready for the majors in his initial appearances, but the work he did at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo suggests that he's not far off. The Tigers go into spring training without a fifth starter, and Turner is the leading contender. Even if he doesn't break camp with the team, it is almost a lock that Turner will join the Tigers at some point in 2012. While he could experience more growing pains, his high ceiling will make him worth a gamble in AL-only drafts this spring. Better yet, if he has some inital success, Turner could become popular very quickly in mixed league formats. -- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Tigers outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

But the Tigers' sky-high expectations rest at least as much on Verlander as they do on Cabrera and Fielder.

That's fine, because remember, there are those who believe he really could be even better than last year.

"He wants to have a better year this year," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "Is that possible? I don't know. But it wouldn't surprise me to see him have a better year. It wouldn't surprise me at all."

By the way, did I tell you that Verlander threw 4,301 pitches last year, regular season and postseason (but not spring training) combined?

Did I tell you that over the past three regular seasons, he has thrown 600 more pitches than any other pitcher in the game?

It's a number that's almost as incredible as those 100 mph fastballs 100 pitches deep into games. It's a number that's just as important as Verlander's wins, strikeouts and ERA.

"The other things wouldn't have happened [without that]," he said.

In an era where managers get antsy as soon as their starter hits the 100-pitch mark, and where a 120-pitch game can be a cause for alarm, Verlander has become the exception. And since he has been able to make 30-plus starts every year (one of only eight big-league pitchers to do it at least the last six years in a row), the workload doesn't seem to be a problem.

The Tigers credit his work ethic, but also his natural ability to recover quickly, and a body that developed with a strong base.

"I do upper-body work, too, but you can't really tell," Verlander said. "It was like I was born to pitch."

He understands that not every team would have allowed him to do what the Tigers have, and that not every manager would be as willing to leave him in games as Jim Leyland has been.

"The fact that he's just able to use common sense, I appreciate that," Verlander said. "You can't stamp every pitcher the same. You can't say that every pitcher is tired at 110 pitches.

"Some guys cower behind [pitch counts] so they get their butt off the line. [Leyland] isn't scared of the consequences."

Leyland did wonder what would happen this winter, when Verlander pitched deep into October and then had the busy winter typical of an MVP. He says now that Verlander "did as good a job of handling this stuff as anyone I've ever been around."

Verlander himself describes the winter as "walking a tightrope," as he tried to enjoy the benefits of MVP-dom without shorting his work and risking a dropoff this season.

"I tried to pick some of the things I thought would be fun," he said. "And I tried to pick things that would portray myself, Detroit and the Tigers in the best light."

He came to camp this year talking about winning a World Series.

"That's all he talks about," Jones said.

He came prepared to shoulder every bit as high a workload as he did last year.

And yes, he would throw more pitches per game if they let him. And yes, he would pitch every fourth day if they would let him.

You know what? I would bet he can do it.

"He's a different animal, so to speak," said Jones, the pitching coach. "Everything about him is just different."

Could he really pitch every fourth day, all season?

Yeah, I think he could.

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