DETROIT -- Max Scherzer had a good offseason. He collected his Cy Young Award; married his college sweetheart, Erica May; and spent an "unbelievable" honeymoon in Fiji and New Zealand. It was, however, not a perfect offseason. "Finished third," he said of the Tigers' 10-team fantasy football league, the bitterness still audible in his voice.
Drew Smyly won the league, though Scherzer, whose team "Love The Blue Eye" -- a nod to his mismatched eye colors due to the condition heterochromia -- took the title two of the previous three years. "Smyly had the help of [backup catcher Bryan] Holaday and [former Tigers catcher Brayan] Pena," Scherzer said. "Those two guys basically gave him the league through ridiculously bad trades."
If Smyly's fantasy win is a harbinger for the rest of his 2014, then Scherzer and the Tigers will accept it. Smyly is the new addition to the best rotation in baseball, one that last year led the majors in innings and strikeouts and ranked first in the AL in ERA. Their No. 2 starter won a Cy Young and their No. 3 starter won the ERA title. And there are reasons to believe that, as good as that rotation was in 2013, it could be even better this year.
Max Scherzer turned down a reported $144 million over the winter for a bigger payday because he believes that with his improving curveball, the key pitch to his breakout season last year, he can be even better in 2014. And so far this year, though he is winless through his first three starts, he has been just as dominant (25 strikeouts in 20 innings) as he was in his Cy Young season. "Cover up the record, because I'm not doing that again," he said of his 21-3 mark in 2013. "But if you're talking about pitching, then I feel I absolutely can be a better pitcher."
There are also signs that Detroit's $180 million ace could be back to his Cy Young form, too. "I really like what I've seen. We worked over the spring on some mechanical adjustments and I think the results are there," said pitching coach Jeff Jones of Justin Verlander, who posted a 3.46 ERA last season, almost a run higher than what it had been the two previous seasons when he won the Cy Young in 2011 and finished as the runner-up in '12.Through four starts this season Verlander's ERA is 2.08.
There's no reason to think that Anibal Sanchez, whose 2.39 ERA led the AL, and Rick Porcello (13-8, 4.32 ERA) can't do what they did last year. Then there's the fifth starter, Smyly, the resident lefty in Brad Ausmus' rotation and a potential breakout candidate in 2014. Armed with a cutter that emerged last season and helped improve his fastball, Smyly gets his first start of the year Friday night in Detroit against the Angels. The upside of the unpopular Doug Fister trade was that it made room for the 24-year-old Smyly, who the Tigers hope can be an anchor in the rotation for years to come.
"You don't make that trade unless you feel like you have someone who could step in," said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski from his office at Comerica Park earlier this week. "We said last year that we had six starters for five spots -- we put Smyly in the bullpen, where he pitched great. We could have put him there again, but at some point, we needed him to take that next step. We looked at it thinking, 'We want some young pitching coming into the organization, with potential free agents in Fister, Porcello and Scherzer coming up.' The timing was right. But there's no question, if you don't have Smyly there ready, you don't make the move."
It has been a strange start to the Tigers' season. The team's $292 million first baseman is hitting .250 with one home run, the new closer had a dead arm, two games have been postponed due to weather and the field outside Dombrowski's office window resembled Lambeau Field in November. But it is certainly much too early to draw any conclusions about the club.
"There are three things people keep pointing to," Dombrowski said. "The bullpen situation, for starters, but once [Joe] Nathan settles down, which I think he will -- he's throwing the ball better already -- he'll settle into that closer's role and will solve the whole bullpen situation. The second thing is the shortstop situation, with Jose Iglesias out, and people can say that we're a little more righthanded dominant than lefthanded. But you look at our everyday lineup, that's more athletic, and then you look at our starting pitching, and I think we legitimately have a really good club."
Dave Dombrowski is confident, and a confident Dave Dombrowski is bad news for the rest of the AL Central. But Detroit's GM has every reason to be, thanks to the best rotation in baseball.
The Tigers lead our rankings of the best rotations in baseball, two weeks into the new season. Here's the rest of our top 10.
A riser in the rankings with Michael Wacha (three straight quality starts to start the year) showing no signs of a sophomore slump. The staff is so deep that the Carlos Martinez, aka Baby Pedro,, can't crack the rotation.
They were a top-three staff a year ago, and that was with Johnny Cueto out for most of the year. If Cueto -- who posted a career high 12 strikeouts in his three-hit complete game shutout of the Pirates -- stays healthy, Cincinnati could challenge Detroit as the best rotation in baseball.
There's still uncertainty around Clayton Kershaw, but Zack Greinke is healthy and Hyun-jin Ryu (3-1, 1.93 ERA) looks like he's going to have a monster year.
You could have made the case for the Nats as the best rotation in baseball before the season, but Stephen Strasburg looks very human and Jordan Zimmermann has been uneven. Things should look a lot better when Fister joins the rotation in May, though you have to wonder if Dombrowski sold high when he dealt him away over the offseason.
Masahiro Tanaka is the real deal, though the biggest revelation in the Bronx has been Michael Pineda, who was electric again on Wednesday against the Cubs. Skinny CC Sabathia is far from an ace, but he doesn't need to be on this staff.
Even with Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin out, the A's are still rolling, with Sonny Gray emerging as an elite starter and Scott Kazmir showing signs that last year's comeback season was no fluke.
A rotation decimated by injuries was baseball's best through the first three weeks. Ervin Santana looks like a legit Cy Young candidate.
Matt Moore is done for the year, and Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb are currently on the shelf. Tampa Bay still has David Price and Chris Archer and its excellent defense, but what used to be one of the game's top five rotations is slipping.
A little love here for the early surprise team of 2014, whose staff is tied for the league lead in quality starts (12). Yovani Gallardo is pitching like an ace again.