Much of the talk from Tigers fans this spring centers around the battle for the fifth starting spot between right hander Rick Porcello and lefty Drew Smyly. The Tigers claimed before spring training that Porcello had the inside track for the job, but that might have been said in respect of his seniority. With Porcello rumored to be on the trading block, it's also wise to give the impression that the Tigers still see him as a valuable part of their rotation.
Most Tigers fans are not buying it and seem to think that Smyly should and will win the job. There is certainly a lot to like about the 23-year-old southpaw who was drafted in the second round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2010 and debuted in the Tigers organization in 2011. He dominated High Single-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie in 2011 posting a fantastic 2.07 ERA and 136/36 K/BB ratio in 126 innings combined.
He continued his success with the Tigers last year with a 3.99 ERA in 99 innings and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings. From a scouting standpoint, the news was even better. Prior to last season, he was billed as a polished pitcher with a wide array of pitches, but not a particularly hard thrower. He typically threw in the high 80s occasionally reaching 92 or 93 MPH. Last year, the biggest surprise was that he actually averaged 92 MPH. He also maintained his arsenal of pitches also throwing an impressive slider, plus a curve and cutter.
The biggest remaining question surrounding Smyly is his durability. While he does have a fairly smooth, easy delivery, he also has an injury history. He missed his Freshman season at the University of Arkansas in 2009 with a stress fracture in his elbow. Early in 2011, he missed six weeks with a sore arm and last year, he missed time with an intercostal strain.
The result is that Smyly has never pitched more than 126 innings. That is not especially uncommon for young pitchers, but it's an important hurdle and he has not leaped it yet. I think this is one of the reasons they have been reluctant to move Porcello and may keep him into the season.
So, who is going to win the job if Porcello is not dealt? Porcello may have come into camp with a leg up, but I do think there is a competition and Smyly has made the most of his spring starts so far allowing just one base runner in five shutout innings. There is no such thing as too much starting pitching and these situations have a way of wiorking themselves out.
The more important question is who will be starting in September and October? Whether or not Smyly is strong enough to get through 30 starts might be the key to the answer.