There has been a fair amount of talk throughout the off season among beat writers, bloggers and fans alike regarding Rick Porcello, and what the Tigers ought to do with the right-handed sinkerballer. The re-signing of free agent Anibal Sanchez, last season’s trade deadline acquisition, whittled the two open spots in the rotation down to one, leaving Porcello and Drew Smyly to compete for it.
One segment of the fan base seems to think the Tigers should trade Porcello for a prospect package that includes a shortstop and/or an outfielder. A smaller portion believes Porcello should be dealt for an experienced closer. Another chunk of the fanbase is of the opinion that the Tigers would be best served holding onto Porcello for pitching depth, should any of the starters get injured or the Tigers need a spot-start. Smyly’s name hasn’t come up too much in trade rumors, though it was known that GM Dave Dombrowski fielded calls regarding him, and it seems as if the young lefty has all but sewn up the last spot in the rotation. At least, according to those who follow the team.
Is this truly the case?
Should it be?
Smyly burst onto the scene in 2012, winning the fifth spot in the rotation out of Spring Training, as he beat out both Jacob Turner, who had dealt with tendinitis that lingered into the regular season, and Andrew Oliver, whose control imploded late. Smyly spent the 2011 season pitching at the A and AA levels before making the jump directly to the Majors, much like Porcello did in 2008 (Porcello actually skipped two whole rungs on the organizational ladder, as he went from A+ Lakeland directly to Detroit).
Smyly quickly established himself in the Majors, as he showed decent velocity, a wide array of pitches from which to choose, and an ability to strike guys out. He stumbled a bit as the season advanced, as he became a bit homer prone, and then struggled with blister problems and an oblique injury that put him on the disabled list in July. When Smyly returned from the disabled list, he was sent to Toledo where he remained until the end of September, when he was recalled so he could be put on the playoff roster.
Smyly showed an ability to throw strikes, as he posted above average K% and BB% rates. Smyly’s 22.6% K% and 7.9% BB% were right in line with his Minor League numbers, and a bit better than league average. The only area where he was really less than stellar was his HR/FB ratio, which was a slightly bloated 10.3% (league average is around 9.5%). Either way, Smyly had a very strong rookie campaign.
When compared to Porcello, Smyly seems to fit the Tigers’ “power pitcher” mold better, as he’s more of a flyball pitcher who can strike guys out. Even Doug Fister, who also has a reputation as a ground ball pitcher, has struck out batters at an above average rate since joining the Tigers in 2011. Porcello relies heavily on the ground ball, hasn’t developed a strikeout pitch, and can run into problems when it comes to infield defense.
“Okay,” you might be thinking to yourselves, “you think we should keep Smyly and trade Porcello to some team that has good infield defense. Gotcha.”
Not so fast.
Although it seems right now that the Tigers have an excess of starting pitchers, no team only relies on five starters for an entire 162-game season. Also, anyone who points to Dombrowski’s “you can’t have six starters” quote as evidence someone is bound to be traded failed Deciphering Dave Dombrowski 101. Dombrowski was most likely posturing at the time, and he even later came out and said there would be a competition during Spring Training between Smyly and Porcello for the final spot in the rotation. You’re better off just taking what he says with a grain of salt.
The truth is, no team ever goes a full season without a pitcher missing a start due to injury, or the rotation having to be reshuffled due to weather. Just look at the 2012 Tigers; the aforementioned Turner, Casey Crosby, Adam Wilk, and Duane Below all made spot-starts for the team. And considering the trade of Turner to Miami, Wilk’s signing with a Korean Baseball League team, and Below’s likely relief role, the starting pitching depth after Crosby isn’t great.
Lynn Henning can bluster all he wants about having Drew VerHagen, Shawn Hill, Luke Putkonen, and José Alvarez as options should Porcello be traded but it doesn’t change the fact those options aren’t particularly good, in the case of Putkonen and Hill, or ready, in the case of VerHagen. As for Alvarez, he missed all of 2012 recovering from surgery on his left (pitching) shoulder to repair a torn labrum. Wheeee! Most of these guys will probably be AAA filler in Toledo, at best. Putkonen seems to have some fans in the front office and will likely get a chance to win a bullpen spot out of Spring Training, but it’s pretty safe to say he won’t be starting for the Tigers in 2013. Or ever.
What if the Tigers were to keep both Porcello and Smyly, and send one of them to the bullpen? Smyly has a little experience pitching in relief, as the Tigers called on him five times, and Porcello got some bullpen work in during the 2011 and 2012 postseason.
When trying to decide which of the two might be better suited to relief work, consider the type of pitchers they are. Smyly is a strikeout pitcher, which could be useful out of the ‘pen, but Porcello could come in handy against right-handed heavy lineups. Porcello might also benefit from limited exposure; he becomes more and more hittable the deeper he goes into games. Smyly didn’t seem to suffer from that problem in his (admittedly small sample size of) 99.1 IP of work in 2012.
It might be prudent for the Tigers to keep both Porcello and Smyly, as it doesn’t seem—right now, at least—that they’ll be able to get what they’re looking for. Namely, a MLB-ready shortstop who can replace Jhonny Peralta. They aren’t going to trade Porcello for a closer either, so you can put away those dreams of Jim Johnson. Speaking of Johnson… Johnson is, himself, an extreme ground ball pitcher with a fairly low strikeout rate, so if you want to deal Porcello because he can’t pitch to the current configuration of the Tigers’ infield defense, you don’t want Johnson.
The Tigers have no real need to move either pitcher, honestly, when one takes into consideration the likelihood they will need a sixth starter at some point and the fact both pitchers have bullpen experience. If they can improve the club with a trade, by all means, go ahead and make that trade. Until then, hold onto both of them, keep an open mind, and see what happens in Lakeland in February.