You hear the aphorism regularly and have probably used it yourself: prospects turn out best developed slowly—don’t rush them, as if they’re promoted too raw, the confidence they lose is rarely recovered. With pitchers, you hear they should be given plenty of time to polish their pitches and to learn how to pitch rather than continuing simply to throw, a practice which usually works for the immensely talented when facing minor league hitters but doesn’t go over quite as well upon reaching ‘The Show.’
The Detroit Tigers organization is repeatedly accused of violating this common rule. Jeremy Bonderman, Andrew Miller, Ryan Perry, and Rick Porcello are the headliners of the growing group of young twirlers who, as commanded by current general manager Dave Dombrowski and his staff, were called up to the majors despite, as perceived by scads of observers, the pitchers’ need for further maturation.
Those pitchers, each with their respective failure to fully live up to advertised potential, have left a lingering negative impression on the psyches of numerous Tiger fans. This is obvious, but if evidence is needed, one only need turn their attention to the Lakeland limelight, under which a kaleidoscopic fifth starter competition has been steadily gaining steam. There, you’ll find Drew Smyly and, if you were to check in just over a week ago, you would have seen Jacob Turner. As recent draft picks with limited experience at the high levels of minor league baseball, both have naturally been subjects of much debate this spring; is either ready to make the jump to the big leagues or should they fall back to Triple-A Toledo—or even Double-A Erie—for further seasoning? The question, and the fear behind it, is the reason a good portion of onlookers lean toward middling non-prospect Duane Below as the favorite for a starting spot in Detroit.
In Turner’s case, aversion to promotion may be well-founded. Piles of riches, including a $4.7 million signing bonus, have already been invested by the Tigers in his future, so steep risk is involved. Further, the 20-year-old top prospect was drafted in 2009 straight out of high school. Finally, Turner’s stuff has yet to reach the height of its capacity; while his fastball and curveball are regarded as plus pitches, his changeup supposedly needs work and only recently did he even begin to throw a slider.
Smyly is in a different situation entirely. He’s two years older than Turner, for one. Granted, the former was drafted just a couple years ago, but his progress was aided by two college seasons with the Arkansas Razorbacks of the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. He has yet to play at Triple-A, but his numbers at every other stop, including a 1.18 ERA in seven Erie starts, have shone brightly. Hurling for Team USA at the Baseball World Cup last October, Smyly demonstrated the comfort and poise of a big leaguer, throwing 17 shutout innings while striking out 17 men and walking one. His repertoire doesn’t project to improve much, but it already includes four pitches regarded as major league average. He knows how to pitch and keeps hitters off balance. All things considered, Smyly could presumably gain little from a return to the minors, and considering his widely assumed ceiling as a fourth or fifth starter, Detroit would lose little (besides trade value) if his promotion proves misguided.
This March, Smyly has done nothing to hurt his case. He’s thrown eight innings in Grapefruit League action, allowing one run and three walks while striking out seven. Thursday, he struck out eight in four shutout innings of a minor league game. None of the aforementioned feats are overwhelming, but Smyly has been solid while five other candidates have, at various points, faltered greatly.
Today, you could call him the front-runner to fill the Tigers’ rotation void, or you could place him behind both Below and Andy Oliver—that’s how volatile the running for the spot is. Regardless, and contrary to popular belief, the Tigers should have no qualms about giving the job to a green Smyly should he earn it by outpitching that pair—or continuing to—for the next two weeks.