The Detroit Tigers’ fifth starter battle itself is not unprecedented, but this has been the team’s most contentious edition of spring struggle in recent memory. Its unofficial beginning came at the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association luncheon on February 7th, where Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski rattled off the names of Adam Wilk, Andrew Oliver, Casey Crosby, Drew Smyly, Duane Below, and Jacob Turner when questioned on how his club would fill the void left in the offseason by Brad Penny’s departure.
Since then, the field has been whittled to three—Oliver, Smyly, and Below—all of whom have been named favorites for the position at various times over the past weeks. With attention focused on the fluctuations of that trio, of which one seems to pitch every day, one point has gone somewhat overlooked; when the Tigers head north to commence the season against the Boston Red Sox, they need not take any of the fifth starter candidates with them—not further than Toledo anyway.
Thanks to two prompt off days—one the Friday after their Thursday, April 5th season opener at Comerica Park, and another the following Monday serving as a bumper between the three-game series with the Red Sox and a second against the Tampa Bay Rays—Detroit can function without a fifth starter until Saturday, April 14th. In one likely hypothetical, Justin Verlander would make his opening day start, followed, in order, by Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello. On the second turn through the rotation, Verlander would start on an extra day of rest and Fister and Scherzer—on normal rest—would follow. Finally, the fifth starter would debut at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, with Porcello slated for the series finale—on four days rest—the next day.
Matt Snyder at The Tigers Den addressed this briefly last weekend and in his piece outlined the Tigers’ options for taking advantage of this situation. As he wrote, the team could keep three of Brandon Inge, Danny Worth, Andy Dirks, and Clete Thomas, who are thought to be competing for two major league jobs. Or, in a scenario I believe is more probable, they could elect to carry an extra bullpen arm in the person of Luis Marte or Brayan Villarreal. (Snyder also wrote last month, in an article I recommend, on how the Tigers could continue to use off days—in a manner similar to the one I’ve outlined—to avoid overworking the arm of whichever youngster ultimately takes the fifth starter job.)
However the club decides to utilize the extra space, it’s interesting—or frustrating if you dislike loose ends as I do—to know that the uncertainty of their roster has potential to spill over into mid-April. Hopefully Jim Leyland chooses to enlighten us on the winner of the starter competition long before the victor first takes the mound for the big league club. The battle has been intriguing, but if it lasts much longer, it runs the risk of dragging on like a Michael Bay Transformers movie. No one wants that.