As Chris wrote yesterday, the Detroit Tigers need to think long and hard about trading a pitcher. It still appears as though Rick Porcello is the most likely starter to be dealt – though no one’s sure just how likely this scenario is – but I think there should be questions as to how comfortable the Tigers are with Drew Smyly in the rotation (or, rather, how comfortable they should be).
Drew Smyly looks like he’s ready to play a full season in the big leagues, certainly. He made 18 starts last year, struck out 23% of the batters he faced, and posted an ERA south of 4.00. But could he be counted on to produce those numbers over the course of a full-season? Could he even be counted on to pitch an entire season? In his final season at the University of Arkasas (2010) he pitched 103 innings, in his first year in the Tigers’ minor league system (2011) he threw 126 innings, and last season (across the majors and minors) he threw 117 innings. Is he now a guy that could be expected to throw 180+ innings?
By trading Porcello and starting Smyly the Tigers would be hurting their pitching depth, obviously, by having one fewer MLB caliber starter in the system, but they’d also be creating depth problems by having one less reliable starter in the system. Smyly has arm issues in his past, suffering injuries in college, and might not fare well taking a 60-70 inning jump, Max Scherzer missed a couple of starts after feeling tightness in his arm at the end of last season, Doug Fister missed six or seven outings with a couple of torso muscle strains last year as well, and Anibal Sanchez played less than half a season in each of 2007, 2008, and 2009 with various issues.
None of these pitchers will, as a matter of certain fact, suffer any sort of injury in the coming season, but it would surprise no one for any (or all) of these players to miss some time in 2013. How much better would it be to have Drew Smyly tucked away in AAA for such an emergency!
But keeping Smyly stashed away could have another benefit. As I mentioned, it’s likely that the Tigers will need a sixth starting pitcher at some point in the season – maybe even for a significant portion of the season – but that’s not certain. If the Tigers can avoid keeping Smyly in the big leagues for more than 22 days, they’ll be able to extend his team control by another season. It takes 172 days to earn one year of MLB service time, and Smyly earned 149 such days last season.
Obviously if something major happened to one of the other five starting pitchers you’d want Smyly to fill in, service time be darned, but if we’re talking two starts here and a spot start there, then perhaps they could get it done. It might take mixing and matching with Duane Below and Casey Crosby as well – not ideal – but if we’re only talking a small handful of games each it probably won’t much matter in the standings. And they’d get the benefit of effectively hitting the pause button on Smyly’s free agency clock for a year.
Smyly will only be entering his third year of professional baseball and he’ll only be 24 years old. He was solid in his major league debut a year ago, but there are things he could work on in AAA, like simply getting used to taking the ball every fifth day for a full season – proving that he can be a full-season big league starter. I’m not saying he can’t be, but he hasn’t been able to demonstrate that yet.