It is said that Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly are locked in a battle for the fifth starter spot – we get daily updates from the media to this effect – but I’m not sure this is really the case. We like to fawn over each and every spring outing, to dissect the numbers, and to say who has the edge, but we’re only talking about innings totals in the low teens for each of the two pitchers. We’re not really learning anything new about either of them.
What we know about Smyly and Porcello are that (1) they both are good enough to anchor the final rotation spot for a playoff team and (2) the marginal difference between picking either guy is likely to be very, very small. But the Tigers have to pick one of them to do the job which means there will be a “loser” to this spring battle.
With that loser, the Tigers have three options: (1) put him in the bullpen, (2) trade him, or (3) send him to the minor leagues.
Tigers’ General Manager Dave Dombrowski apparently told the Detroit News’ Lynn Henning that the bullpen “isn’t an option” for either of these two players, so we can cross #1 off the list.
Talks of trading one of the players – particularly Porcello – have been ongoing the entire offseason but he remains on the team. I think there’s a very good chance that Porcello gets dealt in the next twelve months, but it doesn’t appear that Dombrowski is looking to ship him out for a sub-par return package. Smyly is still a pre-arbitration player (with six years of team control left), so he looks like they guy the team will want to hang on to long-term.
This is probably why the team wants both players treated as starters this year (whether in the minors or majors). If you start Smyly and move Porcello to the bullpen, his trade value probably drops further. If you start Porcello and put Smyly in the bullpen, you’re possibly hampering the development of a starting pitcher who’s never even thrown 130 innings in a season.
The third option is to send the “loser” to the minor leagues. There’s nothing to be gained for Porcello (who apparently still does have an option left) in this except that you’d be stashing him away in case of injury. You’d be hurting his trade value in the process, and there’s not really much he could work on down there. With Smyly it’s a little different, he could use the work in the minor leagues to get used to a full-season starters’ workload and, if you could get away for the full season without needing him, you’d be delaying arbitration (and free agency) for yet another year (which means he’d stay cheaper for longer).
So, really, this “position battle” isn’t going to be resolved by on-the-field performance. The way I see it, the options are:
- Get a good trade offer for Porcello and trade him.
- Get a not-so-good offer for Porcello but trade him anyway.
- Put Porcello in the bullpen (and probably later accept a not-so-good trade offer).
- Put Porcello in the minor leagues (and probably later accept a not-so-good trade offer).
To me, the only “good” option that involves Porcello not ending up in the Tigers’ rotation is if you happen to get overwhelmed with a strong offer before camp breaks. That looks like it’s not going to happen at this point and so the Tigers appear to be preparing for a season with Porcello in the big league rotation.
If a trade doesn’t happen (and if the bullpen truly isn’t an option), then Smyly will hit the minor leagues and Porcello will be the de facto winner of the fifth rotation spot. There’s no real competition about it.