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Tigers and Rick Porcello Working Without a Net

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When the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers take the field tonight at US Cellular, second-year right hander Rick Porcello will have yet another chance to turn his season around.

Porcello, last year’s star rookie for the Tigers, comes into play tonight with a 4-5 record and an ERA north of five. All the shocking successes of his 20-year-old season are but a memory as his Tigers club looks to keep pace with the front-running Twins, and perhaps more important at this point in the year, the Tigers are looking to knock Chicago out of the running.

It’s true that Porcello has been better of late. Over his last six starts he hasn’t allowed more than four earned runs in any of them. But four earned does not a good outing make. In fact, Porcello has allowed 57 baserunners in those last six starts, spanning 37 innings, for a WHIP of 1.541, and those numbers include a seven inning shutout effort against the Yankees. (…)

The facts are that even if Porcello continues to struggle, the Tigers don’t really have another option. Before the season began, Nate Robertson was still a Tigers, so was Dontrelle Willis. The Tigers came into camp with seven starters and left camp with five after dealing away Robertson and sending down Armando Galarraga. Now that Willis is off to Arizona, what’s left is what they’re going to have for a while.

If they look to the minor leagues, there’s no obvious choice for help. Alfredo Figaro is a guy Detroit has leaned on for a spot start or two in the past, but he has never shown the ability to consistently get big league hitters out. Right handers Enrique Gonzalez, 27, and L.J. Gagnier, 25, have the best numbers apart from Figaro, so it could be time to give one of them a look. Lefty Ryan Ketchner has also had good success in Toledo, but at age 28 the southpaw is no longer a prospect.

The Tigers expected to contend in 2010 and so far they have, but they’ve done it on the backs of a patchwork starting rotation that has had more questions than answers, and Porcello has been as much a part of the problem as anyone.

There is no question that having an effective Porcello will make the Tigers into a much better club, but continuing to run him out there every fifth day and hoping he can figure it out seems silly. If Porcello doesn’t find some quality starts soon, the Tigers might be forced into making a trade and sending Porcello back to the minor leagues. Such a move would surely cost in terms of prospects, and deplete a still growing farm system.

Tigers fans can (and will) dream of one-sided trade scenarios involving Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt, but it’s far more likely they’d be getting a broken-down veteran with little left in the tank for the price Dave Dombrowski will want to pay.

Dombrowski knows that the Tigers are well-positioned to contend over the next several years, and I doubt he’ll want to mortgage that future when the serious contention is probably a year away anyhow. You’re thinking Lee or Oswalt, but Dombrowski is thinking Kyle Davies, Doug Davis, or Jeff Suppan.

In other words, you’d better be hoping Porcello can get it going, and soon.