As pitchers and catcher get set to report to camp in Lakeland this coming Monday, there is one glaring question facing the Detroit Tigers: How will they replace Brad Penny?
It’s okay, I’ll wait until the laughter subsides.
But seriously, Penny provided almost exactly what the Tigers asked of him when they signed him to a one-year deal prior to the 2011 season. He gave them innings and starts. He wasn’t always good, but he usually wasn’t terrible, either. Penny did what most clubs ask of a number five starter.
With Penny off to Japan and the Tigers seemingly set to head to camp without a veteran hurler as a back-end candidate this year, the focus with shift to a bevy of young arms all vying for the final starting job.
Right handed phenom Jacob Turner has the most upside of any of the young pitchers competing for the spot, but he won’t turn 21 until May and certainly could benefit from more seasoning in the minor leagues. Still, as a consensus top-15 prospect in all of baseball, Turner is probably the odds-on favorite to win the job out of camp.
Beyond Turner, the Tigers have a quartet of southpaws that will get a look this Spring. Duane Below, Adam Wilk, and Andy Oliver all spent some time with the big club last season, while Casey Crosby and Drew Smyly have yet to make their big league debuts.
Again, if it’s a case of upside, Crosby and Oliver have better pure stuff than the rest of the group, but both have struggled with command and control problems. Wilk and Below don’t have the overpowering stuff that Crosby and Oliver possess, but they do seem to have a better idea of how to attack hitters and a better ability to maintain contact with the strikezone.
The most polished of the group may be Smyly, but as the only one of these guy not on the 40-man roster, some will assume Smyly to be the biggest longshot to make the club.
Despite it being his first season of professional baseball, Smyly was named the 2011 Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year by leading the entire organization in ERA, posting a 2.07 mark in Lakeland and Erie combined. Though he worked in just 126 innings, Tigers GM told the Detroit Sports Broadcasters luncheon that Smyly is one guy he’s interested to see in camp.
"He’s only been in the organization one year, but some people in our minor league system feel he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues right now.He not only pitched well in the minors last year, but he went to international competition (Pan American Games) and was the No. 1 pitcher on that team. In general, when you look at guys who’ve been successful in international competition, the majority of them end up pitching in the big leagues the next year."
As part of his on-going series in looking at rotation options, Tigerdog1 profiled Smyly over at Bless You Boys today, noting not only Smyly’s raking as the 82nd-best prospect in baseball, according to Jonathan Mayo, but also as the 10th-highest rated southpaw. When Kevin Goldstein left Smyly off his Top 101 Prospect list, Tigerdog1 went looking for answers via twitter.
Smyly may not have the blazing fastball or knee-buckling curve, but he has command of four pitches that Mayo say are all “at least Major League average.” He won’t be 23 years old until mid-way through the season, so there is room for improvement as well.
There is also the issue of not having any other left handers in the rotation. This has been a problem in Detroit really since Kenny Rogers retired following the 2008 season. Subsequent years saw the Dontrelle Willis disaster and the alarming regression of Nate Robertson. Detroit has given spot starts to Below last season and Oliver in both 2010 and 2011, but with little to no success. They even tried Phil Coke in to rotation for a good part of last season. While Coke did pitch better than his gaudy 4.82 ERA as a starter would indicate (FIP of 3.67), he saw a dramatic improvement to both his walk rate and his strikeout rate upon returning to the bullpen.
Still, with a bevy of left handed sluggers remaining in the division, the Tigers could benefit from having at least one starting pitcher who happens to throw left-handed.
Wilk and Below could certainly be considered and Dombrowski noted that himself during his luncheon speech, but neither pitcher has the polish of Smyly and while Goldstein doesn’t love Smyly’s stuff, neither Wilk nor Below appears to offer anything better.
Smyly may not be the flashiest of the candidates for the fifth rotation spot, and he certainly doesn’t have the pure stuff of Turner or Crosby, but if the Tigers feel that their rotation could use a southpaw, Smyly might have have more tools for success at his immediate disposal.
Though he comes into camp as a non-roster invitee, Smyly’s competitors shouldn’t take solace in that perceived advantage. With right hander Al Alburquerque out until at least mid-season and DH Victor Martinez slated to miss the whole year, the Tigers have a pair of roster spots to be played with. Martinez will almost certainly be placed on the 60-day disabled list as soon as rules allow and Alburquerque could be as well. In doing this, the Tigers could go as deep as 42 on the 40-man roster without having to remove a player to make room.
Turner will get all the press during the six weeks of Spring Training. Crosby and Oliver will no doubt impress with their mid-90s fastballs, and Wilk and Below will be solid, if unspectacular. But Smyly might be the most Major League ready of the bunch.