Detorit Tigers: Will Drew Smyly Break Camp as the Team's 5th Starter?
Outside of the roster battle between prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado for the final spot in the Atlanta Braves rotation, the Detroit Tigers are the only other team facing a similar quandary.
With a rotation already comprised of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello, the Tigers are in need of a final arm, ideally a lefty, to round out their impressive staff.
The organization's top prospect, right-hander Jacob Turner, was slated to be the team's final starter headed into the spring. However, after registering an 11.25 ERA and 2/6 K/BB ratio, the Tigers' 2009 No. 1 draft pick was shut down due to lingering shoulder tendinitis.
So, over the last couple of weeks, a battle has emerged between three left-handed prospects: Andy Oliver, Duane Below and Drew Smyly.
Oliver, who has been flirting with a spot in the rotation the past three seasons, was eliminated from the race on Thursday when he was optioned to Triple-A Toledo. Since 2010, the Tigers' No. 5 prospect has appeared in seven big-league games, posting an 0-5 record with a 7.11 ERA and 23/21 K/BB rate.
And then there were two.
At this point, Below—who failed to rank as one of the team's top 10 prospects—appears to be the logical candidate given his previous experience and low-risk status.
Appearing in 14 games with the Tigers in 2011, the 6'3", 220-pound southpaw posted a 5.40 ERA with a 10/3 K/BB rate over 13 innings. Although he possesses four pitches, Below's only above-average offering is his cutter, which is equally effective against right and left-handed hitters. At 26 years old, he is considered to be the safest candidate for the final rotation spot despite logging a 4.38 ERA and 1.78 WHIP over 12.1 spring innings.
And there's Smyly, the Tigers' No. 3 prospect who has made a serious name for himself this spring.
Drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft out of Arkansas, the 6'3", 190-pound left-hander was dominant in his first minor league season. Splitting time between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, Smyly, 22, posted an 11-6 record with a 2.07 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 130/36 K/BB ratio over 126 innings.
As he demonstrated during his time at Arkansas, Smyly is adept to attacking hitters with his 87-92 mph two-seam fastball with arm-side run, which aids the effectiveness of his other offerings.
The left-hander features two breaking balls—a curveball and slider—that have been equally effective at times and offer a different look as he works deeper into the game. Smyly also throws a hard, mid-80s cutter that neutralizes right-handed hitters.
But what really works in Smyly's favor is the fact that he's been exceptional all spring. Appearing in four games for the Tigers, he currently sports a 2.84 ERA and 0.95 WHIP over 12.2 innings. Furthermore, he's fanned 10 and walked five while posting a 2.13 GO/AO.
While selecting Below to round out the rotation is the safe, conservative choice, it's important to remember that Jim Leyland and the Tigers front office have developed a reputation as an organization that's willing to push its prospects to the majors, even if they might not be technically ready.
Verlander pitched in two doubleheader games in 2005 at age 22.
Joel Zumaya became a fixture in the bullpen at 21.
Andrew Miller and Jair Jurrjens both made their debuts the year they turned 21.
Porcello made his debut at age 20 after only a year of professional baseball.
Oliver made five ill-advised starts for the Tigers in 2010.
And, most recently, the Tigers called up the 20-year-old Turner in July to make an emergency spot start.
So, will the Tigers ultimately decide to go with the hot
hand arm? Only time will tell. But knowing Leyland (and the lack of a left-hander in the rotation), it's far more likely than fans may realize.
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