Drew Smyly will throw the first pitch of his major league career in 10 days, and right now he's simply enjoying the thrill of knowing he's going to be playing with the big kids this year—at 22 years old.
"I'm speechless," Smyly said.
On Sunday morning Detroit Tigers management met with the second-year pro and offered him the remaining starting spot in their rotation. He's earned it and although he has less experience than any of the other candidates that were up for the job, Smyly was simply the best option.
The organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season in his first shot at pro ball after being drafted just two short years ago out of the University of Arkansas.
Smyly punched his ticket to Detroit without having even visited Triple-A Toledo. He'll get that chance on April 7 in a one-game spot start due to the extra day off at the beginning of the MLB season. He'll make his Tigers debut on April 12 against Tampa Bay.
Here are five reasons the Tigers made a great choice by giving the nod to Smyly for their No. 5 hurler.
The Tigers needed a pitcher that would throw strikes from the No. 5 spot in the rotation. With a suspect defense they can ill afford a pitcher prone to give free passes; instead, they opted for the prospect with the greatest security for accuracy.
"I took the guy that I thought had good stuff, a good delivery and threw strikes. How that plays up here, we'll wait and see. That usually plays pretty good anywhere," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said.
Smyly spent last season between Single-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie, never even advancing to the Tigers' highest level of farm system play. He struck out 130 while walking only 36 in 21 minor league starts, and in 126 innings on the mound he gave up only two home runs and finished with an impressive combined 2.07 ERA.
Outside of some minor control issues that caused him fits in his last spring start, Smyly has been sharp. In 12.2 innings he's had an impressive 2.84 ERA and given up on seven hits. He's also held batters to a .167 average while striking out 10 and walking five.
Detroit will be expecting that type of accuracy as the inexperienced Smyly develops. If he can hold par he'll solidify his role in Detroit for years to come.
With four right-handed horses already in the Tigers' formidable stable of starters, it was to their benefit to add a lefty to the mix.
At the No. 5 spot Detroit’s American League opponents will have to follow the southpaw-throwing Smyly with the fireball-wielding Justin Verlander. Not a wanton task for any hitter.
This should be to the Tigers' advantage and is advantage No. 1 for the Tigers with the addition of the southpaw.
It should also allow Smyly a bit of an advantage following sinker-baller Rick Porcello.The action of his left handed ball rotation and the nature cut of his fastball should work in great contrast to the diving drop of Porcello’s sinker. Opposite action causing mixed hitter reaction.
Now for advantage No. 2 for the Tigers with Smyly's left-handed offerings and advantage No. 3 for Detroit.
A lefty in the rotation may and often will force opposing managers to make lineup adjustments to create possible mismatches. A straight offering of right-handed pitchers would allow a hot lineup to stay fully intact throughout a given season series.
That's a scenario even good teams would prefer to avoid. It really was a must to have a lefty in the rotation and Smyly fit the Tigers' needs perfectly.
While the Tigers' starting five was certainly in need of a left-handed hurler, coupling that with only two lefties in their seven-man bullpen would have left Detroit with only two southpaws out of 12 pitchers.
Limited options like this would put Leyland at a tactical disadvantage against his managerial counterparts across the league. As it stands, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth and Smyly will be the only left-handed arms on the mound.
Coke and Schlereth will be joined by Collin Balester, Joaquin Benoit, Ocatvio Dotel, Luis Marte and Jose Valverde. With so few left-handed options, the chance to put at least one arm in the starting rotation was almost a must for Leyland. He can at the very least mix his righty-dominate back end with a lefty starter in Smyly and rest his southpaw relievers who may often be called upon for short stints.
The Tigers were hoping to find at least one lefty out of the many hard-throwing young aces that were in camp this spring. Unfortunately, none of them showed enough promise to please Leyland into offering them a coveted spot in the pen.
"I also thought that with all the left-handed firepower we had coming into this camp, there was no doubt in my mind that we'd find at least one left-handed reliever out of the bunch, and we did not," Leyland said.
That's another pressing reason for Detroit's decision to leapfrog Toledo and put Smyly on the mound in Motown now. Smyly's arm helps both ends of the staff and illustrates the importance of his role on the 25-man roster.
This isn't the first time the Tigers front office has traveled this path with a young promising pitcher. Smyly is bred from the Tigers farm system—albeit only one season, but they've been here before.
In 2004 the Tigers started the now face of baseball Justin Verlander toward his major league trek, and two years later in 2006 he made his debut. The formula has worked well so far. While Smyly is no threat like Verlander, he does have pinpoint control capability much the same as Verlander.
Three years later in 2009 the Tigers brought up a then-inexperienced Rick Porcello after having only been in the farm system for one season. Porcello hasn't enjoyed the same star-studded success as Verlander, but he has been a strong No. 4 starter for the Tigers over the past three seasons.
It seems the very few years on the farm program has worked well for the Tigers when cautious, so why not give it another run around the bases? Smyly has shown veteran-like stability this spring, but the pressure will be different in front of bigger crowds with games that actually count at stake.
Seasoned veterans like Verlander and even Porcello will easily relate to the position Smyly finds himself in now as the Tigers' No. 5 starter. The path they've recently blazed should give Smyly solid footing on his venture to the big show after very little prep in the minor league circuit.
Verlander had Kenny Rogers to show him the way. Rogers did an excellent job to say the least. Funny that he was back in camp for the first time since leaving baseball this spring, in Lakeland with the Tigers. Now, Verlander can offer Smyly the same guidance and mentoring that Rogers passed down to him.
Smyly should count himself lucky to get the chance to walk the line in that lineage—awfully special company to keep.
Smyly couldn't have expected to be going all the way north to Detroit with the Tigers this week nearly two months ago when he was packing his bags to workout in Lakeland.
More than likely he just wanted to make enough of an impression that the Tigers front office and Leyland took notice and kept his name toward the top of their depth chart list. His name just kept rising and his star continues to be on the rise.
Headed into the 2012 Grapefruit League season, most Tigers fans were expecting a battle between Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner for the only open spot in Detroit's rotation. Oliver and Turner both struggled to a much greater extent in Lakeland and Smyly quietly charged forward on the list of potential starters.
Still overshadowed by Duane Below and Adam Wilk for their previous big league action and more seasoned arms, Smyly stringed together each opportunity with a resolve to show he had the muster to start for a team that promises to be one of the best in baseball this season.
According to Smyly:
I wouldn't say I was confident that I would be the guy, but I was definitely confident that I could show them that I was capable of being the guy. It was up to them to pick who they want to be up there. From the first day of spring training until now, I was just excited to show everybody what I had.
Sunday morning Leyland met with Smyly to share the good news that he was selected as the final pitcher in Detroit's rotation.
Bleacher Report featured Cclumnist J. Cook is a member of B/R's 2012 MLB Spring Training Coverage Team and contributes to B/R's MLB content and Detroit Tigers page. He also covers key sport interest stories for all of Detroit's major sports teams.
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