Detroit Tigers: Sizing Up the Competition for the Fifth Starter
When the Detroit Tigers wisely decided not to bring back Brad Penny following an offense-aided 10-10 record in 2012, the competition for the fifth starter in their rotation was underway.
Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello represent a strong—but incomplete—rotation. Not only are they a man short, but they're all right-handed pitchers and lack the the lefty to complement them and keep opposing teams off-balance.
The lack of a left-hander could come back to haunt the Tigers as the team presumed to be their biggest competition for the AL Central crown, the Cleveland Indians, feature a predominately left handed lineup.
The Tigers are less than two weeks away from their first game, and there is no clear-cut candidate for that final rotation spot. Because of off-days in their early schedule they technically don't need a fifth starter until April 15 at the earliest, so Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski have a little, but not much, time to make a decision.
Here's how the top contenders shake out right now.
5. Jacob Turner
A month ago I would have been nearly certain that Turner would have been the man to claim the final rotation spot.
However, a rough abbreviated spring highlighted by a Jim Leyland-proclaimed "dead arm" has all but taken Turner out of the competition.
Turner is supposedly throwing well in bullpen sessions, but by losing much of the spring it would take major collapses by other competitors and a couple of outstanding starts of his own to get Turner back in the running.
It's not going to happen, and it might be a good thing because a season at Triple-A Toledo could do wonders for Turner.
Chance of winning final rotation spot: 5 percent
4. Duane Below or Adam Wilk
I'll lump both of these two together since they basically both offer the same thing to the Tigers.
Adam Wilk is the better prospect of the two—he's posted an impressive 2.62 career minor league ERA—but Duane Below has the better MLB pedigree, offering Leyland some much-needed production in emergency starts and long relief in 2011.
Unfortunately, both have struggled this spring and their only shot to getting in the rotation appears to be if a couple of other guys ahead of them fall off the map and Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski turn to an internal left-handed option.
UPDATE: Adam Wilk was optioned to Triple-A Toledo, feel free to bump this down 5 percent!
Chance of winning final rotation spot (combined): 10 percent
3. John Lannan
He's not even on the Tigers, but the smoldering rumors are beginning to turn into a full-fledged bon fire.
The Tigers and Red Sox are consistently linked to John Lannan, and he makes sense for them. A veteran left-handed presence could be what puts them over the top in the American League.
Lannan certainly isn't a Gio Gonzalez or Matt Garza—other names the Tigers were attached to this offseason—but he doesn't have to be. He'd simply need to be a productive fifth starter who can give the Tigers 200 innings and double digit wins.
There are problems, though. Lannan has no experience in the traditionally tougher American League, and the Nationals' own rotation is still unsettled meaning they might be demanding at least one of the Tigers top prospects for Lannan, if not a proven outfielder like Brennan Boesch or Andy Dirks.
Chance at final rotation spot: 15 percent
2. Drew Smyly
Drew Smyly has been shooting up the Detroit Tigers prospect rankings since being drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft.
After being ranked No. 8 in 2010, Smyly moved all the way to No. 3 in Baseball America's list of the Top 10 Tigers Prospects for 2012, behind only Turner and Nick Castellanos.
He was excellent at Single-A Lakeland last year, even better at Double-A Erie and has been outstanding in spring training so far this year, posting a 1.13 ERA and minuscule 0.88 WHIP in eight innings. Smyly, a lefty, has excellent command and a good fastball, leading to 130 strikeouts in just 126 innings combined last year.
Smyly's issue will be his lack of experience. Although he's 22 years old, he's only pitched one season of minor league ball. However, if he continues to perform like he has, the Tigers' brass can't ignore him for long.
Chance of winning final rotation spot: 20 percent
1. Andy Oliver
Give Andy Oliver credit. Even the most knowledgable Tiger fans wouldn't have given him much of a shot to win the final rotation spot this spring, but right now the job is his to lose.
It looked like as sure a thing as possible, but a dreadful start this week against the Twins opened the door for the other guys on this list. Oliver allowed three runs in 3.2 innings, but more alarmingly walked five batters in this outing.
Leyland's hatred for walks is well-known, and control issues have plagued Oliver throughout his career.
Besides his overall strong spring, Oliver has a bit of major league experience—although he's been relatively unsuccessful—probably further pushing him toward the final spot.
If Oliver pitches well the next week and a half, the job is his. If he doesn't, there will be a surprise starter in the Tigers rotation come mid-April.
Chance of winning final rotation spot: 50 percent
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