18 March 2012
The Tigers came to Lakeland this spring with six in-house candidates competing for the last spot in the starting rotation. Jacob Turner was probably the odds-on favorite to win the job, Duane Below was the safe pick, Drew Smyly was the sexy dark horse, and Andy Oliver, Adam Wilk and Casey Crosby were “in the mix”.
Three weeks later, we’ve received very little clarity on the situation in an official capacity, but it’s pretty easy to guess where things are headed. Only Casey Crosby has been declared out of the running – he’s was optioned to AAA Toledo a few days ago – but on-field performance helps us pretty much figure out the rest.
Adam Wilk has probably played himself out of the running. He’s been pounded in 9.2 innings of work, putting up an elevated 5.59 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. He’s known as a control pitcher, and he’s been fine in that respect giving up just two walks, but he’s only struck out three batters, and he’s allowed two home runs (something he also struggled with in his brief time in the majors last year). He’s also a candidate for a long relief position, but he probably only has a chance there if Below makes the rotation – I don’t really see both in the bullpen – otherwise we’ll see Wilk starting in Toledo.
Drew Smyly might be one of two pitchers who are “in the lead” for the fifth spot, but not being on the 40-man roster is likely going to work against him. I think Smyly is going to need to continue to post exceptional numbers and hope that everyone else tanks. He only has one year of minor league ball under his belt (just 80 innings in Advanced-A Lakeland, and 45 innings in AA Erie), and I don’t think the club will (or should) risk “rushing” a player or burning an option year (if he would get sent back down at some point in the year) just because he happened to win an eenie-meenie-miney-mo contest among equal performers. As long as there’s an equally appealing option, I don’t see how Smyly would win the job.
Duane Below pitched himself back to the pack on Sunday afternoon. It appeared that he might be headed down the home stretch in a race with Andy Oliver, but his mediocre performance (2 IP, 3 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR) saw his spring ERA jump to 5.87. It’s hard to imagine Below being sent to Toledo with a long relief spot open in Detroit. His long-term future with the club probably isn’t in the rotation anyway, so the Tigers shouldn’t have a problem ‘converting him to a reliever’ at this point. Below isn’t necessarily out of the race yet (like I think Wilk is), but he’ll need to be darn near dominant for the rest of the spring. No more room for “pretty good”.
Jacob Turner’s lackluster performance in his four innings of work (6 BB, 1 HR, 2 K) and subsequent tendinitis concerns has the Tigers organization taking the cautious approach. And that’s definitely the wise path. Turner, at only 20 years of age, is too prized of a prospect to take any risks with. There was already some concern that allowing him to make the opening day roster this season would be ‘rushing him’. I’d still love to see him lock down that rotation spot this year, but that’s only because I hope he’s ready. If there’s any concern – whether that’s performance or injury – then I’m definitely in the ‘take your time’ camp. I have absolutely no problem with him getting a year of AAA baseball under his belt before joining the big leagues full-time.
Andy Oliver has to be considered the lead man in the race at the moment. He fell out of favor with fans (and prospect rankers) last season after a rough two-game stint with the big club followed by a rough end to the season in Toledo. But Oliver has re-emerged to display his strong potential this spring. He’s allowed just two hits in nine innings of work, while striking out six. No runners have scored against Oliver, and his walk numbers that have plagued him his entire professional career haven’t been a concern. Three walks per nine innings won’t win you any awards, but it will get the job done, especially if he can maintain is traditionally high strikeout rate.
I have no idea how long Jim Leyland will allow the race to go, but the number of innings available this spring are beginning to dwindle, so he’ll have to pick which one he’s going to stretch out sooner rather than later.
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.