Below and Smyly are survivors in Tigers battle for fifth starter spot

In his first minor league season in 2011, Drew Smyly was named Tigers Organizational Pitcher of the Year.

And then there were two.

Duane Below and Drew Smyly are the last men standing in the American Idol-like audition that was the Detroit Tigers search for a fifth starter. Whichever pitcher the Tigers choose they’ll have a good fifth starter breaking camp with them next week. Both Below and Smyly are lefties, each with their own pluses and minuses. But what they have in common is the fact they’ve risen to the top of the heap.

When spring training started the team had six pitchers in the hunt for the spot at the back end of their rotation. There was the phenom (Jacob Turner), the heir apparent (Andrew Oliver), the long shot (Adam Wilk), the comeback kid (Casey Crosby), and then Below and Smyly. Turner, who looks very much like he could be a #1 or #2 starter someday, rubbing elbows with Justin Verlander, was shaky end then he had tendinitis that shelved him. Oliver seemed to be on track for the #5 spot with some dominant outings early, then he looked terrible the l ast few times out. Wilk never seemed to get on track at all, and was the first out of the running. Crosby has returned from elbow surgery a few years ago to look like a future ace, but he struggled to find the plate too often in Florida and was shipped to Triple-A.

Now, we have Smyly and Below, playing the roles of “Kid Ace” and “Hometown Kid”, respectively. Smyly will not turn 23 until June, but the southpaw has poise beyond his years on the hill. Below has only pitched 14 games in the big leagues but the 26-year old seems like a grizzled veteran in comparison to Smyly.

Jim Leyland needs a lefty in his rotation, what with the Big Four (JV, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello) all tossing from the right side. It’ll keep teams honest to trot a southpaw out to the mound every fifth day. But will Smyly or Below give the Tigers the best chance to win?

Below made a pair of starts for the Tigers last season. Considering his role as the fifth starter, he performed well – tossing five innings and allowing just one run in his first start before struggling a little in 4+ innings the nest time out. But that was last July, a lifetime ago in baseball terms. This spring, Below had looked solid, building on the 12 game she pitched out of the bullpen for Leyland last season. Below mixes his speeds well, and his biggest asset is that big league experience. He’s been to The Show.

But let’s be honest, Below is not a stallion. He’s no blue-chip prospect. He’s one of those guys (drafted in the 19th round in 2006) who were expected to be filler in the minor league system, and if he panned out and became a solid ML contributor, it would be a bonus. But the Britton, Michigan native who pitched at a community college has held his own at every level against pitchers who came from big time Division-I schools and were drafted in the first three rounds. Now he’s lasted into the final round, and unlike American Idol, where hopefuls need to pander to the public to win votes, Below just needs the approval of GM Dave Dombrowski. One man’s approval. And Dapper Dave likes Below. So does Leyland, who has a famous love affair with the underdog. (See Brandon Inge).

On the other side is Smyly, the third rated prospect in the entire Tigers organization according to He’s not a hard thrower, a lightning in a bottle guy like Verlander or Oliver, but he’s got talent: he can command four different pitches. In a short time span he’s become the most promising pitcher in the Detroit organization based on performance. Last season he led the entire organization in ERA while advancing to Double-A Erie in his first minor league system. Smyly is a Tom Glavine type – crafty, talented, armed with multiple pitches and pitcher’s makeup. Whether or not he can locate his pitches as well as Glavine and display the tenacious competitiveness of that 300-game winning lefty remains to be seen, of course.

So Smyly is the raw talent choice. He’s like Zumaya and Verlande rin 2006, when Dombrowski brought them north despite their lack of experience. Below has barely cut his teeth at the big league level, but he’s a safer choice.

After their next starts we’ll know which of them will be the Tigers fifth starter. It’s possible that the “loser” will also make the roster as a bullpen option. But there are several open days on the Tigers schedule early in the year and the need for relievers will be loosened.