Pitching staff will be a focus for Tigers in spring training, with Porcello & Rondon question marks

Entering his sixth season, Rick Porcello may be poised to become a star.

Entering his sixth season, Rick Porcello may be poised to become a star.

When pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland for the start of spring training this week, new Detroit Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus will get his first look at the club’s revamped starting rotation and bullpen.

He should like what he sees in the rotation. Returning are three of the league’s top pitchers — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. This trio is superb. Between them they made ninety-seven starts last year, pitched 615 innings, struck out 659 batters while walking only 185, and went 48-23 — and that was during a down year for Verlander. Scherzer led the league in wins and W-L percentage, Scherzer and Sanchez were second and third in strikeouts per inning, Sanchez was first and Scherzer third in ERA+, and Scherzer led the league in WHIP.

Gone from the rotation, however, is another dependable pitcher: Doug Fister, traded away for what seemed far less than his value in a puzzling swap by the usually masterful Dave Dombrowski. He was dealt to make room for Drew Smyly to move from the bullpen to the rotation.

Though his pitch totals will be watched closely, there should be little doubt that Smyly will make this transition smoothly. He was a starter in the minors and showed great promise in 2012 when used as a spot starter and a multi-inning reliever. Consistently solid, he was arguably underused by Jim Leyland last season and miscast as a lefty-on-lefty specialist late last season and in the playoffs. His ERA+ in 2013 is listed as a whopping 178!

Smyly shouldn’t be in the spotlight this spring as much as Rick Porcello should be. Is the former mega-prospect ready to take his spot as a consistent Number Four starter?

The answer seems to be a qualified yes.

If you read the prognosticators, there are few naysayers, and some say Porcello could be poised for a breakout season. Baseball Prospectus notes he cut his WHIP “dramatically last season” and “looks like he might still be a future star.”

At 25, Porcello already has five full years in the Detroit rotation under his belt. He’s made 149 starts and pitched 869 innings — in other words, he’s already had a longer career than the average major league pitcher. He’s 61-50 with a 4.51 ERA, and he has an ERA+ of 95 per season — not very good numbers for a guy pitching for a perennially contending team. But his trends are in the right direction. Walks per innings went down from 2.7 his rookie season to 2.1 in 2010 and have stayed at that level ever since. Strikeouts per inning have increased the last four years and took a big jump in 2013, from 5.5 to 7.2. That’s very encouraging.

Ausmus probably doesn’t have to worry much about the starting rotation.

The bullpen, however, is a different story. It’s full of question marks.

Free agent Joe Nathan is installed as the closer. Purely by the numbers that’s an upgrade over Joaquin Benoit, though at 39, the new bullpen ace is at an age where a decline would not be a surprise and a breakdown is always a possibility.

The rest of the bullpen remains a work in progress, featuring the well-demonstrated inconsistency of holdovers Al Albuquerque and Phil Coke and a bunch of new uncertainties. First off, the new lefty to replace Smyly is Ian Krol, a key piece of the Fister trade. Just 23 himself, Krol is a converted starter who was very poor at getting right-handers out for the Washington Nationals in 2013. But he is death on lefties, and his velocity makes him perfectly suited as a lefty specialist, a badly needed piece in the Tigers’ bullpen since Coke is so unreliable in that role.

A much bigger quesion mark is Joba Chamberlain. The pudgy ex-Yankee phenom lost weight since his disastrous 2013 implosion (which followed a few seasons ruined by injuries) — but even though he’s still only 28, he’s a gamble. If this reclamation project works out and Joba rediscovers the blazing power-arm stuff he displayed in brief flashes earlier in his career in The Bronx, he might turn into a credible setup man. Or he could end up on the scrapheap.

Ausmus will likely invest more hope in the pitching staff’s Number One question mark: Bruce Rondon. Is he ready for prime time yet? Maybe so, maybe no. He’s still a baby at age 23, and Baseball Prospectus gives him a 34% chance of a breakout season. He does have that triple-digit fastball. Can he learn to harness it? Can he evolve from just being a flamethrower to becoming a pitcher?

One thing is certain: it’s foolish for the Tigers to count on Rondon at this point as their setup man. Maybe it’s the moment for a sink-or-swim baptism, but it’s risky. The unproven Rondon might be a key to the Tigers’ chances of getting back to the World Series, where they belong.

The Tiger pitching staff in 2014 is blessed with headliners and laden with an uncertain supporting cast. At the top of the rotation are three studs in their prime. But the season is much longer than 615 innings. For the other 850 innings or so, Detroit’s pitching hopes hinge heavily on one old man (Nathan), one dicey fixer-upper (Joba), four young arms (Porcello, Smyly, Krol, and Rondon), and an untested young manager.

3 replies on “Pitching staff will be a focus for Tigers in spring training, with Porcello & Rondon question marks

  • Ken

    Porcello should be able to help the team win 15 games. I like Smyly and hope that he can make it through the season as a starter. Rondon will continue to be a project with promise and maybe develop some pitching finesse as well. Chamberlain is questionable. I hope that Joe Nathan can be effective and lead the other bullpen staff by example.

    There could be some long and frustrating relief appearances.

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