It’s easy to see that the Detroit Tigers’ big three starters — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez when he returns from the DL— are the equal of anyone in baseball with the exception of the Dodgers whenever Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu are healthy. But so far this season the bottom half of the Tiger rotation has been pretty impressive too.
Rick Porcello’s great start in 2014 would qualify as a surprise only if you had forgotten three things: (1) that Porcello was once one of the majors’ top young pitching prospects, (2) that he has already performed very adequately as a No. 5 starter for five full seasons, and (3) that he is still only twenty-five and may be just starting to approach his potential.
Porcello is solid and improving and very experienced for his relatively young age. He has been flying a bit under the radar on Detroit’s deep and talented staff. But since July 1 last year, he has won as many games as any other American League pitcher. This looks like it may be Porcello’s breakout season. On Monday he was typical Porcello, mixing his pitches, keeping the ball low, and throwing strikes. As a result, he earned his 6th victory of this young season, more than JV, Max, or any of his better-known and much higher-paid rotation mates.
Though Porcello’s ERA-plus for his career is only 95 (ERA-plus measures against a mark of 100 as league average), for this season so far it’s 125. And a league-average starter at the back of your rotation for five full seasons is a real asset that most teams don’t have — much less one who was performing like that in his early twenties.
What’s more, Detroit has Drew Smyly, making a successful transition back to the rotation after a year in the bullpen, and pitching with his already customary consistency and poise. Smyly is only twenty-four, solid as a rock, and still not even ready to approach his prime. Smyly’s ERA-plus for his brief career is a very fine 130!
Many teams would be happy to have Detroit’s No. 4 and No. 5 starters as their No. 2 and No. 3 starters. Porcello and Smyly are still quite young yet already proven and dependable. To Tigers’ fans, they may pale in comparison to the team’s big pitching stars, but their futures are very bright.
That is not the end of the wealth at the back of the rotation. Robbie Ray was tearing up Toledo when he was called up to make his MLB debut during Sanchez’s stint on the DL, and his performance was a revelation. Ray was nothing short of brilliant in his first two starts, allowing merely one earned run in his first 11+ innings. At twenty-two, he already looks like he, too, is ready for the big leagues, even though he’ll likely be going back to the minors after Sanchez comes off the DL.
When Dave Dombrowski sent Doug Fister to Washington for Ray, Ian Krol, and Steve Lombardozzi, many observers scratched their heads. What was Trader Dave smoking? Few other analysts thought Ray was much of a prospect; he wasn’t highly rated. But even though Lombardozzi turned into zilch (traded for Alex Gonzalez, who was then released), and even if Fister returns to form this season, the trade is looking pretty good now. Krol is the dependable lefty reliever the Tigers desperately needed, and it now looks like Dave D indeed recognized something no one else did in evaluating Ray. It’s too early to say for sure, but Ray appears to be a special talent.
Three of the league’s best pitchers — and three more of the league’s most talented if not flashy young pitchers — makes for quite a rare starting rotation. In its own way, the bottom of the Tigers rotation is almost as impressive as the top. If Dombrowski doesn’t re-sign Scherzer for next year, maybe it won’t be the end of the world after all. A rotation of Verlander, Sanchez, Porcello, Smyly, and Ray may not attract a lot of attention — but it will still be a pretty darn good starting five.