“Slick Rick” will have a lot of eyes on him during spring training

The 2013 season will be pivotal in the career of Detroit pitcher Rick Porcello.

On Friday when the Detroit Tigers start their Grapefruit League schedule, it’ll be Rick Porcello on the mound. It will be the first of many times this spring where all eyes will be on the right-hander as the team preps for the regular season.

We know for sure that Porcello won’t be starting the regular season opener, that assignment will be handled by ace Justin Verlander, but whether or not Porcello will join JV in the rotation will be determined by his performance in Florida. There are three likely possibilities for Porcello in his fourth season as a Tiger:

  1. He performs well in the spring and wins the fifth spot in the rotation.
  2. He struggles and is relegated to the bullpen, while someone else (probably Drew Smyly) wins the #5 spot.
  3. Porcello pitches well but is traded (perhaps to the Diamondbacks, who are very interested in him)

At this point I would speculate that “Slick Rick” probably has the inside track to win a starting role, since he’s been in the rotation from the beginning of the year the last two seasons. Smyly showed poise in his rookie campaign, but he also looked good out of the bullpen, even in the post-season, and it’s likely the Tigers would use the lefty in that role. But Jim Leyland may also desire Smyly’s left wing in his rotation, to somewhat balance the big four right-handers of JV, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez. As much as we might think of Smyly as a greenhorn, he’s actually less than a year younger than Rick Porcello, so raw age may not be a real factor in the battle.

There are some who think Porcello might get a chance to convert to a closer but that’s a long shot. He’s never pitched in that role, and Detroit has more attractive options for the 9th inning. No, most likely, Porcello will start for the Tigers, pitch middle relief, or be traded to someone who wants to use him in their rotation.

It’s important to remember that Porcello will only be 24 when the season starts, an age at which many pitchers are just mastering their craft. He already has three big league seasons under his belt, and as maligned as he is by some fans who expect him to be more dominant and polished, Porcello has been successful. His 48 wins before his 25th birthday are the most ever by a Detroit hurler, and the third most in baseball among pitchers of that age.

The Tigers just settled an arbitration case with Porcello, agreeing to pay him $5.1 million in 2013. That’s another reason that he might get the nod for the rotation – Detroit may want to have the higher-paid Porcello chew up more innings. Then again, they might not.

If the Diamondbacks or another team really want Porcello, the Tigers will listen to offers. But don’t be surprised if they hold onto the right-handed control specialist. There are a few reasons why we might see him back in Detroit this season:

  1. Though the team has six starters who have pitched at the major league level, they really don’t have any other options if one of the first five goes down with an injury. Last year, Fister was injured in his first start, and the Tigs may keep Smyly and Porcello as insurance.
  2. Some pitchers take a big leap in their age 24 and 25 seasons. It’s a time in their development where many pitchers get stronger, gain better command, and start to dictate to hitters more. It wouldn’t be a shock if Porcello, who has never struck out many batters, suddenly saw a spike in his K’s now that he’s been in the league a few years and is getting more mature physically. His K rate has inched up in each of his last two seasons. He’ll probably never fan a lot of batters, but if he can make a few more hitters miss, it will reduce the large number of hits he allows.
  3. Porcello has pitched big games, as far back as his rookie year when he was only 20 years old and started infamous Game 163 against the Twins (and pitched very well). His experience trumps other options the Tigers have.
  4. The Tigers and Jim Leyland may prefer a known to an unknown. Though Porcello will never be an elite starter in the majors, the Bengals know what they have with him.

Dave Dombrowski and Leyland have Porcello pitching the first game of spring so they can get him at least 8 starts, the most of any pitcher on their roster. That’s by design, so they can kick the tires and see where Porcello is headed. Unless some team offers a very attractive deal for him, Slick Rick will be back in Detroit in some capacity in 2013. Given his age and gradual development (you may have to look closely to see it, but it’s there), Porcello is a good option for the fifth spot in the rotation.

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