The Detroit Tigers have a new first baseman, a familiar face moving to third base, an ace with a lot of hardware, and a lot of high expectations for the 2012 season.
But there are still some questions to answer, none more important than who will be their #5 starter. Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello fill slots #1-4 nicely, thank you, very much.
Largely due to the unexpected signing of Prince Fielder, which was necessary due to the off-season injury to Victor Martinez, the Tigers didn’t sign a free agent starting pitcher. As a result, they will look inside their own organization for a pitcher to slide at the bottom of their rotation.
This may not be a bad thing at all. Thanks to a continued focus on drafting talented pitchers, the Tigers have several quality arms in their minor league system. More than one of them may eventually develop into top-notch major leaguers, and each of the top four candidates had good enough stuff to make the opening day roster. Which one is chosen will depend on a number of things, but almost certainly their performance in the spring will be crucial.
Here are the most likely candidates to compete for the last spot in Jim Leyland’s rotation as the 2012 season begins. Thanks to off days in the early part of the season, whichever one of these youngsters wins the spot, Leyland probably won’t call on them until April 14th or 15th in Chicago against the White Sox.
At 26, Below is the oldest of the pitchers vying for the fifth spot. He’s pitched over 120 games in the minor leagues and last season he was excellent for Toledo at the AAA level. He’s a tall lefty who strikes batters out, but he’s had some issues with his control. Leyland was impressed with him last season, so much so that he almost took him north out of spring training. If Below wants to go north with the Tigers this spring, he’ll have to do better than the mid-season look he got in 2011 as a long reliever and spot starter. His age is also a plus – he’s the most polished and mature of these four.
Just 22, Smyly has made professional baseball look easy so far. A second round pick in the 2010 amateur draft, the southpaw dominated in his first minor league season, posting a 2.07 ERA and striking out more than one batter per inning for Lakeland and Erie. To top it off, Smyly also pitched in international competition in the Pan American Games, where he was an ace on his team. At a young developmental stage, he’s shown that he can shut down good hitters. But, he still hasn’t faced even AAA pitching, let alone major leaguers. Nevertheless, the tall, slender Smyly is the favorite among many Tiger watchers to get the nod for spot #5.
Here’s the guy, the young right-hander and former first round pick who everyone pegs as a future ace. He’s still quite green though, as evidenced by his three spot starts for Detroit in 2011. Tall and talented, Turner is rated among the top 20 prospects in all of baseball. He’ll still be only 20 years old on opening day, which – if he makes it – would make him the youngest player to go north with the Tigers since Jeremy Bonderman. Turner has enoygh stuff to be a #1 someday, but he’ll probably require more seasoning before he gets to that level. Whether he gets that seasoning at the big league level or at AAA Toledo, will depend on how he looks in Florida this spring.
Though he doesn’t have the same pedigree that Smyly and Turner have, Wilk is a good looking young pitcher. Another left-hander, Wilk has a good fastball and a slider that is improving. A former 11th round selection, Wilk posted an eye-popping strikeout-to-walk ratio of 76-14 at Toledo in 2011. In fact, in more than 340 minor league innings, Wilk’s ratio of Ks to walks is 257 to 45. He throws strikes, which will give him a good chance to earn the #5 spot, especially if Detroit decides that Smyly and Turner need more time in the minors.
One more to consider
There’s a fifth pitcher who may get consideration: Andrew Oliver, who has what scouts call a “heavy fastball.” That, and his 262 K’s in 277 1/3 minor league innings, earn him an opportunity. Unfortunately for Oliver, a left-hander, he has struggled in seven big league starts so far. He’s 24 in 2012 and he’s already logged a year and a half at AAA- Toledo. If he doesn’t make the roster this spring, and with this competition it’s unlikely, Oliver will be a Mud Hen again.
Who do you think will earn the last spot in Detroit’s rotation? Tell us in the comments below, or post your opinion on our Facebook page.