Four-way spring training battle for Detroit Tigers fifth rotation spot


Detroit Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello
Rick Porcello has every reason to look over his shoulder heading into spring training with the Detroit Tigers.

The biggest question surrounding the Detroit Tigers in 2013: Who will be the fifth starter?

The auditions begin next week in Lakeland, Fla., when pitchers and catchers report for spring training. The big club will be looking for a competent arm who will deliver deep starts consistently.

Now, it’s safe to say Rick Porcello’s days are numbered in Detroit. He’s had all the chances in the world. What is apparent now, entering his fourth season with the Tigers, is he’s a groundball pitcher with a decent sinker at best. That’s all, no more no less. In 2012, he was 10-12 with a 4.59 ERA; a far cry from his promising rookie campaign.

The Tigers could peddle him to another team before opening day, but as it stands now, the former first-rounder will be a part of the biggest tryout of his career and, for the first time, the odds are against him. He will ultimately match up against Drew Smyly, Luke Putkonen and Casey Crosby for the remaining spot. Rumors have continued to spread that Porcello’s future with Detroit looks bleak, but he’s turned the other cheek and has spoken many times of the strides he needs to make to remain on this team.

All signs point to Smyly to win the spot. He actually won it last season and was the first rookie in the league to really shine early on. Unfortunately, a blister injury and an intercostal sprain placed him on the DL for an extended period of time.

Smyly has a lot of upside entering spring training. He’s a lefty, for one, which this Detroit Tigers rotation needs desperately. He also pitched very well in the postseason; most notably, he came out of the bullpen in the Yankees series to pick up the game-one win in extra innings. At 23 years old, Smyly has outgrown triple-A Toledo and is ready to be a permanent starter in the bigs.

Putkonen is a name that has been floating around since his performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he dazzled scouts. It was clear that, while his numbers were decent, his composure and knack for pitching deep into games made him stand out above all. The 26-year-old made 12 appearances for the Tigers last season, where he posted a 3.94 ERA off 19 hits, eight walks and 10 strikeouts in the 16 innings he pitched.

Detroit Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila made it clear last week that Putkonen is in the running for a starting job:

“This is just my philosophy: If you can keep a guy a starter and work with him as a starter, and all of a sudden he shows he can be a starter, that’s the best-case scenario. If it doesn’t happen, you can always make him a reliever.”

On the other hand, a tempting option is Crosby. How could you not like his physical attributes? He’s a big kid with a powerful arm who can reach the high 90s with his fastball — a necessity for any fifth starter.

Crosby entered the 2012 season with Toledo, where he went 7-9 with a 4.01 ERA. When top prospect Jacob Turner was traded to Miami, Crosby’s role with the club became more significant and he was called up June 1. He finished his season 1-1 with a 9.49 ERA.

Regardless of what happens, this competition isn’t an end of a career to any of these young pitchers. Actually, it works in Detroit’s favor. The ones not chosen for the fifth spot will help fill out a bullpen that could use an upgrade.

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