Spring Training is almost over, and it’s been a good four weeks for the Tigers. Manager Jim Leyland’s crew looks like the American League champions that they are.
Miguel Cabrera is hitting like the reigning Triple Crown and MVP winner. Prince Fielder has lost weight and looks primed for a huge second season in Detroit. Justin Verlander has struggled in his last few starts, but hey, he’s Justin Verlander.
Even with the big names, there’s no question who’s been the talk of camp: Rick Porcello.
Yes, that Rick Porcello.
The former first-round draft pick, the one with a 48-42 lifetime record. He has gone from battling for a rotation spot to being the main attraction for opposing general managers.
We can talk about the technical stuff — how Porcello has ditched the slider and worked on his curveball. How he’s throwing the ball harder than at any time in his career.
In 24 innings this spring, he’s allowed only eight runs and hasn’t walked a single batter. That was good enough for Leyland, who on Tuesday said that Porcello will be in the Tigers’ rotation when they come north next week.
Maybe Porcello is finally turning the corner to become the pitcher we’ve been waiting for.
That’s why the Tigers should still consider trading Porcello, either for a proven closer, a right-handed hitting outfielder, or a top-notch infield prospect. Baseball is just like the stock market — you trade while value is high. Porcello’s star has never been higher.
Porcello supporters make the argument that he’s only 24 years old, and has already started 120 games. That kind of experience is rare for a pitcher so young. He’s just coming into his own.
Do the words Jeremy Bonderman ring a bell? Bondo had made 151 starts before he was 25, including the clinching game against the Yankees in the playoffs and another solid game in the ALCS against Oakland. The best was yet to come.
Until it didn’t.
Experience is not the same as good experience. Bonderman’s ERA in that last pre-25 season was 5.01. He went 11-15 the rest of his career, battled injury and retired by age 27. This spring, he’s attempting a comeback with the Mariners.
I’m not saying that Porcello is going to start having health problems. The fact that he looks so strong in Lakeland indicates that he’s as healthy as a horse. But if there’s one thing that has been consistent with Porcello, it’s that he’s been inconsistent.
He was 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA in 2009, his rookie season. In 2010, he was 10-12 with a 4.92 ERA. He then went 14-9 again in 2011, but his ERA was still high at 4.75. Last season, he fell to 10-12 with a 4.59 ERA.
Do you sense a pattern here?
With a top-four rotation of Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, GM Dave Dombrowski must ask if it’s time to give Drew Smyly — who will start the season in bullpen — a shot. Smyly is a lefty, which the rotation currently doesn’t have, and he has upside.
Four years into Porcello’s career, the only thing that seems certain is he’ll either go 14-9 or 10-12.
Porcello’s rookie year was, at least statistically, his best. The Tigers were able to give him extra days off and protect his 20-year-old arm. And when they needed him in Game 163 in Minnesota, Porcello was fresh and able to give them solid performance.
Smyly is 23 and threw 99 innings last season, plus another four in the playoffs. It’s not hard to imagine Leyland and pitching coach Jeff Jones manipulating his workload in 2013. We don’t know what his upside is, just that he pitched very well last year in some high-pressure situations — think Game 1 of the ALCS. The Tigers like what they see.
The 2013 Tigers are probably the biggest favorite to win their division in all of baseball. They’re a near-lock to make the playoffs for a third straight season. There are only a couple of things that can derail the World Series express.
The first, obviously, is injuries. No one can predict, or in most cases, prevent that. If Cabrera, or especially Verlander, were to go down for any significant time, well, let’s not even think about that.
The other potential stumbling block is the closer position. Bruce Rondon might very well develop into what the organization hopes. But it’s fairly obvious that he’s not there yet.
Phil Coke was phenomenal in the postseason last year, but nobody knows if his high intensity will work on a full-time closing basis.
If the right closer isn’t available in exchange for Porcello, that’s OK. The Tigers are strong enough — and the division is weak enough — to buy them a little bit of time.
One way or another, however, Leyland needs someone reliable at the end of games. And the organization is strong enough that if it needs to trade for a reliever in a month or two, they can do it, regardless of Porcello’s status. But coming off the best spring of his career, Porcello is a prized chip.
This week, teams are always looking for starting pitching — ask the Rockies, who just signed a pitcher who was out of baseball and put him in their rotation. Jon Garland come on down!
Dombrowski needs to see what’s out there and make the best deal possible. Ideally, the Tigers end up with a closer to help win the World Series.
If not, they can fill a need in the outfield, where Andy Dirks is always hurt and not a proven full-time player. Or they can go middle infield, where Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante are both free agents after this year.
Either way, it should be a case of “Get ‘em while he’s hot! Rick Porcello’s for sale!”