A half-dozen scouts stood behind a chain-link fence Wednesday, making a spring training game between the High Class-A affiliates of the Tigers and Astros actually seem important.
And in a way it was.
Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello, the subject of trade speculation, started the minor-league game because it was his day to pitch and the parent club was off.
Yet it quickly became evident — as it has been evident all spring — that if the Tigers move Porcello, they’re nuts.
“His confidence level is so high. I’ve never seen him like that,” said Tigers backup and former Royals catcher Brayan Pena, who caught Porcello on Wednesday. “He’s taking it to another level. His competitive nature is coming out.”
Porcello’s seven scoreless innings against Class-A competition meant little. His 2.50 ERA, 18 strikeouts and zero walks in 18 major-league innings this spring mean little more.
What matters is Porcello’s aggressive, self-assured demeanor. What matters is the carry on his four-seam fastball, the snap in his curveball, the indications — one after another — that he is on the verge of a career breakthrough.
Oh, and lest anyone forget: He’s entering his fifth full season, and is still only 24.
“Rick looks outstanding,” said Porcello’s agent, Jim Murray, who attended Wednesday’s game. “He’s ready to pitch for the Detroit Tigers unless he’s told otherwise.”
The Tigers obviously are willing to trade Porcello, as evidenced by the number of scouts in attendance Wednesday. The Padres, Rangers, Red Sox, Orioles, Dodgers and Cardinals all were represented, according to major-league sources.
Not all of those teams definitely would want Porcello immediately, or even in the future; the Padres and Rangers are actively pursuing Porcello, but the Dodgers and Cardinals are not currently looking for starting pitching, sources say.
For the Tigers, a trade seemed to make sense at the start of the spring, when they had six starters for five spots and no proven closer.
It would make far less sense now, unless Porcello somehow commanded a monster offer.
The Tigers’ lack of a closer is becoming a non-issue. Manager Jim Leyland almost certainly will not anoint right-hander Bruce Rondon as his closer on Opening Day, but the rookie has shown enough improvement this spring to warrant a spot in the team’s bullpen — and from there, his role can evolve.
The decision with the rotation, too, seems fairly obvious.
The Tigers can name Porcello their fifth starter, then send left-hander Drew Smyly to Triple-A or use him out of their bullpen. That way, they would protect their depth, knowing the dropoff is significant from Porcello and Smyly to pitchers such as journeyman righty Shawn Hill and unproven lefty Casey Crosby.
As I wrote Tuesday, many of Porcello’s numbers — strikeout rate, walk rate, home-run rate, fielding-independent pitching (FIP) — are trending in the right direction. The only problem with him staying in Detroit is that he is a groundball pitcher, and the Tigers’ infield defense is poor.
Well, there is only so much that Porcello can control.
Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones asked Porcello to work on his delivery during the offseason. And Porcello, Jones said, was “the epitome of a professional” with the way he responded.
“I kind of just pretended like I didn’t know how to pitch and started from scratch, doing simple drills,” Porcello said. “It’s worked out. It’s helped.
“I redirected my focus to keeping my head on line, keeping my shoulder in, things that you would almost tell a Little League kid. That’s really it. I just tried to rebuild my foundation and my mechanics a little bit.”
The results quickly became apparent.
Alex Avila, the Tigers’ regular catcher, told Jones that he no longer can catch Porcello’s two-seam (sinking) fastball and four-seam (straight) fastball the same way; the four-seamer has too much carry now.
Porcello also junked his slider to focus on his curveball, reasoning that less can be more. His curve has improved so markedly, Pena calls it “a new weapon.”
“I’m definitely finishing (pitches) much better,” Porcello said. “The four-seamer has been coming out of my hand with a little more life on the end of it. It’s made everything more consistent — breaking ball, changeup, fastball. And the misses I have had, I’ve been able to identify them and make adjustments very quickly.”
It’s easy to forget that Porcello is so young — five months younger than Stephen Strasburg, in fact, yet with more than twice as many wins (48 to 21) and nearly 450 more innings pitched (691 2/3 to 251 1/3).
Wins mean only so much, dependent as they are on run support and bullpen support. But to a degree, they also reflect a pitcher’s sturdiness, his ability to start regularly and pitch deep into games.
For what it’s worth, Porcello is one of five pitchers to start his career with at least four consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins before turning 24, according to STATS LLC. Three of the others — Bert Blyleven, Chief Bender and Dennis Eckersley — are in the Hall of Fame. The fourth is Dwight Gooden.
Porcello, then, hardly seems like a guy a team would want to trade. Perhaps the Tigers want to move his $5.1 million salary, which only will rise in his final two years of arbitration. Cost-cutting, though, is not owner Mike Ilitch’s style. Likewise, general manager Dave Dombrowski tends to acquire quality arms, not trade them.
If the Tigers are smart, they will end this discussion soon, knowing they are better off with Porcello than without him.
The scouts saw it Wednesday. The Tigers have seen it all spring. Rick Porcello is just getting started