DETROIT — When a team goes out and signs one of the top free agents on the market like slugger Prince Fielder, it’s no wonder that’s all anyone wants to talk about.
But the Detroit Tigers wouldn’t have won the American League Central Division last season without the spectacular pitching of Justin Verlander in the rotation and of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit out of the bullpen.
Although manager Jim Leyland seems to have his lineup pretty much set, he still has some decisions to make with the pitching staff.
Those were among the non-Fielder/Miguel Cabrera issues raised at the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association’s annual Tigers Day meeting at Hockeytown Cafe in Detroit on Tuesday.
Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski was asked whether highly touted prospect Jacob Turner was ready to make the jump to being a full-time big-league starter.
Aside from Turner, the other candidates Dombrowski mentioned for the fifth-starter job were Drew Smyly, Andy Oliver, Casey Crosby, Duane Below and Adam Wilk. All except Turner are left-handers.
“I’m not really sure if he’s ready or not,” Dombrowski said of Turner. “And I don’t know that we’ll know that until we get down there and see him perform and see some of those other guys perform.
“He is going to be a tremendous big-league pitcher. I don’t have a question of that.”
Turner made three starts for the Tigers last season — July 30 against the Los Angeles Angels, Sept. 1 against the Kansas City Royals and Sept. 22 against the Baltimore Orioles. He went 0-1 with an 8.53 ERA.
But Dombrowski cautioned against reading too much into those three spot starts. He pointed that Verlander, the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner, also struggled when he came up for his first couple of starts.
“He got tattooed by the Indians,” Dombrowski said. “I remember those 100 mile-an-hour fastballs he was throwing were going out just as fast. But he learned from it.”
One of the interesting parts of Dombrowski’s session with the DSBA members and guests was when he mentioned Smyly, a non-roster invitee. Smyly was the Tigers’ second-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Arkansas.
In eight games (seven starts) with the Erie Seawolves, Smyly went 4-3 with a 1.18 ERA. He also made 14 starts with Single-A Lakeland, going 7-3 with a 2.58 ERA.
“He was our pitcher of the year at the minor-league level,” Dombrowski said. “Some people in our minor-league system — and I don’t know if they’re right or wrong — they think he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues right now.
“I cannot answer that. But he’s a left-hander. He not only pitched well last year, went to Double-A and pitched well, he then went to international competition with the U.S. team last year and was the best pitcher on that team.”
Although people expect more great things out of Verlander and out of Doug Fister, some aren’t as sure about Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.
Scherzer was 15-9 with a 4.43 ERA and 174 strikeouts while Porcello was 14-9 with a 4.75 ERA and a career best 104 strikeouts.
Dombrowski isn’t worried about either of them.
“He (Scherzer) had about half a dozen outings that really made his numbers look bad,” Dombrowski said. “This guy also works very hard. He’s got quality stuff. He can shut down good-hitting clubs. I think he’ll be very good.
“In Porcello’s case, I think he’s a great example of young player that’s growing. Last year, the beginning of the year, that wasn’t the same Porcello that I’ve seen in the past. His stuff wasn’t quite as crisp. I don’t think he really felt great.
“He changed some things, his long-toss program. But by the end of the year, that was the old Porcello, plus.
“If those two end up being our biggest problems at some point, I think we’re going to be in good shape because I think they’re going to pitch well for us.”
Dombrowski said the top spots in the bullpen are set with Valverde, Benoit and Phil Coke. New acquisition Octavio Dotel can fill in for Valverde or Benoit or pitch the seventh inning.
Dombrowski also expects right-hander Collin Ballester, acquired from the Washington Nationals for Ryan Perry, to make the team. Balester went 1-4 with a 4.54 ERA in 23 outings with the Nationals.
“He can pitch multiple innings,” Dombrowski said. “We like him a lot.”