Editor's note: Tigerdog1 will be looking in more depth at the Tigers' internal fifth starter candidates this week after doing thumbnail sketches earlier in the month.
The Tigers enter spring training with four of five positions in the starting rotation locked up, and one big spot in the rotation open for auditions. By far, the most interesting candidate to land that final job is Jacob Turner, the hard throwing right hander who has been universally recognized as the top prospect in the Tiger organization since the day he was drafted in the June 2009 amateur player draft. At just 20 years of age, he won’t be able to buy a beer at Comerica park until May 21 of this year, yet he might be the most interesting story in Lakeland this spring.
As of today, all of the candidates to fill the fifth and final spot in the Tiger rotation are prospects. All the candidates are pitchers with no more than a few games of experience in the major leagues, and some with no major league experience at all. Turner stands out among this group, not just because he is the only right-handed pitcher among them, but because he has, by far, the highest "upside" of the group.
Like some of the others, Turner has a few games of major league experience. Turner has started three games for a total of 12.2 innings. In this small sample, he has an ERA of 8.53, allowed 1.66 walks plus hits per inning, and allowed opposing hitters an average of .315. Turner also had eight strikeouts and walked four batters. His main problem was that he gave up too many hits, which led to too many runs.
The Tigers are not concerned by Turner’s stats in the major leagues. On the contrary, those three starts gave them a chance to see where their top prospect was on the development curve, and what work he has to do before being slotted into the rotation on a full-time basis. There may be a few more brief call ups in Turner’s career before he assumes a permanent position at what most scouts believe will be an inevitable place atop the Tigers rotation just behind Justin Verlander. But how close is Turner to the majors right now?
There comes time in every prospect’s career when the most important thing that they need is to face major league competition on a regular basis. A pitching prospect doesn't need to have dominated every level up to that point, but he needs to have his stuff at a point where he doesn't have a whole lot left to gain from facing more mionr league competition. Turner is getting pretty close to that point.
In the minor leagues, Turner has done very well. In 43 starts over two seasons, a total of 246 innings, he has posted an impressive 3.36 ERA, with a WHIP of just 1.14, while striking out 7.7 batters per nine frames, and maintaining a 3.66 K/ BB rate. Unlike some other top prospects, he has no real control issues. He throws plenty of strikes, and he gets plenty of ground balls. Where he needs to improve is with his command. That is, he needs to be able to locate his pitches more precisely within the strike zone, so that he doesn’t give up so many hits.
In the minors, a good pitcher can use his talent to dominate hitters with his major league caliber stuff. In the majors, talent alone is not enough. Pitchers in the majors are given the benefit of a lot more scouting of the opposing hitters. They get to work with a professional catcher that will guide them through each at bat, pecking at the hitter's weak spots as well as playing to the pitcher's strengths. The Tigers have two of these catchers on the roster, and another on the DL out for the season. Turner won't get that in Toledo, nor will he get to face the level of competition that he eventually needs to face on a daily basis.
Recent history suggests that the Tigers have not been afraid to aggressively promote their most talented pitchers to the major leagues. Two of the four pitchers currently in the Tiger rotation, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, were slotted into the rotation after just one full season in the minors. Both found great success in their rookie seasons, winning 17 and 14 games, respectively. Verlander has continued to enjoy more success along his career path than Porcello thus far, and some have questioned whether Kid Rick was pushed along too soon. The Tigers have often been criticized for calling up Bonderman before he was ready.
My feeling is that the Tigers should be very careful with Turner, as he is one of only two or three blue chip talents in their minor league system. They should not promote him just because they have an opening and he is the best of a bunch of unprepared young pitchers. He should be given the job when he is ready for it, not just when the job is there for him. I am not going to say at this point whether Turner is ready or not for he Show, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.
A baseball season is a long campaign. Chances are that the Tigers will have an opening in their rotation not just to start the season, but also along the way before playoff tickets go on sale. Chances are that we will see Turner in a Tiger uniform this summer, whether or not he begins the season in the rotation, and there will be great excitement surrounding his appearances.
Spring training will be very interesting for Turner. He will face major league hitters, and he will be challenged. The team won't be in a pennant race, so he doesn't need to worry about making mistakes. He'll be able to trust his stuff, bring his best game to the mound, get stung a few times, and adjust accordingly. A pitcher can’t do that during the major league season as long as his team is playing meaningful games on the big stage.
Is Turner ready for the major leagues? Only time will tell.