Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
Duane Below pitched well in a long relief role last season, but recent comments by Jim Leyland make it seem as if either Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly will fill that role in 2013.
"Right now, if Smyly was the starter, as we stand right now, Porcello would be some sort of safety valve for us in the bullpen," Leyland said. "If Porcello’s the starter, Smyly would be the left-hander in the bullpen right now, most likely, unless something would come up where they’d want him to go out and pitch more. That’s a nice luxury, but that’s a simple one. That’s not hard at all. I know we’ve got six. We probably don’t have seven right now."
Unless Leyland plans on morphing Below into a LOOGY, it seems like he's S.O.L. heading into Spring Training.
What happened last season?
Below started the 2012 season on fire, picking up two wins in the Tigers' opening series sweep of the Boston Red Sox. While these turned out to be his only two wins of the season, he continued to pitch well in a mop-up/long relief role, posting a 2.70 ERA in 33 1/3 innings by the end of June. After that, Below disappeared. He only pitched 13 innings for the Tigers through the next two months. He added another 17 1/3 innings in four starts at Triple A in late August, but didn't pitch again after his last start with the Mud Hens on September 3rd.
As far as his numbers go, Below was pretty solid. He had a 3.92 ERA coming out of the bullpen, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He allowed 10 of his 19 earned runs in just three relief appearances, meaning that his other 23 bullpen appearances resulted in a 1.88 ERA. Not bad for a guy who saw his team go 4-23 (!) in games that he pitched in last year.
What needs to happen in 2013?
I'll touch on Below's role with the club below, but it would be nice to see him strike out a few more batters this season. He only fanned 5.63 batters per 9 innings last season, a sharp decline from some of the excellent strikeout rates he was posting in the minor leagues. However, if I had to choose between more strikeouts or maintaining his excellent walk rate -- just 1.55 free passes per 9 innings last year -- I would definitely choose the latter. I would imagine that Below's home run rate might drop off some, but it's hard to tell given that he only has 75 1/3 career big league innings under his belt.
2012 stats and 2013 projections
The part where I question recent comments by Jim Leyland (all of which should be taken with a grain of salt)
Given Below's success pitching in a long relief role last year, it's curious that the Tigers seem hell-bent on keeping both Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly on the roster in 2013. Not only would stashing Smyly in Toledo (presumably) offer the Tigers an extra year of club control, it would keep him stretched out in case a starter goes down for an extended period of time.
Below, meanwhile, could fill the same role he did in 2012, putting out fires and eating innings. Depending on how good the offense is, Below might be able to vulture a couple more wins in this fashion in 2013. For now, however, it seems like Below is the odd man out and will likely begin the season in the Mud Hens' rotation.