Which starting pitcher should the Tigers trade, if any?

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

With the hot stove heating up, many are expecting the Tigers to trade a starting pitcher. Not so fast.

With the 2013 season finished and the off season in full swing, most of the forecasts are expecting the Detroit Tigers to trade away a starting pitcher from Major League Baseball’s best rotation. Tigers’ President and General Manager Dave Dombrowski threw some fuel on that fire, according to J.P. Morosi, at the GM meetings in Orlando, Florida.

Jason Beck at MLB.com had this direct quote from Dombrowski:

"We have six starters when you include [Drew] Smyly," he said. "We're not looking to trade them per se. We're always open minded to see what works for us."

So, wait! Which is it? Are you going to trade a starting pitcher, or maybe not?

MLive's Chris Iott got some clarification from Dombrowski which indicates a trade is likely:

"What I said is he's capable of starting and we think he'll be in our starting rotation," Dombrowski said of Smyly. "If we opened the season now, he would not be. He would be in the bullpen...We think he's capable and ready to start, but we'll see what happens."

So, if you think he'll be in the rotation, that means another player will not, right? It makes sense for the Tigers to at least explore all their options. This year's free agent crop of starting pitchers doesn't include a Zach Greinke or an Anibal Sanchez. The top of the list would be Ervin Santana and Matt Garza. Any of the Tiger starters made available would immediately jump to a spot among the top few on the list.

Fangraphs Jeff Sullivan had an interesting article comparing the market value of Max Scherzer vs that of Rick Porcello. Our own Kurt Mensching pointed out in his Detroit News article that Doug Fister should be considered in any discussion of trading a starting pitcher. Any of the above are possible, depending on the needs and what they can get in return, but they're not going to trade a starting pitcher just because they have six of them. And they're not going to trade a starting pitcher just to clear some payroll, either.

This time last year, some speculated that the Tigers were certain to trade Rick Porcello and give the fifth and final spot in the rotation to Smyly. That, of course, never happened. Porcello had a decent season while Smyly was one of the best setup men in the league for much of the season.

So what is the best course of action for the Tigers this winter? The answer to that question depends largely upon what other moves they are able to make, particularly early in the offseason. Dombrowski has confirmed that the Tigers are looking for a closer, and they will look to the free agent market to fill that need. He also suggested that would be the first priority.

"We’re going to have a closer," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said last week. "We’re going to pursue somebody to pitch at the back end of the bullpen. Joaquin [Benoit] is in that group, but there are a lot of closers out there. It’s the one area where there’s a lot of guys. That is one area I think we need to address, with him or someone else, and then we’ll look at the rest of our club."

With the closer position filled, the most pressing need would be at second base, where Omar Infante is a free agent. With Robinson Cano asking for the moon and no other quality free agents and no decent in house options at the position, the Tigers would love to have Infante back. They are not the only club who would like to have him, so his salary and the duration of his contract might escalate. Certainly, he is in no hurry to cut the bidding process short by signing early.

Therein lies the dilemma for Dombrowski. If he can sign Infante and a closer, his two biggest needs are filled and he still has an excess of baseball’s most precious commodity: starting pitching. If the Tigers can’t resign Infante, the only reasonable alternative is to pursue a second baseman via the trade market. Names like Brandon Phillips, Howie Kendrick, and Ian Kinsler would look nice on the lineup card, but that route is clearly a distant second option, as they’d rather not trade away valuable players, pay the same or even more money, and only marginally improve themselves at the position, if at all.

If the Tigers were to trade a starting pitcher, another plan might be to land a couple of solid relief pitchers and shore up the weakest part of the team at the end of last season. And the season before that. But as long as that second base spot remains vacant, Dombrowski should be hesitant to spend his best trading chip.

While it’s clear that the Tigers will add a closer, and likely that they will add a second baseman, it’s less clear that they will look for other pieces over the off season to fill out the bullpen. Relying on Bruce Rondon last year to come in as the closer to start the season backfired, but that doesn’t mean he doesn't fit into the plans for next season. On the contrary.

"I think the reality is ... And this is not an excuse because you can always be better," Dombrowski said. "That's the thing about it. But for us, losing Rondon was huge. People don't talk about that. We lost him at a time in which we couldn't replace him because he got hurt in September.

"He was throwing great. I remember when we played Boston, and [David] Ortiz told our guys when he struck him out in a clutch situation, 'That was as good a stuff as I've seen all year.' So we didn't have him. Getting him back, which we believe we will, and you have a closer, all of a sudden, it changes your situation a great deal. We think our bullpen would have been fine if we'd had him back"

No question Rondon could be a valuable addition to the bullpen if he could remain healthy all season. The 22 year old flame throwing rookie struggled early in his first ten appearances, allowing hitters a line of .316/.372/.500/.872 with an ERA of 6.00 and a WHIP of 1.78. He turned things around in the second half, giving up just .229/.295/.343/.638 with an ERA of 2.29 and a WHIP of 1.16 spanning his last 20 appearances, evoking memories of Joel Zumaya in 2006.

And yet, if the Tigers are pretending that they can upgrade the bullpen simply by replacing Benoit, removing Smyly to the rotation, and standing pat with the rest, then they haven't learned anything from the past. Without Jose Veras, who would have cost a reasonable $ 4 million, they're short a closer and a set up man already. What sense would it make to start upgrading their bullpen by removing Smyly, one of their best relief pitchers last year -- and a lefty no less -- which is something that they desperately lacked at the end of the 2013 campaign?

Smyly led all Tiger relievers and all AL left-handed relievers in fWAR and innings pitched. He posted a 6-0 record with a 2.37 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and struck out over a batter per inning. Smyly had the best walk rate, best home run rate, and best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any Tiger reliever last season. He also led the Tiger bullpen in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Not so fast on that Porcello for a pair of relievers deal, now.

The Tigers would love to have Javier Lopez, the Giants’ stud left handed reliever, but who wouldn’t? Chances are that the Giants will match any reasonable offer for Lopez. J.P. Howell of the Dodgers is also available, but the Dodgers are looking for relief help themselves. Chances are that they won't be able to fill all their wishes via free agency.

The smart move is, of course, to listen to offers for anyone, but don’t be in a hurry to make a trade. There’s no sense in filling one need while creating another in the team’s weakest area. First things first. Get your closer, get your second baseman back, and then see if you need to trade a starting pitcher to fill out the roster. Too much of a good thing might not be all that bad.

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