It certainly has been a crazy couple of weeks to be an observer of the Detroit Tigers. Blockbuster trades and a big ticket free agent signing has the twittersphere and comment sections abuzz with action critiquing the fallout and trying to anticipate the next moves.
However, another key internal move was made in the aftermath of the Doug Fister deal that has been long anticipated. Drew Smyly is heading back to the starting rotation as things currently stand. Dombrowski was indeed quoted after the season that it was likely Smyly would start in 2014, so it was just a matter of sorting out the trade market for Detroit starters and pulling the trigger on the best offer. (Yes...I know the general feedback on the "best offer" front regarding Fister! That will be debated for a long while.)
Is Smyly ready to take Fister's spot? From a talent level, it would appear that he has the skills to get the job done in time as a starter. Perhaps not matching Fister's productivity on an inning-by-inning basis at the outset, but at an acceptable level. Smyly made 18 starts in 2012 for the Tigers with a 3.79 ERA and a very solid K/BB ratio of 3.38 in 95-innings. His peripherals and his pedigree have long pointed to increasing his presence on the roster by making him a starter.
However there is the red flag. "Increasing his presence" or upping his workload. Fister gave the Tigers 208 quality innings from their rotation last season. That's more than Smyly has pitched in the last two seasons combined. (175 between '12/'13) Simply put, how big an increase in workload can the Tigers safely and fairly put on Smyly's plate?
Those innings have to go somewhere, to somebody. Either the other four starters need to log a few more innings or the Tigers bullpen needs to be stretched a bit farther than they were in 2013. (or both)
The Road Forward
There really is no perfect answer regarding how far to push Smyly. "The Verducci Effect" for how to safely raise innings limits has been shown to be no real ironclad rule as we know. Also for every guy you note who went from starter to reliever and back with no problems like Chris Sale, there is a cautionary tale like that of Neftali Feliz and his Tommy John Surgery. It really boils down to each individual and his ability to withstand the rigors of taking the ball 30+ times over the course of an MLB season. Until we see Smyly do it, we simply don't know if he's that guy.
Smyly career high for innings came in the minors in 2011 when he pitched 126 innings split over two levels. Then his 99-inning stint in Detroit with 95 of them as a starter came in '12. This dipped to 76 bullpen innings in 2013 which will serve as his jumping off point for the return to the rotation.
I would imagine there isn't a soul out there who realistically expects Smyly to match Fister's 208 inning output this season. Especially not Dombrowski, Brad Ausmus, and pitching coach Jeff Jones. Assuming Smyly stays healthy (recall the ugly blister he had in '12 that cost him time...evidently that had been an issue for him previously), how many innings can he safely and effectively pitch in 2014? Is an increase of about 100-innings in the ball park? 75? 110? We can't know for sure. Anyone who tells you an exact number with a tone of certainty in their voice is just guessing.
There are concerns on two fronts of course...first for Smyly's career. It would seem that a transition plan needs to be undertaken to protect him from injury. He is an asset that Tigers can get plenty of value from over the next few seasons if he is adequately protected from injury. It's just common sense that the risk of him breaking down at some point has to increase somewhere along the line if his workload gets too high. The second concern is obviously for the team's ability to contend. The Tigers don't need a fading Smyly taking key turns in August and September when he's running on fumes from the workload increase.
How will the Tigers address this issue? One thing the Fister trade did was put an end to any talk of a supposed "pitching surplus" in Detroit. It was actually a questionable thing to say given how attrition can set in on a pitching staff very quickly. Yes, the Tigers rotation stayed remarkably healthy last year but that's a "knock on wood" situation if there ever was one. Pitcher's break. Often. A reliable resume of health for a rotation can disappear faster than you can say "Dr. James Andrews".
The Usual Suspects
With Smyly in the rotation there now appears to be very little depth in the organization to take starts either on a spot-duty basis or to cover a lengthy Disabled List visit. Is a pitcher like a Drew VerHagen going to be ready? Can Casey Crosby take a few starts? Will Jose Alvarez be called upon once again to fill in when needed? None of these options appear to very appealing. No...it appears that the Tigers best hope might be a new name folks have gotten to know of late. The maligned Fister Deal might have brought back the "6th starter", young Robbie Ray.
Ray's success in Double-A last season only carries so much weight. But when put up against the other holdovers in the Tigers organization it would appear that should the situation arise, Ray could get that call. In the end, bet on talent. Ray comes with the reports that would indicate his talent level is superior to any of the other options currently at Dombrowski's disposal.
Let's not assume the worst however. Smyly and the rest of the rotation could be healthy and taking their turn regularly once again. There are plenty of ways to keep Smyly fresh. Certainly they could put the "4.5 man rotation" plan into effect at times. The Tigers did this occasionally last year by skipping Porcello when there was an off-day and keeping the other starters on a 4-day rest schedule. Ausmus could put this plan in place for Smyly and skip him periodically over the course of the summer. This would give Smyly a couple of extended breathers at key points which could easily help him down the stretch.
The Tigers could also try to revisit the game's past and try to identify a true "swingman" for their bullpen. Someone who will take a job in their bullpen but is capable of a 5-inning start periodically. One candidate that pops to mind is Felipe Paulino who recently left the Royals organization. Paulino is coming back from Tommy John Surgery, so there is risk associated with that. But he has the power arsenal (Jim Price would be so proud of me..."arsenal"!) which should translate pretty well to relief work. Paulino also logged pretty acceptable 4.11 ERA out of Kansas City's rotation in 2011, so he could possibly be pressed into starting duty as well. We don't know exactly what Paulino's health situation is, but he is about 18-months removed from his surgery. If another club offers him a better chance at starting, he would probably take it. Also there is no hint that the Tigers even like Paulino. But his power repertoire would seem to be a fit with other pitchers the Tigers have been attracted to in the past.
Dombrowski's job isn't done. The Tigers core strength may be their rotation, but more work is needed in case they need to dip deep into their reserves. There has been very little speculation about the Tigers adding cheap starting pitching depth this off-season. The left-field situation and the bullpen gets the Lion's Share of the attention. But expect to see at least one signing in the coming weeks to add a respectable arm to pitch in Toledo and be ready on a moment's notice.
Replacing some of the innings that Fister pitched, and Smyly won't likely cover, will also fall on the bullpen. Coming off the 2013 bullpen performance, the Tigers bullpen doesn't really need a lot more stress place upon it. Unless the Tigers increase their current depth in the bullpen, it will be incumbent on holdovers and Nathan to pick up the slack. With that thought in mind, expect another bullpen move or two. It's not in the Tigers best interest to leave the bullpen completely to chance when they can be pretty sure there is a shortfall of innings coming from the rotation with Smyly's insertion this season.