Heading into the season, the Tigers' starting rotation had a number of question marks. Would Rick Porcello figure out what kind of pitcher he needed to be to find success? Could Phil Coke make the transition back to a starting role? Would Brad Penny stay healthy and shake the troubles he had the last time he was in the American League? It seemed unlikely the answer to all these questions would be yes. I assumed the question about the Tigers' sixth, seventh and eighth starters wouldn't be if they were needed, but for whom and how long.
At this early stage of the season, it's been a question they haven't had to answer. Not only that, but they've had good news from both perspectives of the question. There's the fact that the current rotation is pitching well enough that the Tigers haven't had to worry too much about replacements. From the other side, though, the pitchers who would serve as those replacements are doing a good job of proving they're up to the task.
That's the angle I'm going to focus on today when I look at how the Tigers' options for substitute starters are doing at this point. I'll talk about their performance to date and then wax philosophic on their chances at short- or long-term assignments in Detroit this year. (Stats are from before Sunday's games)
Andy Oliver, 12/3/87, Throws: Left
**doesn't include last start
Oliver started the season in such a way that I thought circumstances might get him into the Tigers' rotation even without injury or struggles from their first five starters. After two starts, he had thrown 12 innings, given up just seven hits and three walks while striking out 14. Coupling those results with the Tigers' lack of a lockdown lefty in their bullpen made me wonder if Oliver would get called up and Coke moved back to relief.
Oliver cooled a bit after those first couple starts, and as long as Coke doesn't have to face the Mariners anymore, he seems to be fine. It's just as well, because if the Tigers pulled the trigger on that move the next rotation move would require either looking beyond Oliver or backtracking and putting Coke back in the rotation.
It's probably better to let Oliver continue to work in Toledo on his command and the further development of his secondary pitches. Once a starter is needed, though, I have to believe Oliver will be the first option regardless of whether it's a short or long term situation. He's throwing well, is on the 40-man, and is the only option with big league experience.
Charlie Furbush, 4/11/86, Throws: Left
In 2010, Furbush was second in all the minor leagues with 183 strikeouts. That would seem to do wonders for his standing as a prospect. The excitement was tempered, though, when he closed the season with a nine start run in Toledo that saw him get pounded to the tune of 59 hits (9 HR) in just 48.2 innings. It left us wondering if his average velocity and deceptive delivery would hold up at the highest levels.
People are still wondering what type of big league pitcher he'll be, but he's done wonders to answer doubts about whether he can succeed in Triple A. Homers are still a bit of an issue and he's not always going to have a .204 BABIP, but he's handling himself very well so far in Toledo. What may be even more exciting than his early returns is the fact that he's changing his scouting report as well. Baseball America said that last year's report of a "89-91 mph fastball" can more accurately be described as "sitting at 91 or 92 mph, touching 94 mph". That's a return to his pre-Tommy John numbers and helps to make the difference from last year seem more "real".
If the Tigers needed two long-term subs in their rotation, I have little doubt Furbush would be their go-to guy behind Oliver. It seems plausible that a scenario could arise where Furbush could benefit from the Tigers' "who's throwing best right now" philosophy when they need somebody for a start or two. They may want to see him put a little distance between himself and the May 2nd start that saw him give up three homers while not getting out of the second inning.
Duane Below, 11/15/85, Throws: Left
If it weren't for the seven home runs he's allowed in his seven starts, I think Below would probably be in the argument for the pitching prospect who's most improved his stock. He's managed to maintain the strikeout and walk rates he had last year in Erie while cutting down on his hits allowed significantly. The .233 BABIP that's helped with that won't always be so accommodating, but it's a nice development for the lefty - another pitcher with Tommy John surgery in his rearview mirror.
The home runs are quite a bugaboo for him, though. From the beginning of 2010, he's allowed 24 in less than 170 innings of work. While his last three starts have seen him throw 21 innings while allowing just ten hits and four runs with 22 strikeouts and six walks, he's allowed a home run in each. I imagine the Tigers will want to see him address the problem before he'll be a trusted option for any major league role.
He is on the 40-man roster, though, and stretches like he's enjoying right now could eventually inspire the Tigers to award him with either a spot start or a September call-up. If a long-term sub is needed, though, it's difficult to imagine him stepping ahead of Oliver and Furbush - who aren't leaving much opportunity to advance ahead of them.
Adam Wilk, 12/9/87, Throws: Left
Of all the pitchers we'll discuss today, Wilk is going to have to overcome the most skepticism. He made a run at being a middle relief option for the Tigers but with a fastball in the mid- to high 80s, he's always going to fight an uphill battle to crack the Tigers' roster.
As you can see, his devotion to working within the strike zone has caught up with him a little bit at the Triple A level. The home run tally is already two-thirds of what he gave up all of last year and he's given up two dingers in each of his last couple starts. The low strikeout, very low walk rate approach can work but when you start mixing in a high home run rate things get dicey.
On the field results aren't the only thing working against Wilk's chances of getting a call to Detroit this season. He's not on the 40-man roster, either. That means he'd not only have to vault past the other options, he'd have to do it in a definitive enough way that the Tigers would bump somebody off the 40-man to get him in uniform.
Jacob Turner, 5/21/91, Throws: Right
** doesn't include his last start
Turner is far and away the best prospect of this group. To do what he's doing at the Double A level when he doesn't turn 20 until Saturday is amazing. Maybe not quite as amazing as his Double A debut (6 IP, 2 H, 9 K) but it's still good enough to put him squarely in the conversation as one of the best pitching prospects in the minors.
He's getting a good amount of strikeouts, exhibiting good control and command, and doing it all with the efficiency to go into the seventh inning more often than not. I have a feeling the Tigers are going to have a very difficult time keeping him out of the rotation in 2012.
In 2011, though, I expect they'll be able to fight the urge. They're not going to want him to throw much more than 150 innings this year and that would be difficult to hold him to if he's throwing for the Tigers. If they need somebody for a spot start, though, I wouldn't be surprised if he would be either the first or second arm they'd look to. Of their options, he has the best stuff and it might also give him a taste of where he needs to be come April 2012.
Casey Crosby, 9/17/88, Throws: Left
Crosby probably doesn't even belong in this discussion. He missed last season with elbow problems and we're all just thankful they didn't require a follow-up surgery to his original Tommy John procedure. He didn't require surgery, but the Tigers are keeping him on a low pitch count again this season. That would make earning a start for the Tigers nearly impossible.
So why am I mentioning him? Well, because this post is turning out to double as a discussion of the Tigers' best starting prospects and he certainly should be included in that conversation. He's seen his electric stuff return and it's shown in his strikeout totals. Actually, his hit totals have also been impressive ever since his first start way back in April 10th. The issue to this point has been with his control, as displayed in his six walk performance on Wednesday.
His arm is so live I think the Tigers will see how his health holds up and figure out if he can be a starter, but his ultimate role is definitely in question. If he can't stay on the field as a starter, I'm sure the Tigers would have no problem putting his high 90s heat and ground ball getting slider in for high leverage situations in the late innings. Even a bullpen role at the major league level is probably unlikely for 2011, though. He's another pitcher who isn't on the 40-man yet and the Tigers would probably like to be confident he's 100% again before starting his arbitration clock.
Does this article give the impression the Tigers have some depth for their rotation? If it does, I apologize for coming off as a little too optimistic. I think Oliver is the only pitcher they wouldn't have misgivings about handing a long-term starting role in Detroit. I imagine Furbush and any others would have to earn such an assignment on a start-by-start basis. I'm also not sure they would only get the chance after the Tigers exhausted trade and free agent options.
I think where this group offers more optimism is for the long-term. It seems possible - or even likely - that in 2012 or 2013 these pitchers could give the Tigers the option of either trading a good major league starter or letting one walk via free agency. If they do find themselves in that enviable situation, they might still be wise to see more cheap, young starting pitchers in return. I say that because right now, their ranks thin out quickly once you look beyond this group of six.