After the signing of Prince Fielder to a nine year, $214 million contract, it would appear that the Tigers have completed construction of their 2012 lineup (Yoenis Cespedes notwithstanding). One key spot on the roster, however, remains open for discussion, and possibly open for the addition of a veteran free agent, and that would be the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation.
The open spot was last occupied by Brad Penny, who is now a free agent, and who is reportedly exploring an opportunity in Japan. Penny went 11- 11 for the Tigers in 2011 despite posting the highest ERA and the highest WHIP in the league among all starting pitchers that qualified for the ERA title. Rather than filling the void with a player who provides that level of performance, one would expect the Tigers to have some of the prospects in their own organization audition for the job in spring training.
Following is a look at the candidates who are in the Tigers organization who might earn a job in the rotation in Detroit:
Jacob Turner: The 20-year-old right handed pitcher is the top prospect in the Tigers organization. On MLB.com's list of the top 100 prospects, Turner was rated the seventh-best pitcher and the 15th overall prospect by Jonathan Mayo. Turner is the lone righty among a bunch of lefty prospects who will audition.
Turner features a mid-90s fastball that’s pretty consistently well located in the strike zone. His change-up and curve have been improving, but are thought by some to be not quite there yet. The Tigers could put Turner in the rotation just for being the most talented candidate, but I would rather see him promoted when he is ready, rather then when there is an opening. It’s very likely we’ll see Turner in Detroit again this summer.
Duane Below: The 26-year-old lefty and native of Britton, Mich., split time last year between Detroit and Toledo. As a starter with the Triple-A Mud Hens, Below posted a 9-4 record with a 3.13 ERA and a solid 1.18 WHIP. He has good control and was given both starting and relief assignments when called up to Detroit last season.
In two starts and a dozen relief appearances with the Tigers, Below posted a 4.34 ERA with a 1.35 WHIP in 29 innings of work. Below could also be a candidate for the long relief job, which is a logical spot for a lefty, with at least four right-handers slated to be in the rotation and opposing managers likely to stack their lineups with left-handed batters.
Adam Wilk: Another lefty starter, age 24, who is known more for his excellent command than he is for striking batters out. Wilk has a lower "ceiling" than most of the top prospects in the organization, but he has the command and good enough stuff right now to pitch in the majors either at the back of the rotation or in long relief.
Wilk made 18 starts with Toledo in 2011, posting a 3.24 ERA and a nice 1.16 WHIP, while walking just 1.2 batters per nine innings. In Detroit, he got 13 innings of work, all in relief, and a pair of home runs got him sent back down.
Drew Smyly: Named the Tigers minor league organization's pitcher of the year and recently named to MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, coming in at No. 82. Smyly is another lefty that has a full repertoire that features a fastball, cutter, curve and changeup -- all of which are at least Major League average according to MLB.com's David Mayo.
Smyly was the Tigers’ second-round pick in the 2010 draft and is a bit more advanced at age 22 than others, having been drafted out of college. Smyly made 14 starts in Advanced-A Lakeland last year, putting up an impressive 2.58 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 8.6 K/9. He was then promoted to Double-A Erie, where he posted an even more impressive line of 1.18 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 10.4 K/9 in seven starts. Smyly is rising quickly and is not on the 40-man roster yet, but has been invited to Lakeland because of his impressive work. He is definitely one to watch this spring.
Andrew Oliver: Yet another lefty starter, age 24, with whom Tiger fans are familiar because of his work with the Tigers over the past two seasons. Oliver was a second-round pick in the 2009 draft. He is a hard thrower with a fastball in the the mid-90s and some nasty breaking stuff that is effective when he can locate his pitches. Therein lies the problem.
Oliver’s time in the major leagues did not go well. He posted an ERA of 7.11 over two seasons, a 2011 walk rate of 7.4 per nine innings. He was clearly quite nervous when things weren’t going well and was sent back to Toledo, where things didn’t seem to improve much. He has good stuff and velocity, which is very valuable especially for a lefty, but he’s going to have to start finding the plate, or he will probably find himself in the bullpen pretty soon.
Casey Crosby: Another lefty and another second round draft pick, Crosby’s biggest challenge has been staying healthy. He missed almost the entire 2010 season following Tommy John surgery, but rebounded nicely in 2011with Erie. Crosby made 25 starts with an ERA of 4.10 in a hitter’s league, but the encouraging news is that his K/9 rate was back up to a respectable 8.3.
In 2012, the Tigers probably want to see Crosby improve his command and control and staying healthy. He had 5.3 BB/9 innings last year. He is more likely a candidate for a mid season call up than a spot on the opening day roster, but he should be on the radar if things go well for him. He was added to the 40-man roster in November.
David Pauley: The "other" pitcher who was obtained along with Doug Fister from Seattle last July is on this list because he split time between the rotation and the bullpen in Seattle. He was more effective in relief before the Tigers got him and that’s probably where he will stay. Pauley is a 28-year-old righty who made 14 appearances for the Tigers in 2011, and would be a long-shot candidate to be moved back to the rotation.
With Seattle, Pauley made 15 starts in 2010, posting an ERA of 4.10 and a WHIP of 1.31. In 2011, he was moved to the bullpen, where he made 39 relief appearances, 54 innings, putting up a 2.15 ERA and an impressive 0.94 WHIP. In Detroit, Pauley gave up four killer home runs in his 14 appearances, which came mostly during games with lopsided scores, and this inflated his numbers. Pauley should make the team, but more likely in the bullpen than the rotation.
In an interview with SiriusXM radio, Tigers CEO and GM Dave Dombrowski was asked what alternatives the Tigers had if Turner were not given the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Dombrowski specifically mentioned Wilk, Below, and Smyly, as well as the possibility of signing a non-roster invitee. The typical NRI contract is a minor league deal with incentives should the player be added to the major league roster.
Jon Heyman of CBS sports reported that the Tigers made an offer to Roy Oswalt of $10 million for one season, but Oswalt turned it down. The Cardinals are now denying a rumor that they have signed Oswalt. In any case, Dombrowski has said that it’s unlikely the Tigers would sign Oswalt.
For what it’s worth, I will now post the list of free agent starting pitchers that are still unsigned. The only thing that this list really shows is that, other than Oswalt or Edwin Jackson, there’s not much to get excited about. I would rather give the guys named above an opportunity to show us what they can do. Now, if Dombrowski could swing a trade for, say, James Shields ... OK back to reality:
Kyle Davies, Doug Davis, Jon Garland, Rich Harden, Livan Hernandez, Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Ross Ohlendorf, Roy Oswalt, Brad Penny, Javier Vazquez (retiring), Brandon Webb, Chris Young, Tim Wakefield. There. See what I mean? Bring on the kids!