Note: This is the second in a series of profiles, breaking down six candidates to fill the vacancy for the fifth and final spot in the Tigers 2012 pitching rotation.
Pitchers and catchers will report to the Tigers’ spring training camp on Sunday, but Duane Below has been working out in Lakeland since last December. The 26 year old native of Britton, Mich., who was a surprise call up to the Tigers in 2011 is one of half a dozen pitchers that has a shot to open the season in the Tigers rotation, and he’s going to make the most of it.
Below pitched 29 innings in the major leagues last year, more than any of the other candidates for the fifth starter’s job. Below was called up just prior to the trade that sent fellow lefty pitcher Charlie Furbush to Seattle and brought Doug Fister to Detroit. He made two starts for the Tigers, before being moved to a long relief job in the bullpen, but he remained with Detroit from his call up on July 20, through the end of the regular season.
In his major league debut, Below pitched five innings, allowing Oakland just one run on five hits, getting no decision. In his next start in Chicago, he allowed four runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings, taking the loss. In a dozen relief appearances, he held opponents to a reasonable .236 average, pitching in long relief. That role, often called "mop up duty" involves coming in when the starting pitcher makes an early exit, meaning things may not be going well for his club.
Below was named Pitcher of the Year in the Tigers’ organization in 2007, an honor given to fellow lefty Drew Smyly in 2011. Below had gone 13-5 with a 2.97 ERA for West Michigan, finishing second in the league in strikeouts behind Clayton Kershaw. His career was derailed in 2009 as he missed most of the season due to Tommy John surgery. He struggled to regain his momentum, but led the Florida State league in strikeouts and showed enough promise for the Tigers to add him to the 40-man roster in November 2010.
When he was called up last July, Below replaced Furbush and later replaced Adam Wilk when when he was sent to the bullpen to make room in the rotation for Doug Fister. At the time of his call up, Below had made 17 starts for Toledo with an ERA of 3.13, including 5-1 with a 2,08 ERA over his last six starts before the phone rang. Duane was equally effective against righties and lefties during his time in the majors, so he’s not just a guy that can be used vs left handed hitters. He throws three pitches with reasonably good command.
Below does not have the upside of a Jacob Turner, nor the velocity of an Andy Oliver. He has good command but is not the extreme command pitcher that Adam Wilk is, and he didn’t receive a million dollar signing bonus when the Tigers selected him with the 19th pick out of Lake Michigan college in the 2006 draft. He has worked his way up through the Tiger organization, playing for the GCL Tigers, Oneonta, West Michigan, Lakeland, Erie, and Toledo, seemingly always with a few other lefties standing in his path to the majors. Furbush, Wilk, Turner and Oliver were all given a chance to start before Duane last season..
"He’s a ‘strike’ guy who’s getting ahead of hitters and pitching to contact. He’s really keeping us in games. More times than not, we play better defense behind him because he works so quickly and keeps the fielders on their toes."
Mudhens’ pitching coach, AJ Sager added:
"He’s been able to throw pitches at different speeds for strikes, he’s not afraid to pitch inside, and he pitches to both sides of the plate. He fields his position well, and he holds runners well. And he prepares well. He does a lot of things that give himself a chance to win."
With a rotation that features four right-handed starters, the Tigers would like to add a lefty to the mix, but Turner has by far the highest ceiling of the six prospects that will be vying for the final spot this spring. All five of the other candidates are lefties. If the Tigers pick up where they left off at the end of the 2011 season, Below would be on the roster, and with the exit of Brad Penny, he’d naturally receive strong consideration for a starting job.
It is also possible that one of the five lefties could be given a long relief job in the bullpen Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has mentioned Colin Balester, who was acquired for Ryan Perry from Washington, as a potential long reliever, but adding a lefty for that kind of role would make a lot of sense, since opposing managers will be stacking their lineups with left handed hitters.
Verlander, Fister, Scherzer and Porcello have their spots in the rotation locked up. Turner will join them as soon as he is ready. Below just continues to work hard, waiting for his opportunity to come along. There is an opportunity this spring, and he means to make the most of it.