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Should the Tigers pursue a trade for John Lannan?

Tigers manager Jim Leyland and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski have both insisted that the Tigers are perfectly happy with the candidates that they have in their system to fill the fifth spot in their pitching rotation for 2012, yet rumors persist that the club is looking at other options. Perhaps the most persistent rumor is that the Tigers might be interested in Washington Nationals’ lefty John Lannan.

The Nats signed former Tiger All Star Edwin Jackson and acquired Gio Gonzalez in a trade in the off season, which left Lannan competing with Chien Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler for a spot in the Nationals’ rotation. Washington also has young stars in Steven Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman firmly placed in their rotation this season.

The Tigers may have interest in Lannan, a 27-year-old left-handed starter who threw 185 innings in 2011, posting a 3.70 ERA, with ratios of 5.2 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, and a 54.1% groundball rate. He is an innings eater, a lefty, and is reasonably priced at an annual salary of $5 million for the 2012 season, after losing his arbitration hearing last month. He also has an option left.

In 751 innings over a five year career, Lannan has an ERA of 4.00, a modest K rate of less than 5 per nine innings, and an equally unflattering BB rate of 3.4/9 IP. He does keep the ball in the yard, usually keeps it on the ground, and he eats innings, winning ten games in 33 starts in 2011.

Speculation is that Lannan might be getting a bit too expensive for a fifth starter by next season. Although he has another season left before he can declare for free agency, one more salary increase through the arbitration process could make him a non tender candidate next winter, much as Arizona’s Joe Saunders was this past off season.

CBS Sports Danny Knobler wrote that the Tigers are keeping an eye on Lannan. Meanwhile, Detroit continues to focus on internal solutions to fill out the rotation, none of whom have pitched more than 27 innings in the major leagues. At this point, their most prized prospect, Jacob Turner, has developed tendinitis and will be out for at least a week, so he is looking more doubtful to start the season in Detroit. Casey Crosby has been optioned to Toledo, while four other left handed starters remain in Lakeland.

The most impressive of the internal options so far this spring has been Andrew Oliver, who has not allowed an earned run in 7.0 innings yet this spring, while holding opposing hitters to a batting average of just 0.48. More encouraging is the fact that Oliver has allowed just three walks thus far. In two previous brief appearances in Detroit, Oliver looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, unable to command his pitches and clearly feeling the pressure of major league competition.

Also pitching reasonably well for the Tigers this spring are Adam Wilk and Duane Below, who don’t have the upside of Oliver, but have shown much better command in recent seasons, as well as Non Roster Invitee Drew Smyly. Each of these pitchers comes with concerns of either limited ability or recent inability to show the command necessary to survive against major league hitting.

What would a pitcher like Lannan cost in terms of talent in a trade? The Nats would like a center fielder while they await the arrival of uber-prospect Bryce Harper. Washington GM Mike Rizzo has stated that he’s not looking to trade Lannan (of course) but the Nationals, like the Tigers, are keeping an open mind. Rizzo told John Kilgore of the Washington Post:

"We’re certainly always open to making a deal if it makes sense for us," Rizzo said. "We did not acqire Edwin Jackson to trade another starting pitcher. In spring training or before spring training, if a deal comes up we can’t pass up that positively impacts our ball club, we’d certainly be open-minded to it."

Rizzo continued "We feel that he (Lannan) is a major league-caliber starting pitcher," Rizzo said. "He’s a major league starter, and he’s ready to help a contending team. That’s what we’re going to use him as." In a recent development, one of Lannan’s competitors for a rotation spot, Chien Ming Wang, has suffered a strained left hamstring in an exhibition game against the Yankees, his former team.

For my money, I’d stick with the internal options that the Tigers have, and let the situation play out. Not that a pitcher like John Lannan wouldn’t benefit the Tigers, but his presence could block the advancement of any of several young pitchers who could potentially do as well, if not better, and at a lower cost. Moreover, each of the internal candidates has multiple options left, so the Tiger can afford to give them a try, and make a change if things aren’t working out. Sure, there are questions surrounding each of the prospects, and that's why they're still prospects, but I'd like to give them a shot and see what they've got.

Chances are that the Tigers will find themselves using more than just five pitchers in their rotation during the 2012 season, and a few of the young pitchers that are currently vying for a spot in the rotation will have a shot at pitching in Detroit at some point during the season. I would have no objection if a Roy Oswalt were to call up and say that he’s changed his mind and would like to pitch for the Tigers, but I would not be in a hurry to go out and get an innings eater to fill out the rotation at this point.