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Drew Smyly named Tigers' fifth starter, pitching staff apparently set

Drew Smyly is the Tigers' fifth-starter
Drew Smyly is the Tigers' fifth-starter

Left-hander Drew Smyly was told this morning that he's won the opportunity to serve as the Detroit Tigers' fifth starter. But first, he'll make a start for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, as the Tigers do not need a fifth starter until April 12 against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Tigers also told Duane Below and Brayan Villarreal that they will begin the season as members of the Mud Hens, making the pitching end of the Tigers' roster pretty clear at this point.

The 22-year-old Smyly won the job after just one year of professional experience. That comes as no surprise, as it's a trend baseball -- and especially the Tigers -- seems to be going in lately. After two years as a starting pitcher for the University of Arkansas, Smyly sliced through his only professional season like a hot knife through butter. At Advanced-A Lakeland, where he began, he had an ERA 2.58, 8.63 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.35 walks per nine innings. After being promoted to Double-A Erie, he finished the season even better: 1.18 ERA, 10.45 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.96 walks. He threw 146 innings combined between the two levels, and pitched for Team USA in the Baseball World Cup and Pan-American Games during the offseason.

You should be cautioned not to read too much into those statistics, however. The consensus among scouts and minor-league watchers is that Smyly doesn't have "ace" written all over him or any ceiling like that. It's a case of the statistics out-running the ability there, most say. However, Smyly commands his pitches well, and there's no reason to expect him to be anything but a successful major leaguer a bit further back in the rotation.

Tigs' Town's Mark Anderson notes (free link):

Long term, Smyly has the potential to sit in the middle of the Tigers rotation, offsetting some of the power arms that the Tigers covet, with a command and feel lefty that gets by on deception, location and intelligence more than raw stuff.

Whether that comes immediately or if more minor-league work will need to be done later this year is the question. A non-roster invitee, Smyly will also need to be added to the Tigers' 40-man roster. That's really no big deal. They have a spot available, and decisions made over the next few days could potentially open another.

The Tigers have apparently set the rest of their pitching staff as well after optioning Below and Villarreal. The thought heading into spring training was that Below might earn a spot as the long man in the Tigers' bullpen if he didn't win a spot in the rotation. Apparently not. It looks like Collin Balester will serve that purpose, though nothing has been announced. In the past we've been told he could have even better a starter candidate, although that never seemed to be a serious consideration during spring games. So that makes the most sense. Detroit acquired him from the Washington Nationals in trade for Ryan Perry -- who has been optioned to their minor league system already.

Luis Marte also appears to have won a spot in the bullpen. He will be returning to the major leagues after pitching in four games last September. The 5-foot-11 righty had 11.2 strikeouts and 3.5 walks per nine innings in the minors in 2011 -- mostly with Erie. His minor league career norms are 8.9 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine. In 3 2/3 innings with Detroit last season, he allowed six hits, struck out three and walked one.

So the pitching looks like:

Starters -- Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, (to be called up) Drew Smyly

Relievers -- Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Marte, Balester, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth

Which means that there will be one extra position player who makes the team to start the season. The candidates: Andy Dirks, Clete Thomas, Danny Worth and Brandon Inge. Three of them should be heading north to Detroit to begin the year, the fourth will either be designated for assignment or head to Toledo, depending who it is.

What would make the most sense for Detroit is cutting ties with Brandon Inge and keeping the other three, for now.

The most likely scenario, as some have also mentioned on Twitter, is that both Thomas and Dirks make the opening day roster, as Inge and Worth are basically redundant to each other. Worth has clearly earned his spot on the Tigers' roster, but will he get it? Will the Tigers' use Inge's sore groin as an excuse to move him to the DL and delay all decisions? These are the last big questions left in camp.