Jose Alvarez made six starts in the Tigers' rotation in 2013. Every other start, 156 of them to be exact, was made by the five starting pitchers that were designated as such at the start of the season. The Tigers were incredibly fortunate to have their top five starters healthy and able to start so many games, and to avoid having to resort to a minor league pitcher to fill in so seldom.
In his six starts, Alvarez went 1- 5 with a 5.82 ERA, a 1.50 WHIP, and an ERA + of 73 (league average is 100), averaging less than five innings per start. Alvarez was also used in the bullpen, as Darin Downs faltered and Phil Coke floundered their way through the season, and Jose was called up for bullpen duty. He was no more effecitve. In all, he pitched 38-2/3 innings. That's more than Coke, or Downs, or Bruce Rondon, Evan Reed, Luke Putkonen, or any relief pitcher other than Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, or Al Alburquerque. It's a significant role, and an important one.
The sixth starter, on most teams, usually gets a whole lot more than just six starts, and it's usually more than just one pitcher that fills in. In 2012, for example, a relatively healthy Tiger rotation still needed three starts apiece from Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner, Adam Wilk, and another from Duane Below. In those ten starts, the team got clobbered. (One rotation spot was split between Smyly and the newly acquired Anibal Sanchez, so we'll count their starts as top five.). In 2011, four pitchers split nine starts after Coke was pulled from the rotation. In 2010, six pitchers divided 18 starts on a .500 team.
Maybe the Tigers will be healthy again, and get through the season without needing a sixth starter very often. But the odds are that they'll need a sixth man more often, and they'll need him to be better than what they've gotten from them in recent seasons.
One thing stands out about the candidates who might fill a rotation spot for the Tigers should the need arise. They're all lefties. Alvarez is the incumbent, and while Crosby has been moved to the bullpen, Lobstein has been added to the roster and could be an option. As far as starting pitchers on the 40 man roster, that's it.
Below is back in the organization after being claimed by the Miami Marlins off waivers last spring, then went to Korea in August. Robbie Ray, the 22 year old starter recently acquired from Washington in the Doug Fister trade, is not on the roster but comments by Dave Dombrowski indicate that he feels Ray is close to major league ready. Drew VerHagen is a right hander who has received an invitation to Lakeland, was promoted mid season last year from Lakeland to double- A Erie, but would be a long shot to be called up for more than a cup of coffee in 2014.
Who gets called up in the event that a sixth starter is needed could depend on how many starts are needed. In the case of one of the regular starters needing to skip one start, the team is not likely to add a player to the 40 man roster, having to put another player through waivers and maybe start the clock ticking on his arbitration and free agency clocks. But in the case of a more long term need, a roster move could be made.
It may be tempting to take the left hander who does the best job in spring training, and give him a long relief role in the Detroit bullpen. That would seem to be ideal, with opposing managers likely to be stacking their lineups with left handed hitters to face a Tiger rotation that features four right handed starting pitchers. In that case, perhaps a starting pitcher could be converted to relief, as Smyly was a year ago.
Many would have thought that, starting the 2013 season, if the Tigers needed a sixth starter, Smyly would have been stretched out and given the job, since he performed fine in a starting role before Sanchez arrived during the 2012 season. As it turned out, Smyly worked more innings out of the bullpen than any other Tiger relief pitcher, and they didn't really have a need for a starting pitcher for more than a spot start or two at a time.
Putting Smyly in the bullpen, rather than keeping him in the Toledo rotation, ready to start in if the need arose, was a move that paid big dividends for the team in 2013. Smyly was one of the best relief pitchers in the league, ranking among the league leaders in WAR, ERA, FIP, innings pitched, WHIP, and pretty much every significant statistical measure. Had the team needed a sixth starter for a significant period of time, they didn't have one capable of filling the role, without pulling Smyly from his critical role at the back end of the Tiger bullpen.
So there is a competition in spring training this year for a job that isn't necessarily there yet, but one that is definitely on the radar of Dombrowski and manager Brad Ausmus. It's an important role, but one that very likely starts out in Toledo, sixty miles and a phone call away from Detroit.