I'll admit it: I've flip-flopped. After an offseason of stating reasons why Drew Smyly should spent his 2013 season in the Toledo Mud Hens' rotation, I have changed my tune: put Drew Smyly in the bullpen.
Now before you start with those torches and pitchforks, hear me out.
The reason why so many fans, myself included, have been so adamant against putting Drew Smyly in the bullpen is because we hear the words "long relief" and we cringe. "Smyly is too good for a long relief role," we said. "He is more valuable as a starter," was a popular argument. "He won't see enough action because of our awesome rotation," was my personal favorite.
However, a recent fanpost by YouGonnaEatThat? (great username, by the way) sparked by interest. Our friend proposed a six-man rotation that kept Justin Verlander pitching every five days while keeping every other starter on six days rest. While it was an interesting and unorthodox idea, it wasn't going to stick. Guys like Max Scherzer and Doug Fister are too good to lose starts to the likes of Rick Porcello and Smyly. Taking innings away from better pitchers? It sounds ludicrous when you break it down to its simplest form.
This is when the light bulb came on. What if you didn't take innings away from those guys, but instead took them away from the rest of the bullpen? What if Drew Smyly was given 120+ innings this season out of the bullpen at the expense of guys like Luis Marte, Duane Below, or Luke Putkonen?
The reason why we are so afraid of putting Drew Smyly in the bullpen is because we are afraid of the predetermined bullpen roles set aside for pitchers in the modern era. If Smyly is labeled the "long reliever," we assume that he will sit around until a starter has a rough day, then will be called upon to keep the score within striking distance for a few innings to see if the offense can stage a comeback.
This was the biggest gripe of "Team Toledo." With the rotation being as amazing as it is, would Smyly get the work he needs to develop properly? That's tough to say.
Instead of tagging Smyly with a pre-determined role within the bullpen, why not fit a bullpen role for the pitcher himself? Smyly has starter potential, as we saw last season, and has simply been too good this spring to be left in Toledo.
So here goes the age-old question: instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, why not just change the shape of the hole? With Smyly, you have a guy that can go two or three innings without breaking a sweat. Instead of having him sit on his hands for three weeks while you wait for a starter to implode, why not be more proactive about the situation? Give Smyly three innings after you got a strong six from Max Scherzer, skip the rest of the bullpen, and call it a day. Rick Porcello goes five? Give Smyly two or three innings to bridge the gap to the back end of the bullpen. Forego the usual bullpen traditions and let Smyly get a nine out save.
In doing this, the Tigers will have done two things: cut out middle relief, which is a weakness of all ball clubs because it's middle relief, and given meaningful innings to a pitcher that will benefit the organization in the long run. Smyly will be facing major league hitters in meaningful innings and, by pitching two or three innings at a time, will still be relatively stretched out in case he needs to join the rotation. With five right-handed starters, most teams will have a lineup chock full of lefties that Smyly would dominate in the late innings.
Also, if you have Smyly clocking 120 innings out of the bullpen, which is essentially the work of two relievers, the Tigers may be able to roll with a six-man bullpen for portions of the season. Using the extra bench spot on a position player could be especially useful during interleague matchups, giving Jim Leyland more options for pinch-hitters or late-inning substitutions.
Now, are their drawbacks? Of course. Smyly may see 100-120 innings, but won't progress to the 150 or so that he should be reaching this season. This could have repercussions down the road if the organization decides to trade one of the current members of the rotation. Smyly would still be a heck of a fifth starter, but won't be able to give the team the 180+ innings you would like to see out of that role.
Also, there's the small chance that Smyly pitches two or three innings one day, then the next day's starter pulls up lame or gives up six runs in the top of the first. The rest of the bullpen might be taxed for a day or two afterward, and someone like Casey Crosby may need to make a spot start. However, Smyly will still be able to step into the rotation a few days later, and there are a plethora of capable relievers in Toledo that can handle a few innings while the regulars take a couple days off. And this doesn't even take into account the relative off day that the bullpen gets anytime Justin Verlander is on the mound.
We have occasionally criticized the Tigers organization for their old school approach to certain aspects of the game, but maybe it's time to embrace that mentality. Make him into a modern-day Willie Hernandez or Goose Gossage. Give him the innings he needs to develop without affecting the rest of the rotation. Put Drew Smyly in the bullpen and turn him loose.