May 5, 2014 at 9:41 pm

Kurt Mensching

Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly backing up Tigers' decision to trade Doug Fister

Drew Smyly, left, and Rick Porcello have impressively rounded out the Tigers rotation. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

When Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski traded Doug Fister to the Nationals in December, he left people wondering just how a team with World Series aspirations could trade such a key piece of the puzzle.

The answer to that question: Rick Porcello is a better pitcher than people think, and Drew Smyly was ready to return to the rotation after a year in the bullpen.

Off to the best start of his career, Porcello has stepped up, and in three starts so has Smyly.

Quibble if you will about whether the Tigers got enough in return for Fister — we’ll get our first look at left-handed pitching prospect Robbie Ray in a spot start this week — but you can’t argue with the thought process behind the decision.

After the first 26 games, the Tigers are the only team in the American League with a rotational ERA under 3.00. It’s 2.86 entering play Monday.

Numbers don't lie

A lot of credit should go to Porcello, who has been expected for years to finally take that next step forward in his career.

Generally a slow starter, just once (2011) in Porcello’s first five seasons with the Tigers did he post an ERA under 6.00 in March/April. Never had he posted an ERA under 4.00, but that’s what he did this year (3.96).

The 25-year-old right-hander continued that success in his first start of May, allowing just one run in seven innings while striking out six to improve his ERA to 3.66 and record to 4-1.

With his rate of strikeouts (18.2 percent of plate appearances) near a career-best and rate of walks allowed (3.3 percent) already there, Porcello has helped his own cause every time he has taken the mound.

Finally, we can say Porcello’s getting the results he always has been capable of.

Smyly, too, is pitching to plan. A starter who due to an overabundance of off days and rainouts spent much of his first month in the bullpen, the 24-year-old left-hander has looked strong in two of his three starters.

He held the White Sox to two runs in six innings while striking out seven April 23. After nine days off, he shut out the Royals for seven innings while allowing just two hits and striking out six.

That puts Smyly’s ERA as a starter at 3.38, an improvement from the 3.79 ERA he spun in 2012. That should be expected with Smyly’s added experience.

With a higher strikeout rate (24.2 percent) and lower walk rate (8.1 percent), Smyly, too, is helping his cause.

Would the Tigers’ be better off today if Fister was a healthy member of the rotation and Smyly pitched in relief? It’s a fair question to ask.

It’s certainly possible they would be, though it seems like it would be difficult for manager Brad Ausmus to find the ideal location to plug Smyly in. The Tigers are 17-1 when tied or leading after the seventh inning, and they’ve only lost two games they were leading after the sixth.

What does the future hold?

The bullpen would be better with Smyly, but the record may be pretty much the same.

And who’s to say Fister would have been healthy had he remained in the Tigers organization? There’s just too many unknowns.

We don’t know how Fister will perform over the long haul in Washington, and we haven’t seen the prize return in the deal, Ray the left-handed prospect, yet.

But if Ray matures into a middle-of-the-rotation starter or better, the disliked deal really will allow the Tigers to be winners both now — and later.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog ( www.blessyouboys.com ). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com .

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