December 25, 2012 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Drew Smyly, not Rick Porcello, deserves Tigers' last rotation spot

Drew Smyly continued his late-season mastery in ALCS Game 1, getting the win with two innings of one-hit relief against the Yankees. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Whether the Tigers will find a deal they like from the many pursuers of Rick Porcello remains to be seen.

Recent rumors have risen linking the Tigers to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Diego, and possibly a few additional National League teams.

With Anibal Sanchez signed to a five-year deal, the Tigers seem to have run out of room in the rotation for right-handed pitchers.

All of this is based on one overwhelming assumption: Fellow 23-year-old Drew Smyly has a brighter future in the Tigers' rotation.

It's fair to examine that conclusion a bit closer.

The left-handed Smyly made the game of baseball look easy during his first few months in the rotation after winning a spot out of spring training.

The Tigers won four of his first five starts, and his ERA was just 1.59 after a no-decision on May 9.

He wasn't just keeping runs off the board. He actually averaged a strikeout per inning during those first six games.

While you could certainly point to luck being a bit of a factor, all signs were positive through those first few weeks.

Not always the clear choice

Act 2 began his seventh start. Facing the White Sox for the second time in 10 days, Smyly got shelled for four runs in five innings. Then he gave up four runs again, and again, and again.

June 10 he didn't make it past the third inning, leaving the game with a blister. In his next appearance more than two weeks later, Smyly made arguably his worst start of the season: six runs allowed to the Rangers in just four innings and change.

He spent much of his next six weeks either on the disabled list or pitching for the Toledo Mud Hens before making a return to Detroit in late August for a couple of starts and a couple of relief appearances.

Was Smyly's sudden downfall due to teams making adjustments while he didn't? Could it have been the nagging injuries cutting into his effectiveness? Maybe something else was at play.

That is for the Tigers to decide.

Making a commitment to Smyly and pursuing a trade of Porcello requires a rather large dose of confidence that he'll look a lot more like his first six starts than he did during the next set.

The Tigers' pitching depth has steadily decreased, whether by trades, ineffectiveness, or both.

No team makes it through a 162-game schedule without calling on its pitching depth at least a little bit. The Tigers had a combined 10 starts made by Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby, Adam Wilk and Duane Below. Few of those were memorable for good reasons.

A trade of Porcello, who turns 24 later this week, coupled with either an injured or ineffective starter would leave the Tigers with Crosby, Below, another minor league player or the need to make a trade.

Strikeouts stand out

Smyly left a strong impression toward the end of his season.

He allowed just one unearned run across starts made on Sept. 23 and 28.

His work out of the bullpen in the first game of the ALCS might have been the catalyst that spurred the Tigers from an ALCS embarrassment to a World Series appearance.

That image remains an enduring one.

Smyly finished the year with a 3.59 ERA as a starter and had a remarkable 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

His defense-neutral statistics point toward a player whose ERA was a fairly accurate measure of what might be expected in future years.

Does that justify putting Smyly in the 2013 rotation in place of the more veteran-yet less effective Porcello?

It just might.

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

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