March 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Lynn Henning

Trading Rick Porcello makes most sense for Tigers

Rick Porcello's pitching was again superb Sunday in the Tigers 2-1 victory over the Nationals at Marchant Stadium. (Associated Press)

Lakeland, Fla. -- Jim Leyland talked Sunday about Rick Porcello and how a 24-year-old pitcher "has handled himself terrifically under a little bit of tough circumstances."

The tough circumstances had been addressed by Porcello an hour or so earlier. Politely, he informed a clubhouse media group that he would talk at length about his pitching, which was again superb Sunday in the Tigers' 2-1 victory over the Nationals at Marchant Stadium.

But he said he was finished discussing trades and the well-known fact Porcello is being shopped as the Tigers deal with six starting pitchers for five rotation spots.

Fans wonder why Porcello, rather than another starter, is trade bait. He pitched five innings of three-hit baseball Sunday that included a shattered-bat single.

He has worked 13 innings spanning four Grapefruit League starts. And his numbers sparkle: 10 hits, 14 strikeouts, zero walks. Opposing hitters are batting .208 against him.

And yet the Tigers have all but hung a FOR SALE sign around his neck.

Why Porcello?

Porcello dynamite so far

Simply, the Tigers believe their other five starters are either better pitchers or have more immediate clout. They hint at this even as they understand Porcello, who is barely 24, and who has four full seasons behind him, could be growing into the blue-ribbon pitcher they signed in 2007 for $7.28 million.

The Tigers don't care to move either Porcello or his prime competition, Drew Smyly, to the bullpen. Nor do they intend to send Smyly to the minor leagues when they consider a talented young left-hander to be precisely what their right-handed rotation needs.

And so it is expected the Tigers will deal Porcello by the end of spring camp. But that supposition comes also with a qualifier. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, will not swap Porcello for anything less than a handsome package.

Porcello has been dynamite this spring, as opposing teams' scouts have noted in reports to their front-office bosses. He has scrapped his old nemesis, the slider, and has fashioned a dandy curveball as his second pitch.

His flagship pitch remains his sinker, and never has it showed as much pop or downward bite as it has this spring, with Porcello throwing sinkers and four-seam fastballs that have cruised consistently in the 90-94-mph range.

His change-up has been solid. And, as the numbers show, he has been throwing all of his pitches not only for strikes but for well-located strikes.

A look at the starting five

Why, then, trade this guy, unless the Tigers are fatigued by not having made a bad trade since Edgar Renteria came to town?

Again, you must consider the other five starters — their skills, their track records, and some related economics.

Justin Verlander's situation is, to the sound of mind, self-explanatory. He might be the best pitcher in baseball.

Max Scherzer is in roughly the same place. He has extraordinary firepower that can help a team win the World Series. Even with free agency available to him at the end of 2014, and with Scott Boras as his agent, the Tigers will happily hang onto Scherzer at least through this season.

Doug Fister: Fans are beginning to hint that Fister, who has had a couple of bumpy starts in Florida, might be the better pitcher to market. But that's nonsense. Fister often requires more time to hit a groove that generally remains his groove for the bulk of a season. It's why his career ERA is a solid 3.48. Porcello's, by comparison, is 4.55.

Anibal Sanchez is the $80-million reason Porcello is available. When he re-upped with the Tigers for five years, Porcello became expendable. Sanchez, too, has numbers on his side (3.75 career ERA) and at age 29 is not a pitcher the Tigers will, or can, easily trade.

Add in Smyly, who has done nothing but impress since he arrived a year ago, and you have five pitchers who, given their reliability, have all but pushed Porcello to another team.

Things, of course, can change. One of the Big Five can get hurt. Or, Dombrowski might shake his head at the offers for a man who might be on the verge of real stardom. In that case, the general manager will wait. Smyly will marinate at Toledo as the Tigers deal with a delightful cache of pitching riches enhanced by Porcello's bust-out spring.

lynn.henning@detnews.com

Twitter.com@Lynn_Henning

Track records and economics are the main reasons why Rick Porcello is ... (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)