March 14, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers warming to Rick Porcello's role

Despite his uncertain future with the Tigers, Rick Porcello gives the team flexibility in its rotation. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Lakeland, Fla. -- A chilly breeze was blowing Wednesday as Dave Dombrowski stepped into the clubhouse shadows and informed the media of Brennan Boesch's release.

Boesch's dismissal was as cold as the wind. But it was no surprise. The Tigers outfield is crowded. Boesch wasn't hitting. He turns 28 next month. His trade value was nil. This brand of personnel move happens all the time in baseball.

Dombrowski's greater revelation came a few minutes later. He talked about the spring's No. 2 issue, which in its ramifications trails only Bruce Rondon's audition as Detroit's closer.

It has to do with six starting pitchers and five seats in Jim Leyland's rotation. Dombrowski has been waiting for the right trade offer since December. As every general manager knows, the Tigers have made Rick Porcello the most available of their starters.

But nothing that strikes Dombrowski as proper value for a pitcher so talented has been tossed at Detroit's president and general manager. And as clear as Wednesday's blue sky was Dombrowski's shifting disposition toward retaining Porcello and, most likely, returning the rotation's young gun, Drew Smyly, to Triple A Toledo as a means of dealing with Detroit's overload.

Dombrowski even dangled the possibility one of the six, no doubt Smyly, could begin the season as a long reliever.

"They all deserve to start at the major league level," Dombrowski said. "But six pitchers aren't going to start for us."

And then he mentioned "bullpen options" and "Triple A options" that had not been part of previous discussions about the Porcello-Smyly sweepstakes.

Porcello seen in new light

Several things have factored into Dombrowski's flexibility.

The trade market is temporarily dormant. It was reported again by Jon Morosi of that the Rangers and Tigers have talked in the past week about Porcello, but nothing serious has evolved. The Tigers would probably appreciate Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus as part of a multi-player deal. But Texas has made it clear it isn't inclined to trade Andrus.

The Tigers have seen that Porcello is a different pitcher from the kid who pitched well enough but without great flair in his first four seasons. If he were to continue throwing with the pop displayed in Florida, the Tigers would have a pitcher on the verge of becoming the thoroughbred they thought they were drafting in 2007.

The Tigers have no one at the moment they would trust in a long-relief role. Luke Putkonen is the best bet, but he has a power-pitching parcel he needs to fortify as a starter.

This modified line of thinking by Dombrowski has its good and bad sides.

Depth is essential

Fans worried about the Tigers pitching depth will be cheered if Smyly heads to Toledo, where he will be a 60-minute drive from Comerica Park. As most of the Tigers camp knows, the Tigers used 12 starters in 2012. And so depth is indeed essential.

The downside is Dombrowski and Leyland understand the value of a left-hander who pitches as effectively as Smyly. It presents a different look to lineups that can become too clever in dealing with a rotation flush with right-handers.

Neither is the bullpen a happy option for Dombrowski and Leyland. A starting pitcher needs to start. Every five days. And he needs ample innings during those starts. Long relief doesn't cut it as a route for best using a talented starting pitcher.

Would the Tigers revisit a thought they entertained briefly earlier this month? Making Porcello their closer?

Not today. But notice how stances have changed. Unless the trade market warms up, it's apparent Dombrowski is considering options that, only days ago, a smart general manager wasn't exactly wild about.

More Lynn Henning