Starting pitcher Rick Porcello has enjoyed a stellar spring, but is in a fight for the fifth spot in the Tigers' rotation. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Some baseball historians might classify Tony La Russa as quirky, the master of the oddball gimmick. Personally, I'd rate him more as a genius.
In any ordinary season, La Russa was usually two or three jumps ahead of his grizzled rivals.
He was the manager who gave modern Major League Baseball a left-handed third baseman and a left-handed catcher. And he broke a century-plus of tradition when he had National League pitchers batting in the eighth slot rather than dragging along in the bottom of the order.
Tony was a proponent of the quick hook with his pitchers — and he helped develop baseball's devout reliance on ninth-inning relief specialists, also known as closers.
He was innovative and resourceful.
Back with the White Sox, as a young manager, he placed Mike Squires in at catcher in a couple of games, then at third base for 14 games in 1983 and 1984.
La Russa thrived on making those strange moves.
It just happened that Squires threw left handed.
As Tony explained it way back then, a left-handed third baseman had an ideal throwing motion toward first base.
It was more an experiment than a gimmick.
No other manager mimicked Tony's unorthodox concept although it worked decently enough.
But because of a longtime baseball tradition, left-handed kids just are not brought up to play third base.
The quirkiest of all of La Russa's moves, though, was when he took an established, and quite successful, starting pitcher and converted him into a closer.
There were critics among baseball purists.
But the proof of La Russa's managerial skills is that he won World Series managing in both the American and National leagues, with the Athletics and the Cardinals.
During Tony's many victorious years of managing, he often resorted to one of the rarest of elements — plain logic.
La Russa did use a computer as a storage place for his some of his ideas. All managers use them today. Plus lots of managers rely on input from the corps of statistical geeks employed in many front offices in throughout the Major Leagues.
But for La Russa, it was his old-fashion brain that worked best.
Move made out of necessity
It was in April of 1987 that La Russa was forced to be inventive — and his decision vaulted him into the genius category.
He was managing the Athletics then. And early in the season his closer, Jay Howell, was injured.
La Russa needed a plan in the emergency. So he used logic.
He picked the replacement from his starting rotation — a guy who had been a 20-game winner and had pitched a no-hitter in his 12-season role as a starter. Tony sent the veteran pitcher to the bullpen and turned to him as his closer.
The new closer was Dennis Eckersley.
Presto — La Russa's logic worked, except for one memorable home run by Kirk Gibson.
Two years later Eckersley was as responsible for the A's four-game sweep over the Giants in the earthquake World Series as Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
By Eckersley's sixth year as a closer he was the American League's Cy Young Award winner and most valuable player. His 24-season career in the majors was glorified by his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first appearance on the ballot. .
Eckersley never would have been elected to the Hall of Fame if he had remained a starting pitcher.
The saga of Dennis Eckersley is pertinent now, during spring training 2013.
The Tigers have an overabundance of starting pitchers. The requirement calls for a rotation of five. The Tigers also are desperate for a closer. A pitcher who could enter a game in the ninth inning to protect a one-lead without giving the manager the willies.
Rick Porcello — for all that I've been reading and hearing out of Lakeland from afar — is the odd man out among the Tigers' starting pitchers. He is considered No. 6 starter by the savants.
He has been cast as a pitcher excessive and, according to all the rumor stuff, available. The Tigers, it has been said since Miguel Cabrera took the called third strike to end the World Series last October, have been offering Porcello up for trade.
The Rangers. ESPN says this. The Yankees. Fox Sports says that. The Red Sox. BaseballRumors.com says all of the previous, according to reliable sources.
And through all the chatter in Lakeland, Porcello has excelled in his showcase exhibition-game starts for the Tigers.
It is time for some logic, I say from my perch, long distance.
Presto — Rick Porcello just might make the highly qualified closer the Tigers are seeking.
He might — who knows? — be another Dennis Eckerlsey. A decent starting pitcher who suffered one poor season converted into a better than decent closer.
Jimmy Leyland happens to be a protégé of Tony La Russa's. They think alike as managers. Dave Dombrowski was a general-manager-in-the making when LaRussa managed the White Sox.
Money pitch works
This cannot serve as a knock on young Bruce Rondon. He might be a Mariano Rivera of the future. He blazes the ball. Up above 100 mph. Good.
Spring training is full of pipe dreams.
I cannot imagine Leyland trusting his slim ninth-inning lead to a young fire-balling kid who had not yet pitched to a major league batter when he entered spring training.
Eckersley made it as a dominant closer when his fastball throttled down. His best pitch was a slider — the groundball pitch.
By coincidence, Porcello's best pitch is his slider.
Once upon a time — the same year as Eckersley was being converted by La Russa's logic into a Hall of Fame closer — the Tigers had a young pitcher of high promise in their farm system. They traded the kid away so they could win their division in September.
The trade worked. There was logic used. Doyle Alexander pitched the Tigers into the postseason playoffs.
But the Tigers are still hearing from the criticism crabs for trading away John Smoltz to the Braves.
Odd — many of the finest closers in the history of baseball entered the majors as starters, just like Eckersley. Among such pitchers were Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers, the great Rivera himself, and also Johnny Smoltz.
And even odder, there are just two pitchers in all the 137 years that professional baseball has been played who have won 20 games as starters and later saved 50 games as closers, in separate seasons.
Dennis Eckersley is one of these multi-talented athletes. John Smoltz — traded away by the Tigers in a deal still controversial 26 years later — is the other.
This one time a trial with Porcello is more logical than another trade.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com