Rick Porcello will begin the season as a starter in Jim Leyland's rotation. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Lakeland, Fla. -- Pitching wins. And the Tigers know it about as well as any team in baseball.
Look at their designated playground, the Central Division.
The Twins' rotation is a mess, even after they traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere in a bid to make Ron Gardenhire's starters stable. The White Sox are thin behind Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. The Indians have holes galore. The Royals are better but had to spend a mint to get James Shields.
They patch up a rotation hole when one develops (Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez) but normally have so many pitching prospects they can afford to spin them off. This spring, they had a surplus of starters. Front-office steward Dave Dombrowski all but hired a plane to drag one of those airborne banners ("Rick Porcello Available") past the offices of his 29 general manager colleagues.
But the trade didn't happen. And Tuesday the Tigers decided the best way to jam six starters into five slots was to fill a bullpen hole that at least could be handled by Drew Smyly.
And so now we have the answer to a saucy spring-camp mystery. Porcello sticks in manager Jim Leyland's five-man rotation, while Smyly, a left-hander the Tigers ideally want to feature every fifth day, bides time as a long-relief and situational option.
On the plus side, the Tigers have their best pitchers aboard. There is no weak link in their rotation, even if Doug Fister — a touch-and-feel pitcher who generally needs extra time — has been ragged in his Florida stints.
They also can utilize Smyly as they did in last autumn's playoffs. He can be their answer if a starter has a bad day and an early departure, or if rain (or snow) arrives once a starter has already begun a game but then must sit after a long break.
Smyly probably will double as a situational left-hander now that the biggest pitching issue of spring camp — Bruce Rondon's bid to make the team — took a major turn in Tuesday's game against the Braves at Marchant Stadium.
Rondon was about as good as a rookie closer candidate can get. He finally mixed in his slider. He missed bats. He had B.J. Upton looking for the slider when he struck him on a 98-mph fastball to end the sixth. Rondon had opened the sixth with a strikeout of Upton's brother, Justin, and between sliders twice hit 100 mph with his heater.
He will pitch again today against the Phillies as Leyland gets back-to-back looks at a massive right-hander on whom so much rests. But the fastball-slider combination and control Rondon featured Tuesday explains why Dombrowski was so intent on trusting a kid pitcher to make the team.
Unless something unsettling happens today with Rondon, Al Alburquerque probably wins a job after a brilliant outing Monday at Port St. Lucie, which restored him to the Tigers' graces. The guy left out, unjustly, will likely be Darin Downs, a situational left-hander the Tigers love and a pitcher who has every right to be aboard the team charter when it leaves Saturday for Minnesota.
But that decision figures to be a casualty of needing a starter, Smyly, in the bullpen. There simply is no room for a third left-hander when Leyland can take only seven relievers north.
Toledo a possibility
There is another downside to the Porcello-Smyly resolution.
The Tigers have a talented starter in Smyly and want him in the rotation as soon as possible. They want a left-hander as a necessary counter to their otherwise all-right-hand cast.
They also want Smyly to get sufficient innings stretching that skilled left arm. Bullpen duty, even in long relief, is no guarantee Smyly will work in a way that is remotely close to what he and his development requires.
If he finds himself getting too few shifts, expect Smyly to visit Triple A Toledo for some starting seminars ahead of his eventual move to the rotation.
It would have happened by now had Dombrowski got his trade price. But he clearly didn't. And he just as clearly wasn't budging from his necessarily stiff stance.
He likely wants no less than Elvis Andrus from the Rangers, and the Rangers — who appreciate Porcello — aren't interested in trading Andrus.
Neither are other curious teams meeting Dombrowski's price. And so the GM will do the right thing. For now. He will go with his best pitchers, which the Tigers have found is a good recipe for cracking the postseason.