January 24, 2014 at 3:10 pm

John Niyo

Tigers' Drew Smyly eager to be a starter again

The offseason trade of pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals created room for Drew Smyly, above, as the Tigers' fifth starter. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit Drew Smyly knows an opportunity is at hand, which explains why he was on the golf course Monday back home in Dallas, getting in one final round before heading north for the Tigers Winter Caravan this week.

The Tigers pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 13, and while the focus there will be on Smylys windup and delivery as the newest member of the starting rotation, hes also concerned about his swing. His golf swing, that is.

Its coming around, he said, laughing. Trying to get it into shape for spring, too. Thats when it matters, for the money games.

And with Justin Verlander the staff ace on the links as well as the mound busy rehabbing from last months core-muscle surgery, its anybodys game now, Smyly adds.

But the real opportunity, he knows, is the one created by the offseason trade of pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, a move that shed salary from the team payroll while also creating room for Smyly as the Tigers fifth starter.

His job to lose

Its a job Smyly hoped to win last spring in Lakeland. But when an anticipated trade involving Rick Porcello never materialized, the 24-year-old lefty broke camp instead as the Tigers long reliever. And its a job he won in a bit of a surprise in the spring of 2012, making 15 starts before the trade-deadline deal to acquire Anibal Sanchez relegated him to a relief role. (He went 4-3 with a 3.79 earned-run average as a starter that year.)

Now with Fister gone, its a job thats his to lose.

Im stoked, said Smyly, the Tigers second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2010. I was brought up as a starter, thats what Ive done my whole life. So Im looking forward to just getting back in that role.

Even last season, there were times he tried to get back in that role. Like when Sanchez missed time in June due to a right shoulder sprain.

He came to me and said, Hey, am I starting? pitching coach Jeff Jones recalled. And I had to tell him, No, Drew, were gonna keep you in the pen.

Thats because hed become too valuable there, switching from long relief into a role as the Tigers left-handed setup man in the late innings. In 63 appearances last season, he pitched 76 innings with a 2.37 ERA and 81 strikeouts against only 17 walks. And by at least one statistical measure Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR) he was the best left-handed reliever in baseball.

So maybe the question isnt how well hell replace Fisters production in the rotation, but rather how well Ian Krol the lefty reliever acquired in that deal with the Nationals will replace Smyly in the seventh and eighth innings.

Bullpen experience helps

Still, theres a greater expectation now for Smyly, and he knows it. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers GM, talked Thursday about a double-digit win total from his No. 5 starter. And while Smyly wasnt going to get caught up in that, hes confident he can get it done.

He added some weight this offseason in preparation for the workload pushing 200 innings, ideally and will head to Lakeland at around 205 pounds after finishing the postseason last November at 185 or so. And with a few bullpen sessions already under his belt this winter, hes focusing now on his secondary pitches, just as he did a year ago.

Smyly doesnt possess an overpowering fastball topping out at 93-94 mph but he boasts excellent control and a deceptive rising action with it. Hell mix in his cut fastball and slider with good success as well, and he says he likes where hes at with his changeup, a pitch he never really threw much in college or the year he spent in the minors. Or last year, for that matter.

I kind of banked it early in the season, Smyly said. Because when youre coming in for three or four batters, I just wanted to go straight to my go-to pitches. I didnt really want to mess around. But Ive been working on my changeup a lot, just trying to get it back.

Jones said the time spent in the bullpen or more specifically, the time spent on the mound in high-leverage situations late in games last season will only help Smyly now that hes returning to a starters role.

Smyly said much the same Thursday. And though it remains to be seen how hell handle right-handed bats over the long haul especially the ones in the middle of the order the Tigers have always liked his poise and confidence.

Experience and confidence are the two biggest things, Smyly told me Thursday.

But he left out the most important part: Opportunity. And seeing as he finally has a little bit of all three, well see what he can do, starting now.

I think thats where Im at my best, Smyly said. And Im looking forward to it.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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