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 Smyly’s windup and delivery as the newest member of the starting rotation, he’s also concerned about his swing. His golf swing, that is.

“It’s coming around,” he said, laughing. “Trying to get it into shape for spring, too. That’s 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 month’s core-muscle surgery, “it’s anybody’s 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

It’s 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 it’s 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, it’s a job that’s his to lose.

“I’m stoked,” said Smyly, the Tigers’ second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2010. “I was brought up as a starter, that’s what I’ve done my whole life. … So I’m 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, we’re gonna keep you in the ’pen.’”

That’s because he’d 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 isn’t how well he’ll replace Fister’s 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, there’s 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 wasn’t going to get caught up in that, he’s 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, he’s focusing now on his secondary pitches, just as he did a year ago.

Smyly doesn’t possess an overpowering fastball — topping out at 93-94 mph — but he boasts excellent control and a deceptive rising action with it. He’ll mix in his cut fastball and slider with good success as well, and he says he likes where he’s 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 you’re coming in for three or four batters, I just wanted to go straight to my go-to pitches. I didn’t really want to mess around. But I’ve 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 he’s returning to a starter’s role.

Smyly said much the same Thursday. And though it remains to be seen how he’ll 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, we’ll see what he can do, starting now.

“I think that’s where I’m at my best,” Smyly said. “And I’m looking forward to it.”


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