February 13, 2014 at 7:35 pm

For Tigers' Drew Smyly, return as starter worth the weight

Lakeland, Fla. — Drew Smyly didn’t know the door to his future was opening.

But it was.

Or, rather, was about to.

He was watching TV on the night of Dec. 2.

“I don’t remember what was on,” Smyly said. “It was pretty much an ordinary night. Then the phone rang.”

It was his dad.

“Did you see what the Tigers just did?” Drew’s father asked him. “They just traded Doug Fister.”

With that, of course, an instant vacancy was created in the Tigers’ rotation — but just as quickly, it was filled by Smyly, the starter-in-waiting.

In fact, it was the moment for which the left-hander had been patiently hoping — but one he was confident would come sooner or later

It initially felt strange when it did, though.

“We all liked Doug,” Smyly said of Fister. “It was tough to see him get traded because he was a great teammate. At the same time, though ...”

At the same time, opportunity had suddenly arrived — no hemming and hawing necessary.

“So it was bittersweet,” Smyly said. “I was sorry and excited at the same time.”

Throughout his successful full season as a relief pitcher, the Tigers never had stopped looking at Smyly as a future starter.

He was the clear heir apparent — the reason, in short, why the Tigers could even afford to think about trading Fister.

But all that was two and a half months and 20 pounds ago.

Skinny Drew Smyly is now lanky, but solid Drew Smyly. Not overfed, he no longer looks underfed.

And while he might have been strong enough to withstand the rigors of being a major-league starting pitcher without the added pounds, being too thin won’t be an issue now.

“It’s always been hard for me to keep weight on throughout the season,” he said, “so my goal is to maintain where I’m at now.”

It can’t be said, though, that Smyly has evolved into a starter.

He was always on this track.

“Even last spring,” he said, “my mind-set was as a starter. That’s the role I was competing for.”

It was into a relief pitcher he evolved instead, because it was necessary for him to do so. That was the available role.

Not any more, though.

Even the position of his locker at Joker Marchant Stadium is a reminder of the transition.

When Smyly entered the Tigers’ clubhouse this year, he didn’t have to look for his name along the bank of lockers where he was two years ago.

Or where his locker was last year.

He has moved up to starters’ row — not far from the corner locker that has been Justin Verlander’s clubhouse home for years.

You’ve definitely moved up, Drew.

Smyly’s quiet confidence always has made it seem he would be ready, however, when the opportunity arrived.

He’s never seemed nervous. He’s never appeared to be in awe of the fact he became a major-leaguer at 22.

“I might not have shown it,” he said, “but I was a little timid that first year. I kept it inside.

“As I was growing up, my coaches always wanted to me to get more excited, but I still keep my emotions inside me. Even my parents say, ‘You look so calm out there.’

“No matter what my body language is, I get nervous like everybody else. But when you’re out there, you’ve got a job to do.”

And Smyly believes he has the stuff to do it well.

So do the Tigers.

“He certainly has the pitches to succeed,” pitching coach Jeff Jones said.

Now he has the opportunity to match.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com

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Drew Smyly had 63 appearances but no starts for the Tigers last season. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News