Young Drew Smyly is once again trying to win the fifth starter job. (Flickr, hueytaxi)
The first signs of spring subtly popped up this week, as Detroit Tigers’ pitchers and catchers began reporting to Lakeland, Florida. Soon, the rest of the team will follow and spring training will finally begin, unlocking the initial baby steps on a season rife with high hardball expectations around the Motor City.
In the interest of celebrating the first battery position called to duty, today, we take a closer look at five pitchers to watch this spring. With a rookie closer, yet another battle for the fifth starter position and a free agent months removed from a monster contract cash in joining the rotation for a full year, there’s no lack of important hurlers to monitor. Here’s a top five for this spring.
1. Bruce Rondon. Is there any doubt that Rondon is the most important pitcher to watch this spring? The World Series contending Tigers have placed complete faith in the 22 year old rookie with a live arm, apparently choosing not to sign a veteran closer to supplement him. Rondon can throw 100 mph and already posesses the proper late game mindset to be successful. He’s rough around the edges, though, so it will be important to watch his development in the spring. Hopefully, the Tigers get him plenty of close spring games where he can show his stuff and take the training wheels off.
2. Drew Smyly. The second most important pitching battle of the spring involves Smyly, the left handed hurler who’s excellent postseason has left him in great position to nail down the fifth starter role. Smyly splashed on the scene pitching solidly last year, and during the ALCS against the Yankees, he made more of a name for himself with solid relief work. Will it be Smyly or Rick Porcello who takes over the fifth starter role? The battle will be one of the most thrilling in camp this year, and Smyly’s performance and development might decide if Porcello gets dealt or not. He’s definetly trending upward.
3. Rick Porcello. The second part of the biggest camp roster fight, Porcello enters as the elder statesman in the battle, and perhaps has the inside track to the fifth starter role as a result of his previous time on the club, or, depending on who you talk to, may still be traded by the end of camp. Nevertheless, fans should watch to see if Porcello can improve upon some pretty average numbers from 2012, where he went 10-12 with an ugly 4.59 ERA. Still, he struck out 107, and is working on a slider which he hopes will provide him some advantages. With a good camp, Porcello will either earn a spot in the rotation or perhaps provide Detroit with some additional value on the open market.
4. Octavio Dotel. With Jose Valverde gone to Miami (go ahead and exhale) and no immediate plans for adding a veteran closer to in order to help along Rondon’s adjustment, the Tigers will be counting on Dotel to play a big role in 2013. If Rondon struggles and the Tigers want to keep Phil Coke in his traditional late inning stopper role, Dotel might get the first shot at the closer’s role, being he’s done the job before. Coming down the stretch in 2012 and throughout the playoffs, Dotel was excellent. Can he continue to turn back the hands of time and remain an effective option despite his age? Hopefully, he can get off to a solid start during the spring first, building off of last season’s late momentum. He’ll also need to be in the proper frame of mind to close from the get-go should Rondon struggle. Many might overlook the journeyman reliever, but he’s probably the most vital cog to Detroit’s 2013 bullpen.
5. Anibal Sanchez. Last but certainly not least, the $88 million dollar man. The Tigers are putting plenty of faith in Rondon, but they’re putting nearly as much in Sanchez to be the man he was from September through October by opening up the checkbook. Sparkling regular season performances against the Indians and Royals, and a fantastic playoff game against the Yankees were memorable, but this was also the pitcher who looked just as shaky at times. Sanchez did settle in as the season went on, but might he be feeling more pressure playing with a big contract? It will be important for Sanchez to set the tone immediately when he gets the ball and show there will be no lapses. Pitchers coming off big free agent deals often struggle the subsequent spring and those issues can persist into the season. For the Tigers to do what’s expected of them in 2013, that cannot happen to a new rock in the rotation.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll preview some critical position players to watch. For now, though, sit back and revel in the fact that pitchers and catchers are once again tossing around the baseball in warmer weather. Remember these names on the hill when the games actually begin.
Lo, the winter isn’t passed yet, but the rain of no Tigers’ baseball news is finally over and gone.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax