Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 2/25/12
LAKELAND, Fla. -- One day you're growing up in Arkansas and the next you're at spring training, working out with the American League MVP and Cy Young winner. It didn't happen quite that fast for lefty Drew Smyly. It just seems like it. Smyly, 22, was the Tigers' second-round pick in the June 2010 draft. His ascension in the system has been rapid, considering he's just two years out of college. Last season, Smyly earned Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors with an 11-6 record, 2.07 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 22 appearances (21 starts) with Single-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. Before he came to Lakeland, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said he was looking forward to seeing Smyly more than anyone. "Some people in our minor-league system -- and I don't know if they're right or wrong -- they think he's ready to pitch in the big leagues right now," Dombrowski said. Dombrowski has Smyly on the list of candidates for the fifth-starter job, which includes top prospect Jacob Turner, Andy Oliver, Casey Crosby, Duane Below and Adam Wilk. "It's exciting to have that type of opportunity, just to be in contention for it," Smyly said after a day of work in Lakeland. "Them thinking that highly of you, it's just really an exciting time." Catcher Alex Avila has already caught Smyly this spring and came away with a good first impression. "He's got a good fastball, throws a pretty nice cutter and a changeup and curveball," Avila said. "He doesn't throw as hard as a lot of the guys we have in camp. "He's probably low-90s. Probably every once in a while, he can get up to 93 or 94. But he hits his spots well and is a good overall pitcher. "I don't think there's anything that's really going to wow you, but he does a lot of things right. It seems like a guy that would be very consistent, throw strikes and get quick outs. "My first impression was I thought he was a pretty good pitcher and definitely has a shot." What might be surprising is that Smyly really hadn't counted on a career in professional baseball, at least not until fairly recently. "I'm from Little Rock (Ark.), and I didn't get many scholarship offers," Smyly said. "When Arkansas offered me, it was kind of like a no-doubter, playing in front of all my friends and family. "I redshirted my first year, and I guess I got a little better and better each year. My last year I started getting questionnaires from teams and whatnot, and it kind of set in that I could play pro ball. It just kind of took off from there." Unlike guys such as Turner and Rick Porcello who were drafted out of high school, Smyly needed a little more time to develop. "Going to college really helped me," Smyly said. "Over the three years I was there, I matured and learned a lot. I guess just throwing strikes and learning the game over the years really helps. "And when you get ahead of hitters, it makes it easier on everybody, so that's the one thing I really focus on is trying to get ahead and throw strikes." After his first successful season in professional baseball, Smyly got an opportunity to compete with Team USA. "I had a lot of fun," Smyly said. "It was a great experience. We went to Panama and played in the World Cup and then went to Guadalajara and played in the Pan American Games. "We got silver in the Pan American Games, but just getting to be around all those people -- there's a lot of Triple-A guys and guys that have been in the major leagues and been around the game for a while -- so that was a great learning experience as well, getting to be with those coaches and players." With Team USA, Smyly was able to learn how to prepare for games and about some of the finer points of pitching from players with more experience. Perhaps Smyly could have offered some advice, too. He went 2-0, striking out 17 batters in 17 scoreless innings in three starts. But he said his most memorable moment came in a game in which he didn't even pitch. "One thing I remember the most is playing Cuba, when we beat Cuba," Smyly said. "We beat them in the Pan American Games in the semifinals to go to the championship game. "They'd won like four years in a row, so that was a really big deal." Dombrowski noted Smyly's play on the international stage, which is one of the reasons he was eager to see him. "He went to international competition with the U.S. team last year and was the best pitcher on that team," Dombrowski said. "He was their No. 1 pitcher. "In general, if you look at the guys that have been successful in international competition on that team, the majority of them end up playing in the big leagues the next year." After his international experience, Smyly is now getting an opportunity to play alongside major-leaguers and learn from them. "It's going great," Smyly said. "This is the first time I ever got to meet most of these guys, so it's been fun getting to work out with Rick (Porcello) and (Max) Scherzer and (Justin) Verlander and see how they do their stuff." Smyly said he's been getting lots of texts from friends and family about his famous teammates like Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. "I've never really been that star struck, but it's really cool," Smyly said. "I came here early and Verlander was working out. That was the first time I saw him, so it's pretty neat just being in the same workout room with him, doing the same workouts." Smyly has also relished the chance to work with former Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers, who is in camp specifically to help the young lefties work on their pick-off moves, defense and other pitching nuances. "He was helping us on pickoff moves the other day, most of the left-handers," Smyly said. "Because he was one of the best at it, he was trying to show us what he did, kind of work it into our mechanics. "It was really fun getting to work with him and kind of help us out on our pick-off moves. Hopefully, it's better this year and I get to pick off some runners." Just where Smyly will be trying to pick off runners is the question, whether it's at the major-league level or perhaps at Triple-A. Despite his youth and inexperience, Smyly doesn't seem intimidated by the competition. "I think everyone in contention can hold their own and do a good job," Smyly said. "If it's me or someone else, it's going to be an awesome opportunity. "We're not going to hold back, so it's going to be an exciting opportunity for all of us."
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