OK, that article header is meant to be taken figuratively, so hang in there with me. If the Detroit Tigers don’t bring back the Brad Penny to be their 5th starter in 2012, they are very likely to bring back a Brad Penny.
The Tigers would have absolutely loved for one of their few home-grown products to prove MLB worthy at this point. However, Andy Oliver has tanked in both of his big league chances over the past 2 seasons and the team’s #1 prospect, Jacob Turner, did nothing in 2011 at either the minor or major league level to prove that he could take a rotation spot in the spring and throw 30 games for Jim Leyland’s crew.
Perhaps the most enticing in-house option is that of Drew Smyly. The left-hander was dubbed the team’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2011, and deservedly so. He dominated high-A Lakeland and didn’t blink an eye when he was promoted to AA Erie, only stepping up his game in a notorious hitter’s league.
Between the two leagues, Smyly was 11-6 with a 2.07 ERA. In 126 innings of work, the 22-year old struck out 130 hitters. The best part of all is that he walked just 36 and allowed only 2 home runs.
The rotation spot that was supposed to belong to Phil Coke in 2011, turned out to be a revolving door. Coke, Oliver, Charlie Furbush, Duane Below, and Turner (for a few spot starts) were flat out ineffective. Not until Doug Fister showed up at the trade deadline did the Tigers have 5 legitimate starters, and that included Penny and his bloated 5.30 ERA.
In fact, if that substandard pre-Fister crew could have mustered up just one more win, the Tigers would have had home field advantage over the Rangers in the ALCS, and things might have turned out differently.
The Tigers appear to be in tweak mode this offseason, rather than attempting an overhaul, which is by and large understandable. The first move was bringing back Gerald Laird to sub for Alex Avila a few times per week and I bet that move didn’t blow your hair back (click here for more on Laird).
The Tigers are looking at some options at 2nd and 3rd base as well but will have to get very lucky to find an impact player at either position given the limitations they have placed on their projected payroll.
And the Tigers, despite finishing 1st in the AL Central, could use a little impact to put them over the top in the American League. If Detroit doesn’t go all-in on Delmon Young for 2012, they could find impact in left field, as mentioned in this article.
Based on all of the rumblings out of Tiger Town, it sounds as if the 5th starter who is brought in will be little more than a space-filler (see Penny, Brad – circa 2011). But should that be the case?
Those that know a bit about the situation figure the Tigers might bring in a low-end starter to keep the 5th spot warm for Smyly or Turner, whenever management deems them ready to take the controls, and then shift the veteran placeholder to the bullpen to aid in middle relief late in the season.
But what happens if none of the minor leaguers prove their worth, which is always a very real possibility? Then the Tigers are stuck with a Brad Penny-type pitcher once more. This would be the same type of pitcher who proved to be unusable in any relevant scenario during the 2011 playoffs.
Who should the Tigers target for the 5th rotation slot? Should it be a free agent they are after, the profile will likely be someone that is cheaper than $4M/year and who only wants a 1-year deal. Talk about liquidating the options.
Some names that come to mind include Rich Harden, Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, and a few other retreads.
Harden and Bedard come with extreme injury risk, which might not be the end of the world. By the time their inevitable physical breakdown occurs, perhaps Smyly or Turner will be ready to go. But, perhaps not.
And if not, maybe the Tigers need to take a longer look at a Bruce Chen or Jeff Francis. One benefit of claiming Chen is that he owns the Tigers. Put him on the roster and, by default, the Tigers might win 2 more games next year.
Not only would Chen provide a much-needed lefty presence in the rotation, but he’s a proven winner coming from a proven loser. Pitching for the Royals, he has gone 24-15 over the last 2 years with ERA’s of 4.17 and 3.77. These numbers would be a monumental upgrade over what Penny was able to produce.
The problem is that the 34-year old Chen is reportedly going to be offered a 2-year deal from his suitors. The allure of pitching in the postseason, however, which seems highly likely for Detroit in 2012, might be enough to convince him to take a 1-year gig.
Francis certainly isn’t a sexy option either, but he could hold the spot for one of the up and comers down on the farm and then move to the pen as a long reliever. He will come cheap, is a lefty, and will take a 1-year deal.
The temptation for the Tigers to run with Smyly or Turner out of the gate has to be tormenting GM Dave Dombrowski as he weighs his options.
The last two times the Tigers gave a young rookie a shot out of camp it worked out well. Justin Verlander went 17-9 as a rookie in 2006, a year that the Tigers made the World Series. In 2009, Detroit missed the postseason by way of a play-in game versus the Twins. Rick Porcello not only pitched well in that 163rd game, but he went 14-9 that year, the best of his young career.
Whether the Tigers bring back the Brad Penny, a Brad Penny, or run with a young gun will be one of the biggest storylines to watch as the offseason progresses.