By: Dan Hasty (@DanHasty34)
Much to my own surprise, I think Rick Porcello may be turning a corner. For years, the one they called "Ricky P" has been under the microscope after his top-five draft billing in 2007. After the Tigers re-signed Anibal Sanchez, the prevailing thought was that the team would trade the loser of its spring training fifth-starter battle between Porcello and Drew Smyly.
Suddenly, the team finds itself with a harder decision for all the right reasons. This spring, Porcello's been the Tigers' best pitcher, posting a 2.50 ERA in 18 innings. He's striking out a batter per inning, while still having not issued a walk through four spring starts. Smyly's turned heads as well, going 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA in just over 16 innings on the mound.
Earlier this off-season, Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy was rumored as a return for Porcello. The Tigers are too smart for that, as this is exactly the kind of move you don't want your team to make. No doubt, Hardy's a better defensive shortstop, but doesn't offer much more as a hitter than Peralta. In fact, Hardy hit for a lower batting average (.238) than Peralta (.239) last season. Good teams don't trade a pitcher with Porcello's talent for a simple defensive upgrade.
Let's examine how a trade like this could have worked out for both sides:
Best–Case Scenario: Porcello tackles the beast of the fifth and sixth inning; an area of games that haunted him often last year. Suddenly, Baltimore has one of the top young starters in baseball, and he's still just 24 years old. In fact, Porcello, who's under club control for three seasons, is younger than baseball's biggest pitching phenom; Stephen Strasburg.
Worst-Case Scenario: Porcello, a .500 pitcher through the majority of his big-league career, serves as an innings eater and a fourth or fifth starter that cost you an aging shortstop.
Best-Case Scenario: Hardy hits 10 more home runs than Peralta, and gets to 20 extra ground balls over the next two seasons.
Worst-Case Scenario: See Renteria, Edgar.
I'll always take a good pitcher over a good hitter, because a good pitcher guarantees that I'll play in a competitive game that day. Miguel Cabrera can go five-for-five and hit for the cycle, but if Jimmy Tigertown gives up nine runs in five innings during a spot-start, Cabrera's Day is irrelevant. It goes to show that the five most important players on a baseball team is its five-man starting rotation.
Think back to 2008: The Tigers acquire Cabrera, their franchise cornerstone while simultaneously misplacing perhaps the most commonly displaced Tiger in team history; Brandon Inge. Before the season began, Inge was designated a super-utility player to enter games as the primary defensive replacement and play when a starter needed a day off. Near the end of spring training, Curtis Granderson was forced to miss time with an injury, and Inge found himself a new position. Even without a spot in the everyday lineup, Inge found his way into 113 games that season after Granderson's injury, and the trade of Pudge Rodriguez New York made Inge a starting catcher for the final two months of the season. The Tigers needed a player like Inge then in the same way they need to keep a player like Porcello now.
The truth is, everyone in the Tigers' starting lineup should be considered capable. Jhonny Peralta, who hit a career-low .239, and showed the defensive range of a hippopotamus last season, is a capable major-leaguer. Last season, it was understandable to feel differently about the Tigers need at second base. With Omar Infante, the lineup issues focus on bounce back seasons from Peralta and Alex Avila, while figuring out if Austin Jackson's as good as his 2012 numbers suggest. Another reason you don't trade young starting pitching is the spring performance of Doug Fister, who gave up seven runs in three innings earlier this week in Lakeland. In just 14 innings, the 6'8" right-hander has surrendered 21 hits and holds a 7.36 ERA. While the numbers make some queasy, this is normal for a team this time of year. Just like a hitter, there's bound to be a few pitchers who struggle as well.
Over the course of a season, players get hurt, others become ineffective, and one or two get traded. If you keep both Porcello and Smyly, you greatly lessen your risk of giving away games early in the season. Inevitably, a muscle tweak for Sanchez, a slow start for Fister, or the need for an extra pitcher for a doubleheader will come up. A successful baseball team has more than 25 solid players, and this team already has enough questions with its bullpen.
It may be intriguing, but the Tigers will put themselves in the best position to give Porcello one last chance. Holding on to what they have now gives them the most benefit later.
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