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Porcello, Smyly both strong contenders for fifth spot

Both have been sharp this spring, leaving Detroit with a tough rotation decision

Porcello, Smyly both strong contenders for fifth spot play video for Porcello, Smyly both strong contenders for fifth spot

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jim Leyland likes to put reporters on the spot once in a while, especially when he senses a question coming that could get him second-guessed. So, when the Tigers manager heard the first reference to Rick Porcello following Drew Smyly's victory against the Phillies on Tuesday, he immediately posed a question right back.

"Who would you start?" he asked.

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He wasn't actually expecting an answer. He was looking to make a point, which was reinforced when he didn't get an answer.

"I'm being funny," Leyland said, "but that's the problem: You don't know. Neither do I. That's why I asked you the question. It's not that easy. It's not that easy for me either."

The way Smyly and Porcello have pitched this spring, it isn't easy to pick between them. It is, however, easy to believe in the pick, whichever way it goes.

"I'm not really worried about the fifth starter situation," Leyland said.

The fifth starter is among the least of Leyland's worries right now. He might be more worried about the sixth starter on down.

A total of 304 different pitchers started games in the Major Leagues last year, an average of just over 10 per team. Take out the pitchers who made only one start last season, and 279 different pitchers made multiple starts in the big leagues last year. That's 9.3 pitchers per team.

Just two teams -- the Reds and Giants -- got by with just five pitchers making multiple starts for them. Nobody else made it through the season with less than seven. The A's, Orioles and Rangers all made it to the playoffs with double-digit pitchers making multiple starts. The Tigers and Braves both got at least one start from 10 different pitchers.

Leyland knows the numbers, because he knew the average off the top of his head. He brought them up himself earlier Tuesday.

He knows rotation depth is important. Whether it's more important than trade chips is a question for the front office, but he has no hesitation in making a point about rotation depth.

"It's a good situation to have," Leyland said. "We have six capable starters. If things play out normal, you usually use about 10 during the regular season. It's nice to have six definites."

It's only Spring Training, but Leyland's fifth and sixth starters are statistically among the best pitchers in baseball this spring. Porcello's 14 strikeouts had him tied for fifth in baseball as of Tuesday evening, while just five pitchers had thrown more innings while giving up fewer runs this spring.

All three of Porcello's runs came on a Juan Francisco home run in his second start of the spring. He has tossed 10 scoreless innings on seven hits with 11 strikeouts since the homer. More important to Leyland, he has honed a nasty curveball as potentially the long-awaited breaking pitch to go with his fastball, sinker and changeup.

Smyly hadn't given up a run this spring until he surrendered three Tuesday. One was unearned, and another that was earned came as a result of a fly-ball double that fell in between Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch in left-center field on what looked to be a miscommunication.

Smyly gave up five hits over 3 1/3 innings with a walk and a strikeout. His ERA skyrocketed to a stingy 1.46.

Leyland has two pitchers competing for one open rotation spot, and competing well. Compared to last year, when he had four candidates for one starting spot and no one particularly stood out, it's a blessing.

"That's what I've been saying from the get-go: Competition makes everybody better," Smyly said. "It makes you work harder, makes you focus harder. Just all around, it brings the best out of you. So it's good that we're both doing well. It's going to be a fight."

The question is what happens to the combatants at the end of camp.

If Smyly clearly out-pitches Porcello, Detroit has a decision to make with a 24-year-old starter who has a good sinker and a still-improving game. More than a few teams would love to have that, though they would have to weigh his $5.1 million salary and likely increases to come over the next couple of years through arbitration.

The Tigers have made it clear they wouldn't send Porcello to the Minors. If Smyly is a future starter, and the timetable is now, then a trade sooner or later clears the way.

If Porcello clearly out-pitches Smyly, the Tigers have options with Smyly, who spent most of the stretch run at Triple-A Toledo and could easily go back there to get more seasoning.

But what if both of them keep posting relatively equal numbers, and maybe even continue at this pace? That could present the toughest decision for the Tigers. It's early, but so far, that's where they're headed.

On the surface, Smyly's lower salary and service time lean toward keeping him and finding another home for Porcello, especially if the Tigers can fill a combination of immediate and future needs in return, such as a closer and infield prospects. But then looms the number of starters most teams use in a season.

If these Spring Training performances continue, the Tigers can feel confident with their five-man rotation. After that, though, their options are far thinner. There's no top-rated prospect such as Jacob Turner or Andy Oliver waiting at Triple-A like in past years. Their closest answers would be Casey Crosby and Duane Below, both of whom made starts for the Tigers in the last couple of years with mixed results. They have also both struggled this spring.

They have Minor League free agent Shawn Hill, who will start for them against the Cardinals on Saturday as Detroit tries to stretch him out for a likely season-opening assignment at Toledo. But the Blue Jays used a dozen different starters last year in their injury-ravaged rotation and Hill, their farmhand, wasn't one of them.

In the end, it's conceivable that the Tigers' tougher decision could play into this one. If a closer by a committee goes from a possibility -- as Leyland characterized it Tuesday -- to a reality at season's end, they'll have to mix and match relievers in the ninth inning.

One such reliever is Phil Coke, the only left-hander guaranteed a spot in the bullpen. In fact, Coke could be a strong option in their season-opening series against the Twins to face Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau if they come up in the ninth, and again at home against the lefty-heavy Yankees.

If Coke is saved for the ninth only on some days, the Tigers could use a second left-hander. If that lefty could also handle long relief, all the better. Darin Downs could handle it, the way he has been pitching this spring. So, conceivably, could Smyly.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told the Detroit News last week that both Porcello and Smyly "deserve to start." So far, both are doing their part to prove it. The question the Tigers will have to weigh at the end of camp is what option makes them strongest -- not just at the fifth spot, but beyond.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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