LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rick Porcello is off the rumor mill and back in the Tigers' rotation. The way he pitched this spring, it was the easiest choice for the organization to make.
After all the reported trade discussions, all the clusters of scouts at his spring outings and all the questions afterwards, Porcello will begin the season back in the same place he has started the previous four seasons. Manager Jim Leyland made it official on Tuesday, putting Porcello in the rotation and slotting second-year left-hander Drew Smyly in the bullpen.
The announcement, at least for now, quiets three months of speculation on Porcello's potential departure, which once seemed inevitable after Detroit re-signed Anibal Sanchez. It could be rekindled soon enough this season, depending on Detroit's needs, but the Tigers are going to find out whether Porcello can translate some of the best pitching this spring into the regular season.
"The general manager gives you the players, the manager has something to say, the coaches have something to say, but inevitably, at some point it's up to the player," Leyland said Tuesday. "That's just the way it is. Production is important up here, and it's up to the players when they get their opportunity to produce."
Porcello was not available for comment before the Tigers' game against the Braves on Tuesday afternoon.
Essentially, the competition between Porcello and Smyly left the Tigers with six very good starters. Given the rate of injuries among Major League pitchers, they'd rather have one starting candidate too many than one too few.
Porcello reported to camp seemingly on borrowed time given the roster makeup. However, he brought a more consistent delivery and a surprisingly good breaking ball with him, the product of offseason work with pitching coach Jeff Jones.
Once Porcello ditched the slider for the curveball as his breaking ball of choice, he seemed more comfortable, and he gained confidence with each outing.
A Juan Francisco three-run home run Feb. 27 was the only damage Porcello allowed over his first four starts before the Blue Jays and Marlins hit him a bit over his final two outings. More impressive than the stinginess in scoring, however, was the walk-to-strikeout.
Porcello did not walk a batter in 24 innings of Grapefruit League action. His only two walks came in a Class A start March 20 on the back fields at Tigertown. With 21 strikeouts, however, he was doing far better than pitching to contact, a difference that came largely on a better mix of curveballs and fastballs to go with his sinker.
All the while, Porcello sidestepped questions about his future and focused on his own pitching, the lone factor he could control.
"I think he's shown a lot of character in the way he handled the rumors, the way he approached his job this spring," Leyland said. "I think he's a very good Major League pitcher that's getting better."
Porcello was good enough this spring that even his competitor acknowledged he would have been tough to keep off the squad.
"I knew we were both pitching great," Smyly said. "They know what they have in Rick. He's been starting for them for four years. He deserves it. I still see myself as a Major League starter. I want to be a starter, but it just shows how much talent we have on this team. It's an honor for me to make it."
Smyly started off his spring with three consecutive scoreless starts, covering nine innings of three-hit ball. Smyly gave up seven runs over 8 2/3 innings in his next two starts, but he settled down for five innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts against the Nationals on Sunday.
The Tigers could have taken that success and said he needs to stick as a starter and work at Triple-A Toledo as an insurance policy. In the end, a few factors argued towards keeping him in Detroit.
"One, we felt like he's one of our 12 best pitchers," Leyland said. "Two, we felt like the fact that he's built up to 100 pitches this spring, with the weather conditions and everything where you might have delays and you could have to take a starter out, he can still come in and pitch four or five innings and do that for a period of time."
That could change later in the season, Leyland said, if Smyly isn't getting enough innings to stay fresh. For now, however, he'll serve a similar role to the bullpen spot he held last postseason, covering long relief but also potentially finding himself in specialized opportunities. Depending on the makeup of the rest of the bullpen, Smyly could be the second left-hander behind Phil Coke.
"It's an honor to make the team. Porcello, he deserves it," Smyly said. "All along, I just wanted to be on the team. I wanted to help this team win. Just to know that I'll be here, I'm really excited about it."