DETROIT -- The Tigers are set to go into the heart of a playoff race with a rookie tandem on the left side of their infield. Their bullpen's fate could eventually rest on the progress of a reliever they just drafted last summer.
All in all, that's not bad for a team built to win now.
The Tigers have drafted more than 50 eventual Major League players over the previous 10 years, a surprising amount for the spots where they've usually drafted, and the first-round picks they've given up over the years. The question now is the next batch, and whether it can help a Tigers squad that suddenly finds itself in the thick of a division race.
If there's help on the way from the farm system, the bigger need to fill is in the bullpen. Four different pitchers -- left-handers Blaine Hardy and Robbie Ray, and right-handers Corey Knebel and Chad Smith -- have already been called up from Triple-A Toledo to make their Major League debuts this season. Knebel and Smith were both Tigers Draft picks -- Knebel, a former University of Texas closer who was fast-tracked after being a first-round pick in 2012, and Smith, a former USC sinkerballer who had to wait a year to recover from Tommy John surgery before he could throw his first professional pitch.
When Knebel got the call at the end of May, he became the first Tiger to make his big league debut within a year of being drafted, since Ryan Perry in 2009.
"Did I ever think it would happen this fast? Absolutely not," Tigers vice president of amateur scouting David Chadd said. "[Team president/general manager] Dave [Dombrowski] says it and I agree, their ability will dictate how fast they go. I never thought he'd be in the big leagues at this point, but I did think if he stayed a reliever he had a chance."
When Smith made his debut, the former 17th-round pick became the latest-round Tigers Draft pick to pitch in a game since Duane Below. He also became a Draft success story after being drafted in the 17th round in 2011 -- two weeks out from Tommy John surgery.
"We took Chad Smith out of USC knowing he was going to have Tommy John," Chadd said.
For now, Smith has essentially replaced Knebel as the extra right-hander in the Tigers' bullpen. If the Tigers are going to get through a potentially brutal summer schedule, they're probably going to need both -- and then some.
When Tigers relievers were sitting idle for stretches in April between off-days due to weather postponements and deep outings from starters, they knew there would be a flip side coming. That started the last few weeks with a rough patch for Detroit's rotation. It'll continue this summer with a cluttered schedule.
Depending on the makeup date for the Tigers' rainout in Chicago last week, they could face a stretch of 24 games in 23 days from late August into September. The Tigers can take advantage of expanded September rosters for the back half of that stretch.
Knebel found himself buried at the back of the Tigers bullpen after some early struggles, but went out on a decent note with back-to-back solid outings. He returned to Toledo with authority, striking out three of the five batters he faced over 1 2/3 innings, then walked three in a save Wednesday.
He has Major League stuff, but not the experience. Smith, meanwhile, has ridden his sinkerball for a meteoric rise from low Class A West Michigan at the end of last season to the big leagues by mid-June.
"I didn't think that it was going to be this early in the season," Smith said this week. "I was thinking maybe something later in the season or maybe something next year. I didn't think it was going to be soon. It's just been clicking."
That heavy schedule, including at least one, and likely two day-night doubleheaders in August, could also mean a callup for starting pitching prospect Ray, the key piece of the Doug Fister trade last fall. Ray filled in for Anibal Sanchez in May and looked more polished than his age of 22 would suggest -- then had a rough performance against Texas on May 22. At this point, he's essentially Detroit's sixth starter when needed.
One other youngster worth watching at Toledo is catcher James McCann, who continues to make a case that he can hold his own offensively against advanced pitching, to complement defensive skills that are arguably Major League ready now. McCann, Detroit's top pick in 2011, entered Thursday batting .290 at Triple-A Toledo with 13 doubles, two homers and 25 RBIs while throwing out 24 of 63 would-be basestealers.