With a strong nucleus of returners from the 2012 American League championship team and some key offseason additions, many think the Detroit Tigers have a strong chance to contend for a World Series title this year. One of the biggest strengths for the team is the starting rotation that features Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister. One of the unanswered questions, though, is who will fill the fifth spot in the Tigers rotation. Yesterday MLB.com’s Jason Beck wrote that the Tigers need to make a decision soon regarding Rick Porcello: should they use him as the fifth starter or trade the 24-year-old righty? From the article:
This is when scouts go from organizational reports to specific targets, and when Dombrowski goes from early contact with other clubs to specific talks to figure out who's actually serious about doing a deal. Nobody in Tigers camp, maybe even in baseball, is generating more conversation than Porcello.
Porcello's situation is about to generate a whole lot of talk -- not just from other clubs, but within the organization. As the Tigers sent out eight Minor League players from camp Tuesday morning, they were already honing in on Porcello's situation.
It's no longer just a matter of what the Tigers could get for their 24-year-old sinkerballer. It's a question of whether they should trade him in the first place.
I think the Tigers would be better served using Porcello as their fifth starter than trading him. Has he been slightly disappointing to this point in his career? Considering he was hailed as the best high school pitcher since Josh Beckett in the 2007 draft and was ranked in Baseball America’s top 25 prospects in both 2008 and 2009, I think it’s safe to say he has failed to live up to expectations. Still, he is a pitcher entering his age-24 season who has posted a 107 ERA- and a 100 FIP- while totaling 9.7 fWAR over 691.2 innings. At just $5.1 million this year, Porcello is already a bargain producing at least 2.0 WAR each of his four seasons. The Tigers would be wrong to trade him -- not because of what he is, but because of what he still can become.
As Ken Rosenthall pointed out, Porcello is one of only five pitchers to start his career with at least four consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins before turning 24. Three of the others -- Bert Blyleven, Chief Bender and Dennis Eckersley -- are in the Hall of Fame. The fourth is Dwight Gooden. I am not saying he is destined for Cooperstown one day, but there are some reasons to think that Porcello can take a step forward this season. In 2012, he set new career-bests for strikeout rate (13.7%), FIP (3.91), and xFIP (3.89). He also increased his average fastball velocity from 91.48 mph to 93.46. Additionally, his IFFB% has increased every year he has been in the majors, reaching 15.8% last season, which ranked second among qualified starters. Although IFFB% has a low year-to-year correlation, he has shown some ability to produce pop ups at an above-average rate over the past two seasons. As Dave Cameron recently pointed out, IFFBs are almost like extra strikeouts for pitchers; so if Porcello can continue to get batters to pop up, it will only add to his value.
Even more encouraging than last year’s developments has been his performance this spring. I’m not even sure I am allowed to utter a phrase like "encouraging spring" at BtBS, but it really has been. So far Porcello has thrown 18 innings in Major League games, allowing just 5 runs on 14 hits, striking out 18 and walking none. You can shout "small sample size" and "spring stats don’t matter" at me all you want -- the numbers only tell part of the story in this case. Every report I’ve read on Porcello this spring has been glowing, including this one from ESPN’s Keith Law:
It's not so much that he's been effective this spring -- he hadn't walked a batter in 18-plus innings as of this writing -- but that he looks better -- throwing a little harder, commanding the ball better up and down and has a little more bite on the breaking ball.
Porcello has made an important change this spring as well, opting to scrap his slider in favor of his curveball. In the past he has only thrown his curveball about 4% of the time, while throwing the slider around 15% of the time. According to FanGraphs, his slider was his least valuable pitch in 2012 at 17.3 runs below average, so I think the switch will only help him. Here we can see a few examples of his curveball (looking good) in his spring outing against the Astros:
When you add up the continued improvements, the outstanding reports, and the history of 24-year-olds with his track record, there is a strong possibility of a breakout season for Rick Porcello in 2013. Given the chance of that happening, the reasonable contract, and the need for depth in a starting rotation, I can’t imagine that trading Porcello is in the best of interest of the Tigers right now.