March 24th, 2012

Fifth starter, three candidates left

Max Scherzer (AP)

Jim Leyland is down to three candidates for his Tigers’ open rotation spot now that Adam Wilk has been optioned to Triple-A Toledo. He likes those three candidates, even though they’ve combined to make nine Major League starts between them, and none from the guy with the best statistics right now.

“There’s three guys left, basically,” Leyland said. “I think Jacob is going to be ready when he’s ready, which I don’t think is going to be in time probably to compete for this at this stage. So you’re basically talking about Oliver, Smyly and Below, or somebody outside [the organization].”

He isn’t downplaying any of them, and he isn’t eliminating the possibility that they could still choose none of the above and trade for somebody. But he seems happy with the way things have unfolded.

“I still believe the fifth starter is in this camp,” Leyland said Saturday morning, “but I also have always left myself open, because of my general manager. If he doesn’t think so, he makes the final decision. And if somebody would pop up that he felt made us better, whether he would or would not make a pitch for him, I can’t really answer that. That’s why I’ve always left that little tiny margin of decision open [for a trade]. …

“I’m not trying to create a major story here that the Tigers might go outside. Please don’t put headlines like that, because I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m just saying I’m leaving that little thin line there open, because I don’t know what my general manager [might decide]. My general manager has a tendency to surprise you. When they call you up and tell you they signed Prince Fielder, that’s a pretty big surprise.”

The reports on how little that line is conflict a little. CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman reported a couple days ago that the Tigers are still showing interest in John Lannan, but Danny Knobler suggested Saturday that the Tigers aren’t fond of Lannan and will indeed stay in-house for their fifth starter.

It’s getting to a time of year when every spring training start seems crucial, and Duane Below’s upcoming outing against the Yankees would seem bigger than most. Leyland is trying to downplay the expectations, but he isn’t denying it’s a nice test.

If it wasn’t a big deal, he wouldn’t be going to Tampa to watch the game. He’d be staying back in Lakeland to monitor Justin Verlander.

“We’re going to make this judgment not based on somebody’s first three outings, not based on somebody’s fourth outing,” Leyland said. “We’re going to base it on what we see as professional people that are supposed to be pretty good at what we do and say, ‘OK, what all of a sudden touched you or you or you, that says this is my guy?’

“It’s only natural that some people saw Oliver walk five guys the other day and said, ‘Oh, he’s out. He’s out of the competition.’ It’s totally false. Don’t fall for that.”

What we learned today: Max Scherzer can rack up strikeouts without a high pitch count. If he can have outings like this in the regular season, racking up eight strikeouts over seven innings in just 88 pitches, he could be really, really effective.

What to remember: Scherzer’s two-seam fastball isn’t necessarily a swing-and-miss pitch, despite the strikeout totals today. He had a fair number of strikeouts on offspeed pitches, including a changeup that had Robinson Cano fooled for a fourth-inning K during a stretch of four strikeouts in six batters. Ideally, Scherzer’s two-seamer is a quick-out pitch.

Hey, it’s only spring training: Raul Ibanez was 1-for-36 for the Yankees this spring before Scherzer left a fastball up to him. He’s now 2-for-37 with a two-run homer. It was his first base hit in two weeks. We’re guessing he won’t go that long between hits once the regular season rolls around.

The highlight play you missed: Take your pick of Don Kelly plays. He made a sliding catch in front of the Yankees dugout on a Mark Teixeira foul ball in the fifth, then made a diving stop and throw from the third-base line to rob Ramiro Pena an inning later.

Up next: Another round of split-squad games for the Tigers, but this set has two very different storylines. While Justin Verlander tries to continue rounding into regular-season shape in Lakeland when he faces the Phillies, Duane Below will be trying to help his case for the rotation spot in Tampa by staring down the Yankees lineup. Both games start at 1:05pm. The Tigers-Yankees tilt will be on radio in Detroit at 97.1 FM and online at MLB Gameday Audio.

To-do list for Sunday: Sort out what Below can do with a vaunted Yankees lineup, even if it is spring training. I will be at that game.

Saturday: Tigers vs. Yankees

They’re expecting a sellout crowd at Joker Marchant Stadium today, including a packed environment on the left-field berm. They’ll see pretty close to a regular lineup for the Tigers, injured Miguel Cabrera notwithstanding, and a few of the stars from the Yankees. Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira made the trip, as did Raul Ibanez. Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter did not.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Brennan Boesch, RF
  3. Don Kelly, 3B
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B
  5. Delmon Young, LF
  6. Alex Avila, C
  7. Ryan Raburn, DH
  8. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  9. Brandon Inge, 3B

P: Max Scherzer

YANKEES

  1. Eduardo Nunez, 3B
  2. Francisco Cervelli, C
  3. Robinson Cano, 2B
  4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
  5. Raul Ibanez, DH
  6. Chris Dickerson, CF
  7. Cole Garner, LF
  8. Colin Curtis, RF
  9. Ramiro Pena, SS

P: Freddy Garcia

Wilk optioned to Toledo

The competition for the two open spots on the Tigers pitching staff is down one. Detroit optioned lefty Adam Wilk to Triple-A Toledo this morning.

Wilk was seen as a candidate for the rotation and the bullpen, having pitched in Detroit down the stretch last year, but he did not have a particularly strong spring, allowing 10 runs on 19 hits in 12 innings over five appearances. Much of that damage came in his last two outings, yielding seven earned runs on 12 hits over just 5 1/3 innings against the Cardinals and Twins.

The move drops Detroit’s pitching ranks in camp to 16, not counting injured Al Alburquerque. Manager Jim Leyland said Friday that the decisions on the fifth starter and seventh reliever will go “real late” in camp.

If, as Leyland has said, Turner is all but out of the rotation running after being shut down with shoulder tendinitis, then the rotation spot is a three-man race between Duane Below, Andy Oliver and Drew Smyly. Below could also be part of the bullpen mix if he doesn’t win a starting job, but with three lefties competing to start, right-handers Brayan Villarreal and Luis Marte would seemingly have an edge there, with Chris Bootcheck still around to make things interesting.

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