So is anyone winning the 5th starter race?
Remember way back 24 hours ago when Jim Leyland was talking about how big of a day Friday was going to be for the Tigers?
“It’s a lot of pins and needles right now, to be honest with you,” Leyland said Thursday night. “Hopefully we’ll be a little closer after tomorrow.”
After today’s outing Duane Below, it doesn’t feel much closer to a resolution on the fifth starter. The only way it feels closer is that the outings might be done — unless the decision goes to the final day, in which case Drew Smyly might be able to pitch Monday against the Blue Jays.
Regardless, with just a few days left, there’s no clearer sense of a favorite.
Of all the fifth starter candidates going into camp, Below seemed the least likely to battle control problems. He’s the guy with the combination of experience and command, with enough velocity blended in.
That’s what made his outing Friday all the more perplexing. If he had gotten hit around, the Tigers might have been able to live with that. Maybe if those walks had been lengthy battles with several foul balls, or if they had been spread out over the various innings, it would feel different. But in walking four Orioles in the second inning, all on five pitches, he showed a struggle trying to correct his mechanics in the middle of an inning. Instead of going to offspeed pitches to try to correct his fastball command, he kept firing fastballs throughout the inning, and they kept sailing high and outside to right-handed hitters.
So where does this leave the Tigers? It certainly leaves them without a favorite. Realistically, they’re left with nobody having stepped up to grab the spot. In the end, you can make a case that the tiebreaker might be as much philosophical as anything.
Statistically, Smyly was more effective, both in damage and command. Nobody, not even those who totally bought into Smyly as a realistic candidate, could’ve expected that out of this group. He arguably had the best stuff of them all, a fastball up to 94 mph to go with at least three offspeed pitches.
But before he’s anointed the deserving winner, ponder this question: If you commit to him to open the season, do you have to commit to him for the year (unless things go completely sideways)? If you’re going to open the season with a “placeholder” in the fifth spot until you can get more clarity, is that something Smyly can handle, or would he risk suffering some of the same problems Oliver has encountered the last couple years? Would Below, by virtue by his experience and starter/relief versatility, be better suited since he could jump to the bullpen to make way for somebody else?
Just throwing some thoughts out there, thoughts that completely my own.
One thing that might make you feel a little better about how all this unfolded is the fact that the Tigers won’t need a fifth starter until April 14.