Justin Verlander is still at least six weeks away from a return and the Tigers may be forced to find a different Opening Day starter for the first time in six years. What does this mean for the rest of Detroit’s talented crew of starting pitchers? And more specifically what does it mean for the fourth starter in their rotation, 25-year old Rick Porcello?
Of course every baseball fan knows the name Justin Verlander as well as that of reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. Most even have heard of the very underrated and under appreciated Anibal Sanchez who led the American League last year in ERA. Sanchez can be as dangerous as Verlander and Scherzer, but who is Rick Porcello?
To be honest I didn’t know much about him until recently, while researching a story on Verlander’s injury. It’s surprising that no one knows much about Porcello considering he won his starting job out of Single-A five years ago at the age of 20. In those five years he has accumulated 149 career starts for the Tigers ranking eighth among all American League pitchers in that time and falling just two starts short of Jeremy Bonderman’s total starts before turning 25. Porcello only recently turned 25 in December. With all of that experience, coming up at the age of only 20 and finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2009, why is it again that we don’t know the name?
I assume the main reasons we do not know him are that he’s played behind Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez and Doug Fister his entire career and the fact that his ERA over the past five seasons has averaged around the mid-four range which is not exactly a super star statistic. However, with Fister having been traded to the Washington Nationals, Porcello has the opportunity to gain more notoriety this year by stepping into the fourth and possibly even third spot in the Tiger’s rotation. The Tigers also drastically upgraded their infield defense this off season which is sure to improve Porcello’s numbers.
Porcello is primarily a ground ball pitcher with his best and signature pitch being the sinker ball. He has had little help from a mediocre infield in keeping those easy should be ground ball outs from becoming base hits. It is painfully obvious that Prince Fielder, despite his last name, was meant to hit and not to be a spectacular defensive first baseman. With his departure to the Texas Rangers, and the arrival of a stellar defensive second baseman in Ian Kinsler in that trade, one could argue there is a drastic improvement to the Tigers infield. Compared to last season’s second baseman Omar Infante, Kinsler averaged 11 runs saved at his position to Infante’s negative five runs saved.
With Fielder now in Texas, the AL’s back to back Most Valuable Player, Miguel Cabrera is free to return to his original position at first base. He was forced to give it up and move to third when Fielder signed with the Tigers in 2012. Also able to return to his more comfortable and original position is last season’s Tiger’s left fielder, Nick Castellanos. Castellanos came up through the Detroit organization as a third baseman and is now free to move back into his comfort zone at third base. Finally, Johnny Peralta and Jose Iglesias who platooned at shortstop for the majority of the 2013 season will no longer have to do so since Peralta signed with the St. Louis Cardinals this off season. With Iglesias now getting everyday playing time the number of runs saved at that position is more than likely to rise.
With this newly reinforced and upgraded infield Porcello has a good chance of flourishing using his signature pitch by having the back up to convert what would have been base hits into ground outs. His overall numbers will rise and his ERA will lower. This is especially good for Porcello who having come into the league at such as young age has only two more years on his contract with Detroit. He will be up for free agency at the age of only 27. Most pitchers do not hit free agency status until much later in their careers.
This gives both Porcello and the Tigers more opportunities. If the Tigers fail to sign Scherzer to a contract extension they will have the opportunity of offering an extension to Porcello. If Porcello were to extend his time in Detroit he would still be able to hit the free agent market at an age where he could command a large contract.
Whether Detroit’s newly fortified infield will help Porcello’s numbers remains to be seen but on paper it certainly looks as though it should. Every team wants a good ground ball pitcher to keep balls in the infield and be able to make more double plays. It seems the Tigers have one who will now have his chance to show the baseball world what he can really do.