LAKELAND, Fla. -- Officially, Wednesday was an off-day for the Tigers, their last of Spring Training. For Rick Porcello, it was time to go to work.
For Tigers management, it was time to get down to the business of deciding what to do with Porcello.
While Joker Marchant Stadium was quiet Wednesday, Porcello took the mound on the back fields at Tigertown, holding a lineup of Astros Class A hitters to an unearned run and one hit over 6 2/3 innings, walking two and striking out four. It was his day to pitch.
"A lot of it, for me, was understanding what pitches are good pitches and what pitches weren't good pitches," Porcello said, "not so much reacting to what swings they were putting on it. You know when you throw a good pitch."
Jim Leyland, who has managed Porcello for the last four years, was watching on the other side of the fence. It wasn't much of an off-day for him, either. Compared to the next week and a half, of course, it seemed easy.
This is the time, Leyland has said over the years, when a long Spring Training becomes a short Spring Training. It's when Leyland and his coaches begin to turn ideas on roster makeup into real plans for an Opening Day roster and rotation.
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski was also watching with his inner circle. This, too, is when his work picks up -- not just with his own roster, but with other clubs.
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 going to go down to the wire," Leyland said of the fifth-starter competition Tuesday. "We had a big meeting [Tuesday], obviously, because we sent so many guys out. We had some conversations, but there's absolutely nothing -- nothing -- solved."
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.
In the fifth-starter competition, this is the scenario few anticipated: Both Porcello and second-year left-hander Drew Smyly have posted strong springs, though Smyly yielded some damage in his last outing. Both have pitched well enough to earn the job. Only one can get it, obviously, but Porcello has pitched so well that it's worth questioning whether he can be easily discarded.
|"I haven't really paid much attention to outside stuff. I've just treated it like any other spring. I had some stuff that I worked on in the offseason and came into spring. It's carried over nicely, and I want to continue to build off of that."|
|-- Rick Porcello|
Wednesday's performance has to be judged against the backdrop of Class A ball hitters in the batter's box, but the pitches themselves showed what has made Porcello a different pitcher this spring. His fastball had life, his sinker had some bite, and his curveball looked like the viable, consistent breaking pitch he has been trying to find for a few years.
"We worked on the offspeed a lot today," Porcello said. "I threw a lot of breaking balls, changeups, just continue to try to get the feel for those."
Dombrowski has kept recent comments limited on Porcello's situation. When he talked last week about the move to release Brennan Boesch, however, he might have dropped a hint when asked about trade talks in general.
"I'm not lacking for trade phone calls," Dombrowski said. "In fact, I've had a lot of those phone calls. It's more people calling us at this point."
The latest rumors mesh with that outlook. Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com cited Major League sources Wednesday saying the Rangers and Padres have been the most active on Porcello, and that a Padres offer characterized as "aggressive" by one source was turned down by Detroit.
Rosenthal suggested the Tigers have shown interest in two Rangers prospects, speedy Double-A shortstop Leury Garcia and right-hander Nick Tepesch, but that Texas might be hesitant to put together a prospect package for Porcello.
The mere mention of a prospect package backs up the sense around Tigers camp that team officials are neither looking to dump Porcello nor fill just short-term needs in return. Detroit holds leverage, not just the way Porcello has pitched, but the way closer candidate Bruce Rondon has performed after reports of panic in Tigertown were debunked.
If Detroit had a gaping hole at closer, Porcello would be the bait to help fill it. Instead, whether Rondon has done enough to win the closer job outright, he has established himself as the closer of the future.
Though some have suggested a Porcello deal to Boston for Andrew Bailey as a logical fit for both clubs, Rondon's resurgence might have nullified that. While reports suggest Boston doesn't want to thin out its bullpen, it's also looking unlikely that the Tigers would trade three seasons of Porcello -- who isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season -- for two seasons of Bailey at only slightly less salary, especially if Bailey would mainly be a setup man.
If the Tigers opt to work Rondon into the job as part of a closer by committee, an idea that has been increasingly hinted, they might have a way to keep Porcello and Smyly in the big leagues.
Setup men Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke all have been mentioned as relievers who can close a game, but not necessarily be full-time closers. But as Leyland has hinted, the more relievers he needs to hold for potential ninth-inning matchups, the more he'll need others to fill the gap in the seventh and eighth innings. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal could help there, but a versatile reliever in the last open spot could fill two roles and manage the trickle-down effect.
In that scenario, the concept of Smyly as a long reliever and second lefty -- the role he filled during the postseason -- makes sense. In another, Smyly as an insurance starter could be Plan B.
The way Porcello and Smyly have pitched, the Tigers know they have six capable starters. They do not know if they have a seventh. Between the average of 9-10 starters used per team last season, and the extra innings Tigers starters have pitched over the course of back-to-back postseason runs, Smyly could be the security blanket.
For now, Leyland plans to have six starters ready to throw 100 pitches when the season begins, even though he'll only need five. So they'll be ready for anything.
Porcello will likely near the 100-pitch count in his last start this spring, facing the Marlins on Monday in Jupiter, Fla. Porcello said he could pitch a couple innings of relief in the Tigers' Spring Training finale against the Rays next Saturday at Tropicana Field, just to keep fresh. Considering his situation, that assignment is about as tentative as it can get.
By then, the Tigers will most likely have their rotation and roster questions answered, since their Opening Day roster has to be set the next day. They'll probably have all the offers they're going to get on Porcello, too. If Porcello pitches next Saturday, it surely means he'll break camp in Detroit's rotation.
It doesn't mean he'd spend the season in Detroit. The Tigers could hold him until midseason and look again at their needs in July. The closer market, for one, usually has new candidates in the summer, even if just a few teams fall out of contention.
Porcello is ready for anything. He's as prepared for the season, he said, as he has ever been.
"I haven't really paid much attention to outside stuff," Porcello said. "I've just treated it like any other spring. I had some stuff that I worked on in the offseason and came into spring. It's carried over nicely, and I want to continue to build off of that."
He has done his part. Now, it's all up to the Tigers.