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03/10/09 12:20 AM ET

Porcello makes case for No. 5 spot

Young righty vying for spot in Tigers' starting rotation

JUPITER, Fla. -- Going into Spring Training, Tigers manager Jim Leyland knew he had a tough decision on his hands when he had to pick between Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and Zach Miner for the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

But 20-year-old phenom Rick Porcello is making the skipper's job a whole lot tougher.

And based on his outing against the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium on Monday, he isn't going away any time soon.

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Porcello used his breaking pitches effectively, getting five groundouts, as he pitched three shutout innings during a 1-0 loss. He gave up five hits and struck out one without issuing a walk.

But the youngster isn't going to get ahead of himself.

"I'm just focused on getting ready for the season," said Porcello, who pitched two scoreless innings against Team Panama on Wednesday. "That's my main goal -- to get all my pitches ready for the season and not worry about that sort of thing, because whatever happens, happens. It's out of my control. I'm just enjoying my time here and trying to learn as much as I can from everybody."

Perhaps what was most impressive about the 6-foot-5 right-hander was the way he got out of trouble. In the first inning, Porcello tried to pick off Florida's Emilio Bonifacio from second base, but he wound up throwing the ball into center field.

"My timing was all off, and I threw it at the umpire," Porcello said.

Very shortly thereafter, however, he fielded a hard comebacker off the bat of Dallas McPherson and started a beautiful 1-6-3 double play to end the frame.

In all three of his innings, the Marlins had a runner on third base, and Porcello got out of it with about 40 total pitches under his belt.

"His confidence is growing every time out," Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp said. "He makes sure he has a consistent pace, and he doesn't get ahead of himself."

Said Porcello: "Getting out of those jams just gave me a little bit of confidence and made me believe in my fastball. I knew that I could throw that down in the zone, and I can get guys to swing and miss, I can get ground balls and hopefully get out of there. You're not going to get out of those [jams] every time, but it was nice to get out of them today."

Porcello, ranked the No. 21 prospect by Baseball America, perhaps is the best Tigers prospect since Cameron Maybin, who was traded to the Marlins as part of an eight-player deal that brought Miguel Cabrera and Willis to Detroit in December 2007.

Maybin, who was Porcello's only strikeout in the third inning, never met Porcello in Detroit's farm system. But he came away impressed on Monday.

"He's got good stuff -- good live arm, really good stuff," Maybin said. "He's going to be good."

Porcello, the 27th overall pick out of Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey in 2007, went 8-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 24 starts for Class A Lakeland in '08. With a little less than a month before Opening Day, a lot still has to be decided in terms of whether or not Porcello will get the early call to the Major Leagues. Miner will toe the rubber for the Tigers on Tuesday and try to put his stamp on the fifth-starter job.

At this point, Leyland doesn't have any gauge on how Porcello's career will pan out, but he likes what he sees so far.

"Do I think he's going to be one of those guys [who can handle being a Major League pitcher]? Yes, I do," Leyland said. "Do I know for sure? No, I don't -- just like nobody else does.

"He's a competitor, and he's a very impressive young pitcher. That's what he is -- with well-above-average stuff."

Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.