3/5/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Porcello working to make things fit with Tigers
Righty could be what a club lacking on defense needs with higher K totals
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
LAKELAND, Fla. -- When Rick Porcello deals like he did on Monday, sitting at an easy 93 mph, snapping off curveballs, getting swinging strikes and inducing weak contact, one wonders why the Tigers would even consider trading him.
Porcello is 24 -- younger than pitchers with much less experience like Wade Miley, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn. He's under team control for three more seasons, scheduled to make an entirely reasonable $5.1 million this year. Porcello is nobody's idea of a star, but he's a durable, reliable starter who throws strikes and gets ground balls, and there's potential for him to turn into more.
As plenty of would-be contenders will tell you, guys like that can be hard to find.
But Porcello and the Tigers, as currently constructed, are a strange fit. He's the very definition of a pitcher who requires a strong infield defense, and Detroit is a perfect example of a team that has traded defense for offense in its infield. Either Porcello needs to strike out more batters or the Tigers need to catch more balls behind him. Otherwise, he'll fall short of his potential.
On Monday, Porcello showed one potential solution to the problem. Facing the Astros at home, he struck out six over four shutout innings. He was in complete control, looking as sharp as a pitcher has any right to do at this point in the spring. Porcello is not going to change who he is, but if he's able to get even a few more swinging strikes, take a few more balls out of play, he could benefit enormously.
"I think I definitely have the potential for that," Porcello said. "I think the main thing is focusing on consistency and locating the pitches. You're going to get swings and misses with that as long as you're going about it the right way. I don't necessarily think I need to turn myself into a strikeout pitcher. I think just complementing the fastball with offspeed stuff, and knowing the right times to use it and being effective with it, can lead to more strikeouts."
Porcello is sticking to a single breaking ball this year, a curve that looked sharp on Monday. For the time being, he's scrapping his slider, concentrating on a fastball-curve-changeup combination.
"Right now I'm just focusing on one breaking ball," he said. "Just trying to take command of that one and not worry about throwing two. That's what we're focused on right now. It's been good. The feel is there. I've just got to keep working on consistency and throwing the strike breaking ball and the two-strike one that's out of the zone."
It's the latter that could be critical. Porcello is unlikely to be a strikeout pitcher, but if he could be less of an extreme non-strikeout pitcher, it would be helpful. He had the fifth-lowest strikeout percentage of any qualified pitcher in the Major Leagues last year. That's not necessarily a problem, as long as the guys behind you catch the ball.
"I would not classify him as a strikeout pitcher," manager Jim Leyland said. "I'm not going to ask him to try to be a strikeout pitcher. He threw some terrific sinkers [on Monday] as well, with a little bit more velocity on the sinker. ... If he gets that really going, that's a different story."
The problem is that the Tigers do not have what one would consider an exemplary defensive infield. Among all Major League starters, Porcello and teammate Max Scherzer had the two highest batting averages on balls in play against them in 2012. Some of that might be bad luck, but when it's two pitchers on the same team, some of it is simply a matter of the defense not turning batted balls into outs.
So one way or another, something needs to give. The Tigers need to catch the ball better behind Porcello, or he needs to take it out of their hands more often. Or, possibly, they could see what he might fetch on the trade market. The Yankees, Rangers and Cardinals are among the teams with playoff aspirations and rotation questions.
If Detroit, which is consistently in win-now mode, could address a weakness by dealing Porcello, it might well make sense. Whether that would be a bullpen upgrade or an adjustment to the lineup, it's worth considering. And it appears the Tigers are considering it, as quite a few other teams were on hand to watch Porcello pitch on Monday.
If it bothers him, he isn't letting on.
"Right now I'm focused on working," Porcello said. "I'm in camp with the Tigers right now. I'm looking to do stuff with this club. If something happens, I'll adjust accordingly. I've been saying that [for months]. But right now, I'm here, I'm wearing a Tigers uniform, I'm happy to be here, and I'm looking to continue working for this season."
It's entirely possible Porcello will be around all year. And it's even possible that it will work perfectly. If it does, Monday's start was a good look at how that could happen.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.