Is now too soon for Porcello?
GM Dombrowski won't rule out rotation spot for 20-year-old
DETROIT -- The door separating Tigers top prospect Rick Porcello from the big leagues is pretty much shut. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski, however, has left a little daylight open for him this spring.
Porcello's next stage of development is expected to come at Double-A Erie, where one of baseball's best starting pitching prospects would be a potential call away from Detroit. Still, Dombrowski is leaving open the possibility that Porcello, who just turned 20 years old this winter, could get the call now.
In terms of ability, he might already be there.
"A lot of people in our Minor League system that know Porcello feel that if he goes out there and he gets the ball every five days in Spring Training, which he will, that he will end up being one of our five best pitchers and in our rotation come the end of spring," Dombrowski said Thursday night on the TigerTalk radio program on flagship station WXYT-FM 97.1.
"I'm not ready to make that proclamation, but it tells you how highly regarded he is."
He has carried that type of potential since he fell to the Tigers in the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. Detroit negotiated with agent Scott Boras to sign Porcello to a Major League contract for four years and $7,285,000.
Since then, the Tigers have taken a deliberate approach with Porcello's gifted right arm, placing him at high Class A Lakeland for the entire season with a 75-pitch count for his starts and an emphasis on curveballs to complement his fastball. Still, at age 19, he led the Florida State League with a 2.66 ERA.
"He not only has good stuff," Dombrowski said, "he's mature beyond his years. He's a very intelligent individual, hard working. He's a guy on the mound at a young age that knows how to think through situations and just does not throw harder, which is something that's very difficult to teach. He's a quality talent, and I'll be interested to see how he progresses this spring myself."
He'll be far from the only one.
Porcello was in camp with the big leaguers last year, mainly because of his Major League contract. At that point, he hadn't yet pitched in a professional game. The biggest gain for him was the chance to watch big league pitchers on an everyday basis, observe their approach and ask questions.
This spring offers him the chance to take what he learned last year and put it up against Major League hitters, albeit in a setting where they're working on certain parts of their game. Whether it offers him a chance to win a job depends on the outlook.
Dombrowski put him in the same category as Ryan Perry, last year's first-round Draft pick who will have a chance to make the bullpen out of Spring Training.
Perry's candidacy was already known, having been referenced earlier this offseason as the Tigers began their search for relievers on the free-agent market. Porcello wasn't in the conversation.
"Time will tell," Dombrowski said Thursday. "We're not afraid to make that jump. I think a lot depends on not only how they pitch, but how other people on our staff throw. It'll be interesting to watch the progress with those two guys."
Dombrowski explained Friday that he wasn't trying to put any level of probability on it.
"I don't know that I can draw any summation," Dombrowski said. "He's out of A-ball. It's not really most likely, but that's why you go to Spring Training and you see what happens. It's not likely. It's not highly unlikely."
The one condition that is put on Porcello is the role. If the rookie makes the team, Dombrowski said, it would be as a starting pitcher. He will not be auditioned as a reliever.
The Tigers' rotation has four of five spots filled, with Zach Miner, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis in the running for the opening.
Manager Jim Leyland said during the Tigers Caravan last month that he has the go-ahead to take a guy from the Minors if he feels he's ready, but he didn't mention any specific names in that group.
"If we run into another [Justin] Verlander or [Joel] Zumaya," Leyland said last month, "he'll be on the team."
Making that judgment, Leyland cautioned, isn't simply about ability, but also on how they're projected to handle Major League pressure. That was part of what separated Verlander and Zumaya a few years ago from similar situations in the past.
Though Verlander, too, had just one full season in the Minors, he was drafted out of college -- unlike Porcello, who was selected straight out of high school. Zumaya went from high school to pro ball, but he had three full Minor League seasons and part of another before reaching the big leagues.
A better parallel might be Jeremy Bonderman, whom the Tigers put into their rotation in 2003 at age 20. Like Porcello, Bonderman had just one season of Minor League ball, all at the high Class A level.
The difference between the two has more to do with the Tigers than with the players. Bonderman made a Major League rotation on a Detroit team that was in full rebuilding mode, having lost 106 games in 2002 and on its way to 119 losses in 2003. Mike Maroth was the Opening Day starter and Detroit's most experienced starter with about a half season of Major League experience on his resume.
Bonderman finished with 19 losses that season. The Tigers pulled him from the rotation down the stretch to keep him from the infamy of a 20-loss season, something Maroth ended up taking. Bonderman pleaded to stay in the rotation, but it was not a matter for debate.
This year's club obviously has higher expectations, but also higher competition on its staff. Armando Galarraga is the least experienced of the rotation members with 29 Major League starts. Miner has the least experience of the fifth-starter candidates with 30.
Porcello has no Major League starts, but he has talent to get there. And whatever his chances are, he'll have a shot this spring.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.