Tigers' fifth-starter spot remains up for grabs
Turner's elbow tendinitis may provide opening in competition
VIERA, Fla. -- More than three weeks remain before Justin Verlander throws a pitch of genuine consequence and the Tigers get the chance to see their reinforced batting order in something other than a citrus scenario.
The hitters will say they don't need so much time, the pitchers won't quarrel with the calendar too much. And the men who decide which pitchers will be members of the rotation ... well, they're quite uncertain -- about the value of the time remaining before Opening Day and who will be the fifth man after Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello.
Dave Dombrowski, the club's general manager, is in no rush to make a determination, and manager Jim Leyland concluded Tuesday that "I'm more anxious to find out who it's gonna be than [the members of the media gathered in his office]."
It seems now that one decision has been made for Dombrowski and Leyland. Jacob Turner, a primary candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation, has developed tendinitis above his pitching elbow and will be eliminated from the competition for at least a week. An absence of that length or longer will undermine his chance to emerge from the group of No. 5 wannabes, even though Turner is thought to have the highest ceiling in the group.
Dombrowski noted the problem Tuesday afternoon before the Tigers' game against the Nationals, saying later that he would not eliminate Turner from the competition. Leyland later acknowledged Turner would be backed off. He identified the promblem as "dead arm."
The Tigers were understandably unimpressed Monday by Turner's workday against the Mets. He surrendered six runs -- five earned -- four hits and two walks in 1 2/3 innings. He was the third pitcher, piggybacking on Drew Smyly, another No. 5 aspirant who started and pitched two innings, and Matt Hoffman.
The other candidates, all left-handed, are now in position to leave Turner behind. Adam Oliver, who appears to be the leading candidate, pitched four scoreless innings against the Mets, facing mostly lesser talent. Duane Below started against the Nationals on Tuesday, Adam Wilk replaced him, and Casey Crosby starts against Mets on Wednesday.
Below pitched 2 2/3 innings, allowed four hits, a run and three walks and struck out two. Wilk went 2 1/3 shutout innings, allowing one hit and striking out one. Leyland was impressed by his changeup, the best the manager has seen from the pitcher.
And Turner waits, prompting recall of a time-honored Spring Training axiom: "Can't make the club in the tub."
Oliver's four scoreless Monday prompted Dombrowski to say, "He was outstanding. Can't say a bad word about what he's done down here." And Leyland noted Oliver is throwing more strikes and that Oliver has slowed his motion and mindset, having learned it's easier to speed up when circumstances demand than it is to decelerate.
"I'm very pleased with him so far," the manager said.
Leyland says he likes each candidate and feels no compulsion to carry a left-handed starter, but now he has no healthy right-handed candidate. Moreover, the manager does like the idea of having "different looks" in the rotation. So a left-handed candidate would please him if Turner is, in fact, passed by the others.
"If the pitcher is good enough," Leyland said, "then yeah, you like to see different looks. I remember seeing Dwight Gooden on Friday night and Bobby Ojeda on Saturday. Both good pitchers, and as different as they could be."
Gooden's right-handed power pitching and Ojeda's offspeed left-handed stuff were contrasting parts of the rotation of the 1986 Mets, a team Leyland's Pirates couldn't handle.
"Those pitchers with Sid Fernandez being so funky, they made it real hard on us. They beat us 17 out of 18 that year. I remember a writer from Boston came up to me before the World Series and asked me 'Are the Mets that good?' after the 17-1. I said 'Hell no, if they were that good, they would've swept all 18.'"
The Tigers have their Gooden in Verlander. And the other right-handed starters are of genuine quality. And then here are the five lefties.
"I can make a case for each one of them," he said. And the case for Crosby is that "he can be overpowering with an outstanding curveball."
Dombrowski noted a need for Crosby to gain better command of his fastball.
Crosby once was considered comparable to Porcello, but reconstructive elbow surgery in 2007 and more elbow maladies in 2010 have undermined his progress and prompted the club to wonder whether he would be better suited for relief pitching. Dombrowski insists Crosby is not necessarily a bullpen candidate.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.