LAKELAND, Fla. -- Drew Smyly and Luis Marte came to Spring Training as rookies in their first pro camp on the fringe of the conversation for a roster competition. They'll be leaving it with Major League jobs.
The Tigers finalized their pitching staff Sunday morning by optioning right-hander Brayan Villarreal and left-hander Duane Below to Triple-A Toledo. They told Smyly he has won the open spot in the rotation, though he's expected to make a start for Triple-A Toledo on April 7 before he makes his Major League debut April 12 against the Rays at Comerica Park.
They also told Marte he has won the last spot in Detroit's bullpen.
"Basically, we went with good stuff, good deliveries and strike throwers," manager Jim Leyland said Sunday morning.
It'll be the first time for both on the Opening Day roster. While Marte had a short stint in Detroit's bullpen last summer, it'll be the first Major League time of any sort for Smyly, who went from an intriguing left-hander in camp in just his second pro season to the most consistent starting candidate the Tigers had in the race.
Once Smyly had a chance to soak it in, he said, "excited's an understatement" to describe his emotions.
"I was hoping for the best," Smyly said when he was called into the manager's office, "but I didn't know if I was getting sent down. When he told me, it was a big relief."
It was also a vindication for the quiet confidence Smyly held in all spring. He was a second-round Draft pick in 2010 and rose to Double-A Erie last year on his way to winning Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors in his first pro season.
His work impressed the Tigers enough to give him a non-roster invite to big league camp. That was the opportunity he needed to prove he was ready for another jump.
"I think from the beginning I felt I had a shot," Smyly said. "I knew I was capable of getting the job done, but everyone else is probably capable of getting the job done. So it was just knowing that you can handle it and just going out there and showing to everyone else that you're able to do it."
The Tigers had other capable starters, all of them products of their Minor League system. None of them consistently showed they could handle it like Smyly did. He never had an outing that raised questions, and his moments where inexperience showed were few and far between.
The total effort was far and away the best. Smyly allowed four runs on seven hits over 12 2/3 innings, walking five and striking out 10. Three of those four runs came over 4 2/3 innings in Smyly's last outing against the Cardinals, but the ability of Smyly to limit the damage -- and the fact that a comebacker off Smyly played a role in the damage after he got off to a fast starter -- made that start far less of a damper.
"Obviously, we felt he was the best candidate at this particular time," Leyland said.
Not bad for somebody who, by his estimates, was six feet and 150 pounds as a senior in high school in Maumelle, Arkansas, and went undrafted once he graduated before attending the University of Arkansas.
That doesn't mean the Tigers are making a long-term commitment. How the roster starts, Leyland cautioned, is rarely how it finishes. Still, Leyland said that Below, the runner-up in the battle, can't go to Toledo thinking about trying to pitch his way back to Detroit.
"I think the big key for all of [the candidates sent down] is don't go down to Toledo with Detroit on your mind," Leyland said. "Just go down there with the task at hand."
Below came into camp with the advantage of a second-half impression from last year in Detroit and did nothing to defy that for most of camp. However, Below's four-walk inning last Friday against the Orioles was out of character as one of the better control pitchers in the organization.
"Below's a great story," Leyland said. "He's a Michigan kid. He was here until the end. I feel terrible."
Marte said he immediately called his mom and everybody in his house back in his hometown of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. He said he was "a little bit nervous" as the roster cuts unfolded over the course of camp, but took confidence in the fact that he pitched well.
Though Villarreal had a stronger Spring Training this year than he did last year, when he won a bullpen job out of camp, Marte offered more versatility. While he'll join Collin Balester as capable long relievers in the Tigers' bullpen, he can also pitch shorter and later outings.
In many ways, Marte fits the comparison to Jason Grilli that Leyland referenced a week ago in talking about how important that last bullpen spot could be.