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January 14, 2014

Painting the Black

Smyly Anticipated

by R.J. Anderson


Three seasons ago, Phil Coke started 14 games for a playoff-bound Detroit team. Coke, who the Yankees reared as a starter during his prospect days, had appeared in 158 games by that point, with all but one coming in relief. (The exception was a spot-start in the previous season's finale.) Success felt like a long shot, yet Detroit's effort made sense. As Detroit's pitching coach Jeff Jones, who served as the club's bullpen coach at the time, later explained, "[Coke] had the variety of quality stuff, he'd done it before and been successful in the minor leagues." Coke's variety of stuff and minor league success never yielded results, however, and the overwhelmed lefty returned to the bullpen by midseason.

Jones's experience with Coke during that forgettable trial should serve as a nice reference point this spring, when he converts another southpaw reliever into a starter. The pupil this time is Drew Smyly, whose transition should come easier. Smyly's stay in the bullpen lasted one season and was caused by a deep, talented rotation. Rather than send him to the minors, Dave Dombrowski used him to stabilize the bullpen. Things worked out well on all fronts: Detroit led the AL in rotation ERA and Smyly posted the game's second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio among left-handed relievers.

Smyly's Successor

For all the attention paid to Smyly's move and how it impacts the rotation, his absence from the bullpen deserves consideration as well. Smyly finished second on the Tigers in appearances in 2013, behind former closer Joaquin Benoit. Dombrowski spent the winter rebuilding his bullpen; he added a proven closer (Joe Nathan), a lottery ticket (Joba Chamberlain), and—as the header suggests—a Smyly replacement (Ian Krol).

Krol looks the part of a reliever better than Smyly ever did. He marries short arm action with a low three-quarters arm slot, making him tough on lefties. The former starter has two quality offerings: a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a putaway breaking ball. Command and platoon woes will limit Krol's ceiling, and he doesn't offer Smyly's versatility, but he should continue to shut down lefties.

Nonetheless, Dombrowski entered the offseason motivated to trade a starter, which he did in December, when he sent Doug Fister to the Nationals in a much-maligned trade that cleared the way for Smyly's return to the rotation. Smyly would have experienced some extra pressure no matter who the Tigers moved, and for whom—such is the case when good teams replace veterans with youngsters—yet the disdain for the deal has changed the stakes. No longer is Smyly's development crucial only from an on-the-field standpoint; now it matters symbolically. If he succeeds, the Tigers can feel vindicated—or, at least somewhat justified—for the trade. If he fails, the post-trade questioning will restart.

That's a lot to put on the arm of any 24-year-old, let alone one who hasn't topped 130 innings in a season. Still, Smyly isn't the typical inexperienced kid. The former Razorback has a deep arsenal, including a low-90s fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup. He leverages his tall, lanky body well—allowing him to deliver the ball on a steep downward plane—while repeating his actions well enough to maintain good control. Smyly receives high marks for his feel and poise on the mound, and in a perfect world he flowers into a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

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Related Content:  Detroit Tigers,  Drew Smyly

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