The Tigers, like so many others, failed in their pursuit of Roy Oswalt this winter. Oswalt would have given them a very strong one through five, as reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander leads a group that also includes Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello. Instead of an established starter, the Tigers must now turn to their farm system to give them the depth they need to contend in a very strong American League.
General manager Dave Dombrowski went on MLB Network Radio to discuss this very topic, and it seems clear that, at this late stage, the job is there for the taking for one of the kids:
"You're always looking to upgrade, but I think for us we're really looking for one of these youngsters to grab that fifth spot."
Those youngsters are Jacob Turner, Andrew Oliver, Duane Below, and Adam Wilk. The eldest of the group is Below, who will be 26 this year, and combined the foursome has just 86 innings pitched in the majors. Winning the spring job doesn't guarantee continued employment, but only one of the group will be around the first time through the rotation.
Turner is the most significant prospect of the group, but he's also going to be all of 21 years old in 2012. There's no rush to get him to the majors, even if the Tigers have a tendency to do just that with their top pitching prospects (see: Verlander, Porcello, Jeremy Bonderman, Andrew Miller). Baseball America ranks Turner as the top farmhand in the system, and Kevin Goldstein rates him as the lone five-star prospect in Detroit.
Turner's first taste of the bigs didn't go so well, but he was also 20, and by year's end had just 17 innings in Triple-A under his belt. It isn't the most shocking development of the season that he didn't dominate immediately. He has three pitches -- heater, curve, change -- with which he's carved up minor league hitters. While not a threat to strike out every hitter he sees, Turner tends to avoid walks and homers, and has the command to get by in the majors even at his tender age.
Even if he's the top prospect in the group, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Tigers keep him at Triple-A for at least a little while longer to get him comfortable against more advanced hitters than he's used to seeing.
Oliver isn't the stud Turner might be (sorry, ladies) but he's still a three-star prospect via Goldstein, and there's nothing wrong with that. Baseball America puts him at the five in their own rankings; prospect mavens still like him despite his struggles in the bigs.
That's likely because Oliver was just 22 and 23 years old the two times he popped into the majors, and he's a lefty who can touch the mid 90s with his fastball. You remain patient with guys like Oliver, for that very reason. Unsurprisingly for a southpaw with velocity, Oliver has struggled with his control as he's moved up the ladder, and he posted a 1.8 K/BB at Triple-A in 2011. He has yet to develop complementary offerings fully for that fastball, so another year at Triple-A wouldn't hurt him. At his age, he can afford to wait it out at least once more, too, before the team decides maybe he's not cut out for starting.
Below is far back on the prospect ratings for the Tigers. Goldstein doesn't mention him at all in his top 20, and Baseball America pegs him at 21. With 603 innings in the minors to his credit, we have a pretty good idea of what he's going to be: He might stick as a back-end starter in the majors, but it all depends on how well his command holds up, as he isn't going to miss bats. While he used to strike out a decent number of hitters in the low minors, his 115 innings at Triple-A resulted in 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and his Double-A rate wasn't much better at 7.2.
He'll need to induce grounders and keep winning the control game to be worth much in the majors. It's not impossible, but he's more likely to be a temporary solution at the beginning of the season -- until Turner or Oliver show something in Triple-A -- rather than a long-term answer.
Wilk comes right after Below in Baseball America's rankings, and he might be even more of a stretch to succeed long-term. Unlike Below, there was never a time where Wilk induced swings-and-misses. He's always been a pitcher who relies entirely on his control for succcess: His career minor league K/BB is 5.7, despite striking out just 6.7 per nine over those 343 innings.
Pitchers who rely entirely on control sometimes succeed in the majors, but it's a dangerous game against the world's best hitters when you lack a true out pitch. Especially for pitchers who are flyball-oriented, like Wilk. Take his 102 innings at Triple-A, as an example: His walk rate (1.2) was lower than his home run rate (1.3) -- it's easy to envision that becoming a more significant problem against MLB hitters.
The 24-year-old Wilk is intriguing, though, even with the lack of serious stuff. The control is just fantastic, so maybe he can eke out a career despite the odds if that keeps up. Chances are good, though, that if it's Wilk or Below who earns that fifth spot, it's not necessarily because they won it, but because Turner and Oliver didn't impress enough just yet.