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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Tigers camp report: Porcello seeks payoff from early start


LAKELAND, Fla. -- If the Tigers hadn't pushed Rick Porcello to the big leagues at age 20, we might not be asking as many questions about him now.

But if the Tigers hadn't pushed Porcello to the big leagues, he might not be as prepared to contribute to a contending team as he is now.

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He's still only 22. He's younger than Stephen Strasburg, younger than Jeremy Hellickson, younger than a third of the prospects Baseball America just picked for its top 100.

Porcello didn't qualify for that list, because he's a veteran of two big-league seasons. He has 58 major-league starts on his record, already has 24 wins.

"He's learned about the frustration," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's learned about the good hoopla, and some of the bad hoopla."

The good hoopla came two years ago, when Porcello won 14 games and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. The bad hoopla came last year, when he had an 8.03 ERA in April and later spent a month in the minor leagues.

The Tigers are counting on a return to the good this year, because if there is one player on the roster who might be able to make the biggest difference in this big season (Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski are both in the final year of contracts), it could well be Porcello.

They believe strongly in their top two starters, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. They signed Brad Penny to help the back of the rotation, and they believe Phil Coke can make the transition to starting.

But in many ways, it depends on a dependable Porcello as the third starter.

"He's got to be able to do that for us, for us to be good," Leyland said.

Porcello understands.

"I'm not going to put extra pressure on myself by saying that," he said. "But I do believe I can help us out a lot."

He's an impressive guy, with great talent but also the makeup to go with it. Tiger players have raved about him ever since the spring of 2008, when he arrived in big-league camp as a 19-year-old, straight out of the draft.

Fantasy Writer

Sleeper ... Max Scherzer: Scherzer looked like a bust for the first two months of last season, but he turned things around with a 14-strikeout performance against the A's in late May and never looked back. From that point on, Scherzer missed more bats and induced more grounders on the pitches that did get hit. Owners who look at his 12-11 record and 3.50 ERA from a year ago will see a pitcher who took a step forward, not someone who had a dramatic breakthrough. At worst, Scherzer will repeat his performance from last year, but he could just as easily do even better, potentially performing up to the standards of a No. 2 starting pitcher. Based on his track record, though, he can probably be drafted as a No. 3 starter in mixed leagues.

Bounce-back player ... Rick Porcello: By outward appearances, Porcello had a disappointing sophomore season, seeing his ERA shoot up from 3.96 to 4.92 and his win total sag from 14 to 10. When you scratch the surface of his Fantasy stats, though, you see a pitcher who actually built upon an impressive rookie year. He improved his walk and home run rates while holding firm on strikeouts. The young righty already showed in 2009 that he is capable of registering a high strand rate, so expect better results from Porcello this year, even if he hits a bump in the road in his development.

Late-round flier ... Ryan Raburn: Raburn will finally get his chance to be an everyday player this year, but even so, owners might be tempted to think that the 30-year-old won't produce enough for mixed leagues. Raburn looks primed to be this year's Andres Torres. While he is old to be getting his first shot as a starter, he is not past his peak, and he has an intriguing skill set. Not only is he a fairly safe bet to hit at least 20 homers, but his .280-plus batting average from the last two years are not flukes. He has shown a consistent ability to find the gaps, helping him to a solid batting average despite mediocre contact rates. As long as he stays in the lineup, he should produce enough to help mixed league owners, especially in deeper formats.

-- Al Melchior
Tigers outlook | Depth Chart | 2011 Draft Prep

A year later, he made the team, just one of many examples of how the Leyland-Dombrowski management team has pushed a young player and succeeded (as the Tigers did with Verlander and Joel Zumaya on their 2006 World Series team).

The Tigers have two more well-regarded young arms in camp this spring, 23-year-old left-hander Andy Oliver and 19-year-old right-hander Jacob Turner. Players talk about both the way they once spoke about Porcello, but barring an injury, neither is competing for an opening day job this spring.

The way the Tigers operate, it wouldn't be a shock to see either one in the big leagues at some point this year. Oliver, in fact, made five major-league starts last season.

"Turner's a no-brainer as far as talent," one rival scout said after watching him this spring. "And he's not that far away."

That means something different with the Tigers than it means elsewhere. Leyland and Dombrowski firmly believe that talent plays, and they firmly reject the idea that young players can be damaged by pushing them too early.

"I like talent," Leyland said. "I don't care how old they are."

And by pushing a pitcher like Porcello, the Tigers allowed him to learn about success and failure at the big-league level, all before his 22nd birthday.

In his development process, last year's failures were as important as 2009's successes.

"There's a lot of things I learned about the game and myself that I didn't learn the year before," Porcello said.

He knows that in '09, he relied heavily on his sinking fastball, without ever being able to go to his secondary pitches. The reliance on a sinker allowed him to succeed at a younger age (Turner, more of a traditional power pitcher, may need more time to develop other pitches).

But to be what he wants to be, and what the Tigers need him to be, Porcello knows that his slider and changeup need to be more effective.

"They're better pitches now than they were two years ago," he said.

He knows that he needs to find ways to stay in the game and maybe win without his best stuff.

"That's the difference between a good pitcher and a great one," Porcello said.

He believes he could be great. The Tigers believe it, too, but they at least need him to be very good this year.

"I think Porcello's going to have a great year," said Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline, a team adviser. "Sometimes you have to fail first, and he knew he had to correct his failures."

Kaline was in the big leagues at 18, a batting champion at 20. He knows about starting out young.

It was the best thing that happened to him. And it may have been the best thing that happened to Rick Porcello.


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