DETROIT (AP) - It feels like ages ago when Rick Porcello took the mound as Detroit's starter in a one-game playoff against Minnesota for the 2009 AL Central title. The Tigers lost in extra innings, but Porcello pitched well. All of 20 years old at the time, he would finish third in the Rookie of the Year vote.
Now Porcello is a seasoned veteran with a $5.1 million contract - but he just turned 24 last month. That puts the right-hander in an unusual position with spring training coming up. He's one of two young pitchers in line to compete for the No. 5 spot in Detroit's rotation - but there's also a sense he could be traded at any moment.
"I think very highly of myself and I definitely expect to be back in the rotation, but it's internal competition right now, which makes all of us better," Porcello said. "Nothing is given to you."
From the moment the Tigers re-signed right-hander Anibal Sanchez to an $80 million, five-year contract this offseason, Porcello has had a lot to prove. The top four spots in Detroit's rotation are now set, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Sanchez locked in. That leaves Porcello and Drew Smyly as candidates for that last opening.
Smyly went 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA as a rookie last year, making 18 starts for the American League pennant winners. He would be the only left-hander in the Detroit rotation if he earns that role, and that means Porcello could be dealt. But the Tigers haven't made a deal yet, and manager Jim Leyland is prepared to have both players at spring training next month.
"I love Porcello. I think he's a very valuable pitcher for us," Leyland said. "We don't have a lot of depth. As everybody knows, we've got six starters now that are good, but after that, we really don't have somebody necessarily knocking on the door in case things happen."
Keeping both Porcello and Smyly would give the Tigers insurance in case a starter misses time with an injury. Porcello's durability is no concern. He's made at least 27 starts in all four of his big league seasons - and after making his debut at such a young age, he's actually less than a year older than Smyly.
According to STATS, LLC, Porcello ranks third among active pitchers under 25 years old in career wins, innings and starts. In each category, he trails only Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Cahill.
But unlike some of his teammates, Porcello doesn't strike out hitters at a particularly high rate, and the Tigers don't always give him a lot of help defensively. Last year, Porcello's groundball percentage was a career-high 69.2, but opponents hit .345 off him on balls in play.
The result was a 10-12 record with a 4.59 ERA, and Porcello was not in the postseason rotation.
With trade talk now swirling, Porcello is trying to keep his focus. He says he's worked this offseason on simplifying his mechanics. His slider gave him trouble last year, so that's a pitch he'd like to improve.
"Overall consistency in this game is crucial," he said. "I've been working on different things to make sure that that secondary pitch is there when I need it."
Although spring training is about two weeks away, Detroit's roster isn't necessarily set. After all, it was at this time last year when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder late in the offseason.
But if he remains with the Tigers, Porcello insists he'll be ready to pitch. He'll try his best to win that final rotation spot, and if Detroit needs him in the bullpen, he says he'll accept that, too.
"I'll be ready whenever they call my number," Porcello said. "I don't think there's anything to be negative about. Great team, great group of guys. I'm fortunate to be here."