DETROIT – On Tuesday night, Detroit got its first look at David Price in a Tigers' uniform as he threw 8.2 dominant innings, striking out 10 Yankee batters. Price certainly makes Brad Ausmus' job much easier down the stretch, as the starting rotation will work deep into games and require less innings from a thin bullpen.
But if the Tigers qualify for the postseason, an extremely difficult decision lies in front of Ausmus as the rotation slims from five to four starters and the first year manager will have to choose one of them to move to the bullpen.
Two pitchers are certainly safe: Price and Max Scherzer. Scherzer is the defending Cy Young Award winner, and his dominance since the beginning of July figures to put him in the conversation for the award again this season. Dave Dombrowski certainly didn't acquire Price to join the bullpen this season, so the 2012 Cy Young winner will clearly be in the four-man rotation as well.
That leaves three talented arms to fight for the two remaining rotation spots. Ausmus will have to move one of three veteran starters to the bullpen in October.
The role of the starter-turned-reliever
If the Tigers make a playoff run in 2014, they will do so behind their elite starting pitching. No matter which four players make up the rotation, Ausmus will expect them to last six or more innings in each appearance.
As a result, the starter that moves to the bullpen will only be asked to pitch one inning at a time, despite his obvious ability to pitch for much longer.
Here is a breakdown of the three candidates that may be asked to join the bullpen:
At the beginning of the season, Porcello was the clear-cut No. 4 starter in Detroit's rotation and would have surely fallen to No. 5 with the addition of Price.
But the 25-year-old has pitched well enough to challenge that notion in 2014. Though he is well on his way to recording his first season of more than 200 innings pitched, the young starter is showing no signs of fatigue.
Over the first four months of the season Porcello improved his ERA and induced more ground balls each month. Through 22 starts he owns the best ERA in the starting rotation (3.09) and is tied for the most wins (13). Porcello hasn't only pitched well enough to stay in the rotation, he has been perhaps the best starter overall throughout the entire season.
Could Porcello be as effective out of the bullpen? His low strikeout rate would make it much more difficult to bring the sinker-baller into a game with runners in scoring position. His arsenal is more apt for limiting damage than getting out of a jam, as Max Scherzer famously did against the Oakland A's in Game 4 of the ALDS last season. Managers prefer to call on bullpen arms capable of recording strikeouts in the later innings, and Porcello is the least likely to do so from the starting rotation.
Rick Porcello career postseason stats
As starter: 0-1 record, 4.26 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
As reliever: 0-0, 4.91 ERA, 1.63 WHIP
During the offseason Porcello would have been moved to the bullpen without a second thought in this situation. But the righty has won 13 games for the Tigers and recorded 16 quality starts throughout the season, so demoting him during the most crucial part of the season may prove difficult to justify.
As Verlander's struggles stretched from May into June, and continued through July, patience among Tigers fans has run thin and many are calling for the former MVP to be thrown into the bullpen in the playoffs.
But would that move be best for the team?
Verlander's number in 2014 greatly resemble his struggles during the previous year when he recorded a disappointing 3.46 ERA after finishing second in the Cy Young voting the year before (to David Price). A strong April set the tone for Verlander in both cases, but disastrous finishes to the first half labelled his seasons busts.
In 2013 the veteran's struggles continued into August, when he posted a 4.11 ERA and won just one game. But when the playoffs hit, Verlander dialed in and became just as untouchable as he was throughout 2011.
Verlander allowed just 10 hits and one run in 23 postseason innings. Opponents not only struggled to reach base against Verlander, they couldn't even put the ball in play. Verlander fanned 31 hitters in the three outings, striking out double-digit batters in each start despite doing so just four times during the regular season (two of which were in his final two starts).
The transformation was far from a coincidence. Verlander shut down the top two opposing offenses in the American League in shocking fashion, leading the Tigers to the ALCS. A pitcher who previous held the reputation of a poor playoff performer flipped the tables and saved his best stuff for last.
Verlander through August 5: 2013 vs. 2014
2013: 11-8 record, 3.63 ERA, 169 strikeouts
2014: 10-9, 4.66 ERA, 110 SO
Now, just 10 months later, Verlander is primed to repeat his phenomonial performance. Though he can't baffle hitters for seven straight months like he used to, he's proved he can save enough in the tank for the most important time: October.
If Verlander was moved to the bullpen, there's not much evidence that he could be a reliable reliever. The 31-year-old has often struggled in his first inning of work throughout his career, posting an ERA of 4.08 and allowing 34 home runs in 289 starts.
Verlander has never made a relief appearance in the Major Leagues, but he has been asked to pitch just one inning. That start came during the 2012 All-Star game, when the defending MVP allowed five earned runs in the first inning and admitted he changed his style to adjust to a shorter outing.
Even if he struggles down the stretch this season, Verlander has proven he's built to start in the postseason, and certainly not for the bullpen.
A more intriguing option to move to the bullpen is the pitcher with the most dangerous arsenal in the starting rotation: Sanchez. Though he is certainly a valuable starter for the Tigers, Sanchez's overall numbers suggest a move to the bullpen could give Ausmus a major weapon in the postseason.
The struggles for Sanchez late in games this season largely reflect a trend that has followed him throughout his MLB career. Sanchez has allowed just 12 earned runs in the first three innings combined this season (59.2 innings total), but also 12 earned runs in the seventh inning alone (8.1 innings total). This trend shows that Sanchez is dominating hitters early in games, but running out of gas much earlier than the Tigers would like.
Ausmus' greatest weapon against a weak bullpen in the postseason will be starting pitchers that last deep into games, so Sanchez's struggles could create a dangerous trend. And the problem isn't unique to the 2014 season, as he owns a career ERA of 5.35 in the seventh through ninth innings.
Sanchez career numbers by inning
Innings 1-3: 3.30 ERA, .242 Batting Average Against
Innings 4-6: 3.42 ERA, .246 BAA
Innings 7-9: 5.35 ERA, .289 BAA
Sanchez can be the most dominating pitcher in the Tigers' roster at times, but his inconsistency in pitching late into games could make him the odd man out when the postseason arrives. His arsenal could make Sanchez one of the best relievers in the bullpen in October, which would be just as valuable as any of the starters.