LAKELAND, Fla. – The story, there if Rick Porcello's arm and mind are able and if the game will have it, is about a 20-year-old pitcher practically straight out of Jersey, and how soon is too soon, and whether his first big-league start should be on the road April 9 or in the Tigers' home opener April 10.
Rick Knapp, the new pitching coach in Detroit, held up his hands.
“We're only 10 days into camp,” he protested.
But his eyes shone. And the corners of his mouth couldn't beat back the grin.
Not an hour earlier, Porcello had thrown another round of what was loosely described as batting practice (the hitters wouldn't call it that), and if a ball got out of the infield it was limping and barely alive.
Normally, these are lively exercises early in spring training. Hitters howl at their own tender hands and awkward swings, granting these first days to the pitchers and the cool, damp mornings. Coaches lean against the cage and speckle the batters' box with chatter and laughter.
Not on Monday morning. Coaches caught each other's eyes. Hitters whispered, “Damn, that's filthy.” And the only sound was the hiss of the baseball until it found leather.
Porcello throws right-handed and, considering his body can only now be peaking at 6-foot-5, with uncommon ease. His four-seam fastball runs in the mid-90s and reliably to the mitt. In 125 Class A innings over his only professional summer, Porcello commanded four pitches, including the one everyone adores, a heavy two-seamer. He showed up to his second camp pounding both sides of the plate with all of them, drawing sighs from hitters and there-you-go's from catcher Matt Treanor.
In six weeks, if this is truly who Porcello is, and if last season's starting rotation is still what it was, the Tigers will have their answer.
“I don't want to say, 'No, he doesn't have a chance,' ” Knapp said.
In fact, no one has said he doesn't. Not manager Jim Leyland. Not GM Dave Dombrowski.
“The goal," said Porcello, having none of it, “is to get ready for the season, wherever they put me.”
In between, there might not be a more interesting camp than the one the Tigers will hold, the one in which they will attempt to rebuild a staff that once was World Series quality with many of the same parts, all under a career minor-league coach.
That means Justin Verlander, who won 18 games in 2007 and lost 17 in 2008. And Jeremy Bonderman, once a 14-game winner and last season limited by injury to 12 starts. And Nate Robertson, whose ERA was more than six.
Armando Gallaraga was a pleasant surprise, but is no sure thing. Dontrelle Willis is in the midst of a career overhaul.
But what they're doing, you just know it, is looking over the kid not two years out of Seton Hall Prep, this glowing phenom with the World Series bloodlines, and wondering if his time has come, and earlier than most. (His grandfather Sam Dente was a war-time shortstop who got three at-bats for the Indians in the 1954 World Series).
In just two years, they've gone from American League champions to last place in the AL Central, a slide that potentially carries the added indignity of clearing out their ballpark. A grim economy is grimmer still in Detroit, and last-place teams don't generally count as diversions. Beyond that, Leyland is in the final year of his contract, and Dombrowski is overseeing a payroll that tripled in four years and remains among the largest in the game, and that World Series photo looks smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror.
So, they need to win, and just might. The division generally stood still or worsened around them. And, then, well, it can't all go so wrong again for the Tigers, can it?
“A lot of things kind of went haywire,” said Knapp, new to the organization but showing a grasp of the basic implosion, which took the bullpen with it.
A winter of healing later, they've tried to sort through the various messes, they got everybody up and throwing early, and then they threw open the doors of competition, which was right about the time Porcello strolled in with all his composure and feel for the game and borderline unhittable stuff.
“What I hope it'll be is that we have tough decisions to make,” Knapp said. “Jim Leyland will pick who's on his team. The only thing I can say is we hope we have tough decisions.”
Here's the one everybody gets to thinking about: Let's say Willis still can't throw enough strikes but isn't terrible (he has thrown reasonably well so far) and Robertson still looks kind of like the guy with the big ERA and Porcello is clearly the best pitcher. The Tigers owe Willis and Robertson a combined $39 million over the next two seasons. That's a big nut for a couple long guys. You see the potential dilemma.
Of course we're a long way from the home opener. Presumably Porcello has plenty to learn. But Knapp knows development; it's what he did for 20 years before getting to Detroit. And Porcello can pitch.
Treanor came out of the cage Monday morning talking about Porcello's maturity, and the way he feels himself from one pitch to the next. He'd seen plenty of good arms in nine years with the Florida Marlins, he said. He wouldn't hold him up next to anyone, he said, shaking his head, because it wasn't the right thing to do, wasn't fair to the kid, and then he blurted, “Josh Beckett.”
“He's on the fast track to the big leagues, I think,” Treanor said.
How fast would now be the question.
Porcello and Knapp will concentrate now on Porcello's curveball and slider. They are too similar, Knapp said, in velocity and rotation. So, they'll further separate the breaking balls or turn them into one pitch. Other than that, well, the spring games will come and the hitters will tell everyone who's in and who's out, whether soon is too soon.
A nice kid who can't believe he passes by Al Kaline's locker every day, who thrills to Willie Horton asking him how his day's goin', is going to leave camp at that.
“I'm just going to go out there and throw as well as I can,” he said. “I try not to worry about it. Whatever happens, happens.”
- Rick Porcello