Monday, July 11, 2011

Would Calling Up Jacob Turner Be The Right Decision?

In truth, this is really a three-piece discussion with the first question being: how did we get to this point?;  the second question being: is Jacob Turner the best pitcher available to fill the role of 5th starter on the Tigers?; and the third question being: is he ready to get Major League hitters out?

Let's start with the first question: How did we get to this point?

As I discussed this off season when the Tigers decided to let Armando Galarraga walk, the teams decision to DFA him was a questionable one at best. For one thing, it was completely unnecessary. While the signing of Brad Penny left Galarraga without a role in the starting rotation, there was no reason he couldn't have stayed on as a long reliever.

Instead they opened the season with Enrique Gonzalez and Brayan Villarreal as their long men. Gonzalez, who had amassed a 5.81 career ERA over five seasons split between four teams was essentially every bit as good (or bad) as one could've expected, allowing seven earned runs in 5.1 innings, before being demoted on April 19th. Villareal who has solid stuff but had never thrown an inning above AA entering the 2011 season also, predictably, got chewed up and spat out, allowing 11 earned runs in 15.1 innings of work before being demoted on May 20th.

Shortly after Villarreal was demoted, the Tigers rotation hit the skids, with essentially everyone not named Justin Verlander cratering. That set in motion a laughably foreseeable turn of events in which the Tigers traded one under-tooled left handed problem for another.

And so here we are. The Tigers hold a tenuous half-game lead in the AL Central over a surprising Indians team, but they're learning that they only have four competent starters. And given that all three of the other starters have ERAs of at least 4.50 (MLB average is just 3.95) - it's a stretch even to say the team even has four competent arms.

It's more like Verlander, and three other guys pitching like 5th starters.

To be clear, Galarraga hasn't been anything special himself, accumulating a 5.91 ERA in 42.2 innings of work for the Diamondbacks before being demoted on May 15th - but he could've at least offered the team another option.

Now we're left to wonder whether a twenty year old, who has been more good than great in AA, is really the best option for a Major League team in a pennant race.

Sadly the answer to that question is a solid: maybe.

While Charlie Furbush had an abbreviated two-start audition that saw him perform even worse than the man (Phil Coke) he was replacing, it's likely that the team was as thoroughly underwhelmed by his stuff as I was before the experiment began. Indeed, despite a terrible end to his career as a starter, given his 4.05 ERA overall, Coke might be the best option to round out the rotation right now.

The team however seems to have given up on him even though he showed three solid offerings while posting solid if unspectacular peripherals, preferring to isolate him against lefties as much as possible.

That leaves the Tigers in the same bind they were in before: needing a 5th starter.

With all other options having been exhausted, it seems that the team might now consider bringing their top prospect, the right handed Turner, into the fold.

I've had the opportunity to watch Turner a lot. I caught no fewer than six of his starts last year, and another 5 this season, and I've come away as impressed as anyone else. For a twenty year old, Turner shows a feel for pitching that seems beyond his years. He pitches aggressively with his fastball, a two-seamer that he locates quite well, even if it doesn't generate ideal movement at 92-94mph.

Turner complements the fastball with a curveball that flashes plus. Sometimes the pitch generates great, late bite at 76-78mph and can produce some really ugly swings from the Minor Leaguers he's facing. The problem is that he's very inconsistent with the pitch and all too often he loses his arm-slot and the ball will either hump or just spin. It'll almost certainly be a consistently plus offering with time (I gave it a potential 70 grade in my pre-season scouting report of Turner) but it isn't yet.

He'll also shown a solid changeup, and I concur with other prospect watchers who say that pitch has made the most progress this season. While I graded the pitch as a 50 current offering before the season, I'd call it a 60 right now - and I'd bump my potential grade on the pitch from 60 to 65-70. It's getting better depth than it was before and has become a much more effective weapon against lefties.

The problem is that right now, it's hard for me to see how he has any more success at this level than, say, Coke. His stuff is good, and could one day be really good. But while his fastball has some zip and he locates the pitch well, his secondary offerings aren't there yet. Yes the curveball looks unhittable at times, but he has poor command of it, and it's inconsistent. The changeup is becoming more consistent, and I think he's actually probably more effective against lefties than righties right now as a result.

But is that enough to translate as a quality MLB arm? Color me skeptical.

Like any pitcher making his first trip through the league however, Turner would have the advantage of not having been seen before and there is a never ending list of guys who've looked like certain All-Star during those first couple trips through the league. For evidence of that, Tigers fans need look no further than their own Rick Porcello, who dominated the AL for one season on smoke and mirrors before getting figured out.

This is where my "maybe," assessment comes from.

Could Turner have some success as a starter over half a season? Sure, plenty of guys have.

But is his stuff really ready to succeed at this level long-term? Probably not.

And so the Tigers brass has to ask themselves some tough questions: would the chance that Turner could provide a spark in the rotation outweigh the potential damage that could be done to his development? Would they be better served trying to acquire another mediocre starter via trade?

These are the questions that make being an MLB General Manager tough.

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