Tigers prospect wows 'em in Lakeland
LAKELAND, Fla.—Of all those who watched Rick Porcello closely this spring, Tigers catcher Dane Sardinha might have had the best vantage point.
Sardinha caught Porcello's plunging sinker during two of his three Grapefruit League appearances. Sardinha was there March 5, when Porcello's command wavered a little and he actually allowed one earned run to the Pirates. And Sardinha was there March 11, when Porcello retired all six Indians hitters he faced in the final appearance of his first big league spring training.
Sardinha, 28, knows what a top prospect looks like. And he has seen virtually every sort of pitcher during his seven-year pro career and was a second-round pick himself—twice, out of high school and out of Pepperdine in 2000. So, consider the perspective behind the following assessment, which Sardinha offered several days after Porcello had been optioned to Class A Lakeland:
"To me," Sardinha said, "it looks like he was in Double-A or Triple-A last year."
Of course, Porcello wasn't anywhere near Erie, Pa., or Toledo, Ohio, during the 2007 season. At this time last year, he was pitching for Baseball America's preseason No. 1 prep team, Seton Hall Prep of West Orange, N.J.
Porcello was widely thought of as the draft's best high school prospect, and he met—perhaps exceeded—the high expectations. He went 10-0, 1.18, including a seven-inning perfect game, and was the winning pitcher in the state final. He fell to No. 27 overall in the June draft because of signability concerns, and Detroit signed him to a $7 million major league contract that included a $3.58 million bonus. It's the largest contract for a high school pitcher since Josh Beckett's near-identical deal, signed in 1999.
Now, the 19-year-old righthander is preparing for his first minor league start. He will begin the season with the Tigers' Florida State League affiliate, but no one knows for sure where he will finish.
It's clear, though, that he could move quickly. Very quickly.
"You see guys like that coming out of college once in awhile, but high school?" Sardinha said. "You have to give credit to him, his parents, his coaches—whoever taught him how to throw."
Throughout spring training, Tigers players and coaches marveled at the maturity Porcello displayed on and off the mound. Justin Verlander, the team's young ace and Opening Day starter, said Porcello handled his first big league camp "better than I did."
"He's going about it great," said Verlander, who had the benefit of three college seasons before starting his pro career. "He acts like he belongs, but, at the same time, he's showing respect to the older guys and just going about his work very quietly.
"He doesn't have to bring attention to himself. People are watching him. People see him doing the right things. He seems kind of timid, but self-confident at the same time. He seems like a great kid."
Although spring training performances have been misleading over the years, there was no denying that Porcello belonged on the same field with established big league hitters. The movement on his two-seam fastball was so good, Sardinha said, that he rarely needed to throw his impressive four-seamer. Porcello worked both sides of the plate with the sinker, while mixing in well-timed curveballs and changeups.
"He keeps the ball down," Sardinha said. "That's the biggest thing."
Porcello pitched two perfect innings in his Feb. 29 spring debut against the Blue Jays, including a strikeout of Frank Thomas. In his final outing against Cleveland, he retired David Dellucci, Victor Martinez and Casey Blake in the sixth inning, all on ground balls.
"This is a different cat," Detroit manager Jim Leyland told reporters after the outing against Toronto. "He's not in awe of anything."
"He looks so mature on the mound," Tigers righthander Virgil Vasquez said. "He doesn't change from the bullpen to the game."
"He looks like he belongs in major league camp," assistant general manager Al Avila said. "He's the full package that we expected."
No Pressure Yet
Porcello actually might have been under more pressure at the outset of last season, because of the draft and his team's No. 1 national ranking. He entered this spring knowing that he wasn't competing for a spot in the team's big league rotation, which allowed him to enjoy the experience.
"It's kind of nice for my first time," Porcello said, one day early in camp. "I can relax and learn how to do things without having to impress people."
Of course, he impressed them anyway, a fact that Detroit officials made no attempt to hide. They also made something very clear all spring: He was never a candidate to make the Opening Day roster.
Yet, as unlikely as it may be, they never ruled out an in-season promotion.
This much is certain: In recent years, the Tigers have not hindered the ascent of star prospects. Consider the quick timetables of their three first-round picks before Porcello:
• Verlander's first big league camp was in 2005, and he made two big league spot starts later that year. He spent the entire 2006 season in the majors, winning Baseball America Rookie of the Year honors and making two World Series starts.
• Outfielder Cameron Maybin soared from Class A Lakeland to the majors last year, with a brief stop in between at Double-A Erie.
• Lefthander Andrew Miller made eight relief appearances in 2006—the year he was drafted—and would have been on the World Series roster if the Mets had been the opponent.
Porcello is already ahead of schedule, in one sense, because he is starting the season at Lakeland rather than low Class A West Michigan. Verlander began his minor league career there, as a 22-year-old.
Detroit president/general manager Dave Dombrowski cited the warmer weather as one factor in the team's decision to keep Porcello in Florida. He also told the Detroit Free Press, "From a development perspective, we felt he could handle it."
Up to this point, there is no reason to believe otherwise. All spring, the Tigers' eyes confirmed the praise they had read in all those scouting reports.
"When he steps on the mound, guys like him and Verlander," Leyland said, "they look a little bit different than the other guys."