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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Below tabbed to get spot start for Tigers

When the Tigers sent Charlie Furbush down the minors after his second audition to claim Phil Coke's old fifth spot in the rotation, they said it was because they wouldn't need a fifth starter for nearly two weeks.

Or in other words, until this Wednesday.

But instead of bringing up Furbush again, the Tigers announced Tuesday morning that Britton, Mich., native Duane Below would get the call up from Triple-A Toledo to start Wednesday's night game against the Oakland A's.

Whether it's an audition or just a stopgap remains to be seen.

What is clear is that the Tigers feel like they don't yet have an answer for the problem of finding a fifth starter, to pitch behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Brad Penny and Rick Porcello. The problem has become so concerning that the organization has made no secret of its intent to seek external reinforcements before the July 31 (non-waiver) trade deadline. And they've been linked to nearly every trade-worthy arm with a pulse since.

How did they get here?

Well, in part, it's because the Tigers didn't feel like any of their highly-touted minor-league arms were ready to be a starter at the big-league level coming out of spring training.

So Coke, a career reliever in the big leagues, who had been a minor-league starter in the New York Yankees system, got the first crack at the fifth spot. As much as he had the tools of a starting pitcher, and showed flashes of pitching well, the results were not there — he went 1-7 in 14 starts with a not-good-but-not-cataclysmic 4.82 ERA.

Andy Oliver, the Tigers' best prospect in the high minors and the most heralded of the Mud Hens' four-lefty starting rotation, did not do well his two cameo appearances while Coke was on the disabled list with a mildly sprained foot. He gave up two home runs in a six-inning stint against Boston, then another in a four-run, five-walk outing against the White Sox, when he couldn't get out of the fourth inning.

Charlie Furbush, the lanky lefty who came up at the same time as Oliver, pitched well out of the bullpen (1-1, 2.49 ERA in 21 2/3 IP) for nearly a month. But he was shaky when given the opportunity to claim the fifth spot after Coke's demotion, lasting less than five innings in each of his two starts (0-2, 8.59 ERA).

The Tigers have said several times that they did not intend to rush their top prospect, 2009 No. 1 pick Jacob Turner, up to the majors to fill the breach, preferring to keep him at Double-A Erie, where he's pitched adequately. Don't think they don't plan on having him ready by next year, but they don't want to risk pushing him too high, too soon — as they may have done with more MLB-ready arms like Porcello, Verlander or Andrew Miller.

That leaves a guy like Below, who was the team's 19th-round pick in the 2006 draft, and the anonymous fourth man in of the quartet of lefties at Toledo — along with Oliver, Furbush and Adam Wilk, currently a long reliever in the Tigers' bullpen.

Like Wilk, Below's ceiling as a prospect may be far lower than the other two, but his results wouldn't necessarily lead you to conclude that. He is 9-4 with a 3.13 ERA for Toledo this year, going 5-1 in his eight starts since June 4. His last start for the Mud Hens was on the 15th, putting him right on schedule for five days' rest before making his MLB debut Wednesday.

Unlike the earlier promotions Oliver and Furbush — who the Tigers instructed the Mud Hens to have pitch an inning on Sunday, when a handful of other teams' scouts were on hand — you don't get the feeling that giving Below a spot start at the big-league level is a showcase for other teams. If the Tigers are planning to trade a pitching prospect for immediate help, other teams would probably be looking at the two higher-ceiling prospects — especially given the Tigers' perceived refusal to offer Turner in deals over the past two seasons.


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