There was a time a couple seasons ago when the Tigers' big league club was searching for starting pitchers. As a result, right-hander Rick Porcello made it to the big club without extensive time in the minor leagues. The lack of development eventually caught up with Porcello as he struggled last season. This year, the Tigers have depth and quality pitching in their rotation. With starters like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Brad Penny, Porcello and Phil Coke, the Tigers have a fine mix of arms that can start on any given day. The net result of having such depth? Top organizational pitching prospect Jacob Turner can spend more time learning his craft in the minor leagues.
Turner is one of baseball's best pitching prospects. He has the ideal physical attributes for a power pitcher. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound righty was the Tigers' first-round selection (No. 9 overall) in June 2009.
Turner was drafted following a fantastic high school baseball career at Westminster Christian in St. Louis, Missouri. During his tenure at Westminster, Turner went 20-4. In his senior season, he had a 7-2 record with 113 strikeouts and only 13 walks. His fastball hit the high-90s for both his high school and prep traveling squad teams. He was named a high school All American. It didn't hurt that Turner's high school coach was former major league pitcher Todd Worrell. He was learning his craft from a coach that was experienced in developing specific pitches and handling major league hitters.
Turner committed to play baseball at University of North Carolina but opted instead to accept the $5.55 guaranteed contract negotiated for him by his agent Scott Boras. Included in that sum was a $4.7M signing bonus. He signed a major league contract that included a spot on the Tigers' 40-man roster and an invitation to spring training. Turner's experience signing a contract rather than attending college on a scholarship is not unique. That's exactly why organizations don't panic about college baseball scholarship commitments announced by potential draftees. Teams generally know in advance what financial parameters are required to get a professional contract signed.
Since turning professional, Turner has shown why the team is so bullish on his future. He pitched at both Low-A and High-A in 2010 with good results. His overall first professional season looked like this:
115 innings pitched with 106 hits and a record of 6-5 in 23 games started. He walked only 23 while striking out 102. Batters hit .238 off his pitches. He gave up only seven home runs and had a composite ERA of 3.28. Because of so few hits and walks, his WHIP was 1.12.
Liking what they saw in his first season, the Tigers promoted Turner to Double-A Erie in the Eastern League for this season. He's on the fast track.
To date this season, Turner's numbers look like this:
73.2 IP with 62 hits and a record of 1-1 in 11 games started. He has walked only 18 while striking out 61. Batters are hitting .223 against him.
Turner's first win this season didn't come until May 9. That has as much to do with run support as anything else. He has pitched remarkably well and he's kept his team in games.
Turner brings a very complete and highly competitive repertoire to his game. He has both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball. The two-seamer has extreme sink that induces ground balls. The four-seamer explodes on the hitter with late life. He consistently brings his fastball at 92-94 MPH. It isn't unusual for him to exceed that velocity. In addition to the plus fastballs, Turner has a very good 12-to-6 curve and an emerging plus changeup. Some say his changeup is becoming the best secondary in the Tigers' system. Changing the eye levels of hitters and keeping them off balance with varying velocity and location are the keys to Turner's success. In scout terms, Turner generally makes batters hit the top of the ball, pounding it into the ground as opposed to putting the ball in the air. He has an outstanding ability to use both sides of the plate, challenging the plate coverage of hitters.
If there is any negative to Turner's mechanics it has to be the deliberate style he uses in the first part of his delivery. It's almost as if he uncoils as he progresses from the back to the front of his motion. He unfolds his delivery part by part. While that is very deceptive to hitters, it also provides the opportunity for him to get completely out of sync and pull his pitches if he doesn't finish the delivery cleanly. When a pitcher doesn't finish, he has a tendency to pull the ball way out of the strike zone. That loss of command can result in walks and having to throw far too many pitches. In Turner's case, he generally does repeat his deliver so the times he pulls pitches by not finishing are few and far between. Hitters generally make contact against Turner, but they don't hit with overwhelming success.
Turner's type of delivery (see Luis Tiant) makes it very tough for the batter to see the ball, and that's a very positive quality. As he unfolds, Turner turns his back to the hitter and the ball is hidden. The release from his hand is very late, giving the batter little to look at before the ball explodes upon him at the plate.
The Tigers are loaded with pitchers to enter the rotation in the event of emergency or ineffectiveness of their major league starters. They have pitchers Andy Oliver and Charlie Furbush as potential starters if needed. Both of those pitchers have appeared with the Tigers this season. Oliver has started for Phil Coke and Furbush is still on the club working out of the bullpen. They are both older than Turner.
There are some Tigers followers pushing for the club to pull either or both Penny and/or Coke from the rotation. It isn't likely they would both lose their rotation spots. Prior to his most recent starts, Coke may have been vulnerable. In fact, Coke has spent time in the bullpen in the past and he may be valuable returning to that role. Beyond inconsistency from their No. 4 and No. 5 starters, the bullpen has been in flux throughout the season. For example, Joaquin Benoit who signed a very lucrative offseason contract has been anything but consistently sharp. The team recently traded for left-hander David Purcey to help put out fires from the bullpen. If the bullpen continues to falter, Coke may be the person to add some stability as a relief pitcher. That, of course, would open a spot in the starting rotation. Tigers manager Jim Leyland supports Coke and has a good reputation for handling pitchers. At this point of the season, it seems Oliver would most likely assume any vacancy in the rotation.
Is it reasonable to think that Turner could be installed in the Tigers' rotation even later this season? Probably not. The Tigers are in the middle of the central division race. They want stability in their pitching staff. Turner is a master at commanding his pitches and he is very poised and mechanically sound on the mound. He has a big contract that assures him a space on the 40-man roster. He's young and untested against big league hitters. Chances are he could get a look as a September callup to help spread out starting pitching assignments for the stretch run. That wouldn't be unreasonable for a team in a pennant race. They may want a fresh arm starting every day. So it's possible that a late-season call might be the extent of his introduction to major league baseball this year.
It's very significant that Penny is a free agent following this season. That should open a rotation spot for Turner. I would guess beginning in 2012, Turner could be a fixture on the Tigers' staff. Time will tell. The Tigers have a big investment in his power arm and by next season he certainly may be ready to claim his place in the rotation.
Of note is a comment made by Leyland following the winter meetings. Leyland told reporters that during trade discussions, other organizations asked about Turner more often than any other Tigers player. That's why Turner is at the very top of the organization's prospect list. That's why soon it will be his turn, not just yet.
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Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a graduate of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix.