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Porcello preparing for uncertain season

DETROIT -- Now that the Justin Upton rumors are finally put in bed, it's Rick Porcello's turn as the next face of baseball's trade block.

Once the Tigers begin formal workouts in less than two weeks, it's Porcello's turn to encounter the national media and take the questions about a future he neither knows nor controls. It's his time with his original team now on the clock as teams, scouts and insiders wait for the Tigers to signal whether they want to deal a young starting pitcher from their excess.

Meanwhile, Porcello will be on the back fields and bullpen mounds, preparing like he has in previous seasons. He just doesn't know where this season might find him.

Last week's interviews around TigerFest and the Tigers' Winter Caravan were a test run for what he'll face. As expected, he handled them deftly, and without any inkling of what might happen.

"Like I've said before, I've been focused on preparing for the season with the Tigers. As of right now, I'm still a Tiger, last time I checked," Porcello said. "I'm getting ready to go down there and win a job in the rotation. That's my main focus. If anything changes, I'll adjust accordingly, but I'm trying to block out all the distractions and just stay focused on my game plan and the adjustments that I need to make to get better."

He said it a few times last week, and he'll undoubtedly say it again. It won't stop the speculation, but it'll at least allow him to control his side of the message.

His message is that he has work to do to improve after a 2012 season that saw him drop to the back of Detroit's rotation, though Anibal Sanchez's arrival had a lot to do with that drop, too.

His potential rotation battle backs up the message. As he heads into his fifth Major League season, the Tigers are labeling him as a candidate for the fifth spot with Drew Smyly, the second-year lefty whose surprise rise to the rotation last spring resembled Porcello crashing Detroit's roster as a 20-year-old in 2009.

"Smyly's really good. I really like him, but Porcello's really good, too," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I just wouldn't be saying just turn the job over to Smyly automatically. Let's just see what happens. Competition is great. I love competition."

And that's the catch. While Porcello by all accounts has value to many teams, and could potentially end up being a big part of a team's rotation -- maybe even that a contending squad -- he's fighting for a starting spot in Detroit. For someone who has been part of the Tigers rotation for four years, the idea of competing for a spot should seem to be infuriating. It's as much of a circumstance of the factors surrounding him -- infield defense in particular -- as it is about his pitching.

Porcello has won 46 games over his brief career before turning 24, and he has pitched in some of the biggest games the Tigers have had in that stretch. He also has had mixed results, and his postseason work last year consisted of just 1 1/3 innings over two games. The way Detroit's rotation lined up with Sanchez last year, there wasn't a place for him in a four-man postseason rotation.

Now that the regular season awaits and Sanchez has a five-year contract, it isn't that much easier with five.

"Right now, if Smyly was the starter, as we stand right now, Porcello would be some sort of safety valve for us in the bullpen," Leyland explained last week. "If Porcello's the starter, Smyly would be the left-hander in the bullpen right now, most likely, unless something would come up where they'd want him to go out and pitch more. That's a nice luxury, but that's a simple one."

Porcello shrugs it off.

"I think any time you have internal competition, it pushes you to get better," he said. "It's going to be good for us and good for the team."

In the end, nobody knows whether it's going to be good for Porcello. Publicly, at least, it reinforces his work on some of the issues that he can control.

As Porcello tried to battle through some of his struggles last year, he began incorporating a curveball into his arsenal, using it alongside his slider instead of choosing one over the other or as he had to do when he was younger. This winter, his slider was a bigger concern.

Overall, however, he wanted to shore up his mechanics, something pitching coach and mentor Jeff Jones has tried to help.

"Right now, I've been focusing on my slider, because that's the pitch that I'm going to throw more than my curveball generally," Porcello said. "A lot of it has to do with just your consistency in your delivery and your arm angle. If all of those fall into place, then your pitches should be where they need to be. That's the main thing I've been focusing on is just repeating my delivery and getting all my body parts where they need to be."

It's not that Porcello's command cost him strikes. His 65 percent strike rate last year was his highest ever, including 63 percent first-pitch strikes. He had more 0-2 counts and fewer 3-0 counts than at any other point in his brief career.

Most of that gain in strikes came from hitters swinging. His percentage of strikes looking dropped because hitters approached him more aggressively. While some of his startling jump to a .310 batting average against could be attributed to the defense behind him, he had a similar jump in slugging percentage despite his home-run total dropping. No pitcher in the Majors gave up more doubles than Porcello, who allowed 53.

Porcello's struggles against lefties were well-known, and a reflection of his struggles with secondary pitches. Sharpen the command, and no matter where he's pitching or who's behind him, he'll be better. That's his concern right now. That's what he can control.

"There's never been a year that's gone by in the big leagues where I've felt like I take a job on this team for granted," Porcello said. "I've always felt like I have to go into camp and earn a spot and work hard and show what I can do, and this year's no different. I'm prepared to work hard and win a job. That's pretty much it. That's my mindset. It doesn't change."

Detroit Tigers, Rick Porcello