Future Tigers on the Mend

In recent seasons, the Detroit Tigers have had many players, from both the major and minor leagues derailed by injuries. This list includes such players as Dean Palmer, Bobby Higginson, Matt Anderson, Seth Greisinger, Adam Pettyjohn, and the list goes on. Will this trend continue? Or, will the Tigers get over the hump, and begin to see some players make comebacks?

Looking ahead to the 2004 season, one in which optimism is boiling over for fans, players, and coaches alike, let's take a look at a few Tiger prospects that are looking to recover from injuries sustained in recent seasons.

Matt Wheatland – RHP

Drafted out of high school as the 8th overall pick in the 2000 amateur draft, Matt was compared by some scouts to a young Kevin Brown. After making his minor league debut during the 2000 season, Matt suffered a shoulder injury and was forced to shut down. Arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder during the 2001 season set him back even further, completely erasing any hopes of a comeback in 2002. After sitting out the entire 2002 season, and a large portion of 2003, Matt came back to throw during the fall instructional league in Florida. He experienced some mild success and looked as if he could be at the beginning of the comeback trail. With continued health, the Tigers are hoping Matt can begin to contribute to the organization during minor league spring training. At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, possessing a low-90s fastball as well as some plus secondary pitches, he could very well develop into a middle of the rotation starter. With a little luck on his side, Matt may be able to begin his long awaited rise through the Tiger's minor league system.

John Birtwell – RHP

The Harvard University product was taken in the late rounds (30th) of the 2001 draft, and has put together quite an impressive minor league track record. With dominant stops at West Michigan and Lakeland, as well as being named Detroit's 2002 minor league Co-Pitcher of the Year, John seemed well on his way to a major league debut in the next couple of seasons. That schedule came to a screeching halt with arm surgery following the 2003 season. John will likely miss the 2004 season, with hopes on returning to form in 2005. If that is the case, he could rejuvenate his climb up the minor league ladder, hopefully contributing to the Detroit bullpen in a couple of years.

Cody Ross – OF

The Tiger's 4th round pick out of Carlsbad High School in New Mexico, Cody has consistently flown under the radar of fans and scouts alike. With solid tools across the board, Ross has compiled a streak of solid seasons at Lakeland, Erie, and last season at Toledo. As a late season call-up to Detroit, fans thought they might be seeing one-third of Detroit's future outfield. While rounding first in a September game, Cody suffered torn knee ligaments, ending his late season call-up, and ultimately testing his resolve. With hard work and determination in the offseason, Ross has worked himself back to nearly 100%, and looks ready to contribute right out of the gates. Ross has the opportunity to fight for a roster spot with the Tigers out of spring training, but it is much more likely he will begin the season at Toledo to complete his rehab, and get some valuable early season at-bats. The Cody Ross era at Comerica Park is not far off however, so don't be surprised to see him donning the "Old English D" at some point in 2004.

Kenny Baugh – RHP

A highly touted first round pick out of Rice University, Kenny was expected to make a rapid rise through the Tiger's system, reaching Detroit quickly to provide some much needed help on the mound. Unfortunately, high pitch counts and lots of innings while at Rice, led to shoulder problems in the minors. Throwing over 400 collegiate innings, sometimes exceeding 150 pitches per start, took its toll. After quickly signing with the organization, Baugh reported to West Michigan where he promptly established himself as a top prospect in the system. The added professional innings, proved too much for Baugh, who was shut down with a partially torn labrum, an injury that would later require surgery. After spending most of the 2002 season and the early part of 2003 recovering from surgery, Baugh came back to pitch well at Lakeland and continue his comeback with the Erie Seawolves of the Eastern League. The upcoming season could be a big one for Kenny, as he has a shot to challenge for the 5th spot in Detroit's rotation. Most likely, he will begin the season in AAA, waiting for his chance to make that short drive up I-75 to Detroit.

Rob Henkel – LHP

A key component of Dave Dombrowski's deal that sent Mark Redman to the defending World Champion Florida Marlins, Henkel has as much promise as just about anyone in the Tiger's minor league system. As has been the Tiger's luck in recent seasons, Henkel has suffered from some minor shoulder problems and a variety of nagging injuries that have kept him from reaching his full potential. A 3rd round pick out of UCLA, Henkel has only exceeded 100 innings in one of his three professional seasons. Rob pitched very well for Erie last season when healthy, but those healthy moments were few and far between, as he was only able to make 16 starts. The Tigers sent him to the Arizona Fall League in hopes that he could catch up on some of those innings he missed over the summer. Instead, back problems cut his fall season short after 3 poor starts. Hopefully an offseason of hard work will pay off for Rob, as he fights with several players for the 5th spot in the Tiger rotation. If Rob struggles or gets off to a slow start this spring, look for him to anchor the staff at Toledo.

Joel Zumaya – RHP

This 19 year old, 11th round phenom has been a pleasant surprise to Tiger's fans and scouts alike. Drafted out of high school in 2002, Joel made his professional debut at age 17 in the Gulf Coast League. After turning pro, Joel added significant velocity to his fastball, elevating his status as a prospect. Moving up to West Michigan last season, Zumaya was at times, dominating. If not for some minor arm and back trouble, Joel may well have compiled one of the most impressive seasons throughout the minors. As it stood, his season was highly impressive, and leaves the organization and it's fans wanting more from the youngster. With the coaches attempting to smooth out Joel's maximum effort delivery, he will look to put those nagging injuries behind him, and put himself on the map as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. The Tigers will look for Joel to begin the season at Lakeland, with a potential late season call-up to AA Erie if he continues his trends from last season.

Jeremy Johnson – RHP

Another high school draft choice of the Tigers, Johnson was also taken in the 11th round of the 2000 amateur draft. After a solid beginning to his professional career, Johnson really turned it on during the 2002 season while splitting the majority of his time between Lakeland and Erie. After 10 starts for Erie in 2003, Johnson suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, knocking him out for the remainder of the season. At this point, Johnson will begin throwing off a mound in the coming weeks, while targeting a comeback to game action for mid-season. At 21 years old, Jeremy will still be ahead of the curve, and will look to have a productive second half of 2004. If Johnson can come back healthy this summer, he may be able to re-establish himself as a prospect the Tigers can look to.

Looking at the 2004 season, the Tigers have some injury riddled minor leaguers poised to make an impression and begin the assent up the minor league ladder. With a little luck, something the Tigers haven't had in recent seasons, some of these players could round back into form, establishing themselves as players who could contribute at Comerica Park in the coming seasons.

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