Inside Pitch: Youngsters Making Push

As injury concerns with some of the Tigers' top arms continue, the possibility that a pair of young high-powered arms could come north with the Tigers continue to increase.

Every day Jeremy Bonderman can't pitch and every time Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson struggle, it enhances the unlikely chances of a 20-year-old one-year pro, Rick Porcello, making Detroit's Opening Day rotation.

And every time Joel Zumaya feels a twinge in his right shoulder, it opens the door a little farther for a hard-throwing relief pitcher with only 14 games of minor league experience, 2008 top draft choice RHP Ryan Perry, to squeeze onto the Tigers' Opening Day roster.

It isn't as if the Tigers' pitching staff is filled with Hall of Famers, either. This is a starting rotation that overworked a bullpen in 2008 to the point where it was among the worst in baseball.

And the starter with the most victories (right-hander Armando Galarraga, 13) wasn't even with the club when spring training ended in 2008.

Do you think Jim Leyland, a manager of enormous integrity and pride who is not under contract for 2010, would have any hesitation at all in running even a 15-year-old out to the mound if he thought that youngster was his best chance of getting hitters out? Of course not.

There might be some interesting conversations between Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski if Porcello continues to look to be at least the equal of struggling left-handers Willis and Robertson as spring training winds down.

Even though Willis and Robertson each have two more seasons of big guaranteed money coming to them, it's difficult to imagine Leyland running either one of them out to the mound if he were to get thumped two out of every three starts.

"If they're so talented, though, that they are the best we've got, then you have to have some conversation," Leyland said. "There are so many things that weigh into it, such as what we need, what's going to make us the best team and what's going to be best for their careers.

"So I'm not writing either one of those guys off, and I'm certainly not putting either one on the team right now. I'm just telling you the truth. Do they have a chance? They have a chance.

"Would it be the best thing? I don't know. I'm not sure. I don't know how it will play out. But I think it will actually put us in a pretty good dilemma. If something makes you stop and look, at some point it could make you stop and think."

Even were Porcello to make the team, there's no way the organization would let him pitch anything approaching 200 innings, not when he just turned 20 and his entire pro experience consists of the 125 innings he worked last season in the Florida State League (when his 2.66 ERA was the best in the league).

He was on a five-inning, 75-pitch limit last season, and the preliminary thinking was to let him work up to 100 pitches per start this year.

Even though Robertson, Willis and Zach Miner need to start along with Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, the absence of Galarraga (with Team Venezuela) and Bonderman's delay getting into action because of a nerve issue in his shoulder meant Leyland could get extra looks at Porcello in a role to which he is accustomed.

If he continues to look good, who's to say Leyland might not get creative and have Porcello start with someone like Miner picking him up after the fifth inning?

There will be opportunities to skip the rookie during the season, too, to keep his innings in the 140-160 range.

Then there's Perry, who followed pick Porcello, the Tigers' No. 1 pick in 2007, as Detroit's top draft choice last summer.

He's not a prospect who pitched all his life; he wasn't even a full-time reliever last year. Yet Perry has that sin-covering asset all relievers need -- a 100-mph fastball. He allowed enough hits to make a manager nervous last year (15 in 12 high Class A innings) but he also averaged a strikeout an inning for Lakeland.

Zumaya returned to Detroit on Friday to have another sore shoulder checked out. Whether he's healthy or not, Leyland (and Dombrowski) are attracted to pitchers who can erase their mistakes and inexperience with unhittable pitches.

One factor that takes the prospects of Porcello and Perry making the Tigers out of the realm of fantasy is that Leyland gambled on two talented but unproven youngsters in 2006 -- Verlander and Zumaya.

The Tigers went from awful in 2005 to the World Series the next year, with Verlander and Zumaya playing big roles.

In the end, the way others pitch will play as big a role as how Perry and Porcello pitch in determining whether the heralded yet inexperienced pitchers can duplicate the role that Verlander and Zumaya played for Detroit in 2006.

--OF Marcus Thames will be sidelined for one week due to a strained oblique muscle. The ailment is not considered serious, according to manager Jim Leyland.

--RHP Rick Porcello is scheduled to start again Monday in his longshot bid to make Detroit's roster in his second full pro season. Detroit's top choice in the 2007 draft is starting in the absence of RHP Armando Galarraga, pitching for the Venezuelan team in the WBC and because RHP Jeremy Bonderman is coming back slowly from an early sore shoulder. "Is he a candidate to make the team?" manager Jim Leyland asked. "Yes, he is. He is a candidate. He's the real deal. Does he have a leg up or leg down on a job? Nobody does. I'm just watching. Like I've said about all the guys, I'm just watching. But is he a guy about whom we've already said, 'He definitely won't make it.' No, we've not done that. So he's a candidate. Longshot? Probably." Porcello allowed a run in his first appearance, in relief, then pitched two scoreless in a start. He maintains a calm, professional demeanor both on the mound and in the clubhouse. "My biggest challenge is to calm myself down so I can be consistent," Porcello said. "I've got a lot to learn and a lot of guys to look up to. I just need to step off the mound and take a deep breath when that happens. Justin (Verlander) does that a lot."

--RHP Jeremy Bonderman has returned to playing light games of catch after being scrubbed from his first scheduled exhibition appearance because of right shoulder stiffness. The Tigers sent Bonderman back to Detroit on March 2 so doctors could examine his shoulder and compare to earlier tests. The diagnosis was that a nerve disrupted by last year's surgery to remove a blood clot is still healing. "When that nerve heals all the way up, I'll be OK," said Bonderman, who is taking anti-inflammatory medicine. "But I'm told nerves don't heal the same on people, and so it could be a couple days or weeks." He played catch Thursday and Friday but no timetable was set for his return to the mound. "I'd say he's a little bit behind, but not anything to really concern you at this time," manager Jim Leyland said. Bonderman reported no pain from his second throwing session and was scheduled to throw a bullpen session off a mound during the weekend. "I threw at 60 feet last time, at 90 feet this time," he said. "No pain at all."

--RHP Ryan Perry pitched scoreless innings in his first two exhibition appearances and showed management why it drafted him No. 1 in 2008. "I can see where he might be a bull in the china shop once in a while," manager Jim Leyland said. "But that's potentially dominating stuff. He has a chance to be real special." Perry worked between seasons on hiding the ball a little longer so it would be more difficult to pick up his high-90s fastball and also worked on his other pitches. Perry is much more animated than fellow rookie RHP Rick Porcello but says that's just the way he is. And because he's a relief pitcher, he feels it helps him to get amped for appearances. He is not expected to make the Opening Day roster but is a possibility as long as he keeps putting up scoreless innings.

--RHP Joel Zumaya was to take a couple days off from throwing after he reported feeling more than ordinary soreness in his right shoulder following his mid-week appearance. He was sent to Pensacola, Fla., on Friday to be examined by a traveling Dr. James Andrews, who found no damage, only ordinary spring soreness. Zumaya is coming off two years of injuries. Zumaya, who had been very sharp through mid-week, told the club he was feeling a different kind of pain than the shoulder separation that shut him down last August. Pitching Coach Rick Knapp said it was more a feeling of an impingement. "It's all precautionary," Knapp said. "We've got extra time this spring." Knapp and Tigers' trainer Kevin Rand said they were not concerned at this point about Zumaya's ability to be ready to open the season. Zumaya had been easing back on his fastball -- keeping it in the high 90s as opposed to trying for triple digits -- in an effort to gain more control. He also was throwing his curve and changeup more often. Manager Jim Leyland said Zumaya "threw more good breaking balls (in a March 4 game against Florida Southern College) than he did the whole season last year. I'm not going to get carried away, but he looks like a million bucks right now. If he's healthy, he's going to be good. It's that simple. He had his full spread working for him -- 77, 87 and 97," Knapp said after the outing. "He threw one change at 77, some breaking balls at 87 and a couple of pitches at 97. That's a perfect spread for him."

--OF Clete Thomas is targeting March 23 as the date he can return to the outfield because his arm has recovered enough to let him throw the ball. Thomas has been limited to being the designated hitter because of Tommy John surgery sixth months ago but has been told he would be able to throw well enough soon to avoid damage to his arm. The Tigers think all the workouts he has done in rehabilitation have given him more bat speed and more strength. He could challenge for a spot on the roster at some point this year. "The ball's jumping off my bat a little more," Thomas said. "I did a lot of squats, dumbbell bench presses, dead lifts and core strengthening." Manager Jim Leyland said: "He's stronger and his bat speed has gotten that much better."

--C Gerald Laird had to come out of Detroit's exhibition game on March 5 because of a mild left quadriceps strain. Laird, who hit a triple in an early exhibition game, was running out a two-run single in the third inning on March 5 when he felt the strain. He was to be evaluated on a daily basis but the injury was not believed to be serious. The Tigers obviously will let the injury get fully healed before putting him behind the plate again. His backup, Matt Trainor, and other Detroit catchers would fill in.

--2B Will Rhymes was called "a dirtballer" on March 4 by Manager Jim Leyland, who also predicted the smallish second baseman would play in the majors. Rhymes, 25, batted .306 at Double-A Erie last summer to seriously enhance his status. Generously listed as 5-foot-9 and 155, Rhymes also had a solid fall in the Arizona Fall League. "I think Rhymes will play in the big leagues," Leyland said after playing Rhymes in an exhibition game. "He's got a short, quick (batting) stroke." Rhymes helps himself by hitting left-handed, running extremely well and not striking out. He was a 27th-round draft pick from William & Mary in 2005. "Don't accuse me of being Sparky," said Leyland, noting that Detroit's Hall of Fame manager would annually chose a player to pump up each spring only to see that player fade away quickly. "I like what I see."

--OF Brent Clevlen is playing against a stacked deck, but is putting all that out of his mind as he bids to impress Tiger management. Clevlen is out of options but seemingly is crowded out of the Detroit outfield because of his inability to make consistent contact and also by the fact he's one of many right-handed hitting outfielders in the organization. "He's been having a pretty good spring so far," manager Jim Leyland said. "At some point, it will be decision time." He has struck out 30 times in 73 sporadic at-bats for Detroit over the last two seasons.

--INF Jeff Larish might not make Detroit's Opening Day roster primarily because it can option him back to the minors, but he continues to impress with his left-handed power bat and his professional approach to the game. Larish has been playing a lot of first base while 1B Miguel Cabrera is away with Team Venezuela, but has also seen action at third and continues to take fly balls in the outfield. "I really like his personality," Leyland said. "He's a very good student of the game. He's one of those quiet, competitive types. I'm a big fan of his. He's smart. He knows versatility is important. I really like him. I like him a lot." He leads Detroit in spring home runs but is slightly behind UT Ryan Raburn in the battle for the last bench spot because Raburn is a much better outfielder. "He knows what's going on," Leyland said of Larish, noting his pre-game workouts in the outfield. "Right now, he's adequate at third base. I don't think we can ever expect him to be a great third baseman. I don't think he's gonna be a Gold Glover. But I think Jeff Larish definitely will play in the big leagues. Whether it's this year with us, I don't know."

BY THE NUMBERS: 13.5 -- Average number of at-bats between home runs for reserve OF Marcus Thames, one of the best such figures in baseball. Yet Thames is unable to become a regular in the Detroit lineup due to a number of factors. He is behind Gary Sheffield as Detroit's defense, is backing up Carlos Guillen in left and can't play the other outfield positions on a regular basis.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a spot for any good pitcher that throws strikes, commands the strike zone, makes pitches and gets the hitters out. There are 12 spots for those guys." -- Tigers' manager Jim Leyland on the possibility of one of Detroit's younger, inexperienced pitchers making the Detroit roster this spring.

Tigs Town Top Stories