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Righthanders Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya give Tigers fans hope for the future
By Pat Caputo
DETROIT--To understand how important Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya are to the Detroit Tigers, you must understand how unkind history has been to the organization.
How every time it seemed the Tigers captured lightning in a bottle with a pitching prospect--such as 1997 when Justin Thompson appeared in the All-Star Game,or 2002 when Matt Anderson saved 22 games--it turned out to be a mirage. Both suffered arm injuries and were not long for the organization.
How first-round draft choices such as Cade Gaspar and Mike Drumright never pitched in the major leagues. How other first-rounders like Greg Gohr, Rick Greene and Seth Greisinger did, but only briefly.
How first-round draft choices such as Matt Wheatland, Kenny Baugh and Kyle Sleeth all suffered arm injuries not long after being selected.
And how second-round picks such as Nate Cornejo and Preston Larrison showed enormous promise, only to be sidelined by arm ailments, in addition to being hindered by their own puzzling inconsistencies.
There are reasons the Tigers entered the 2005 season without a winning record since 1993. The failure to draft and develop top-of-the-line pitching is as big a reason as any.
Want a defining moment? How about the 1995 draft. The Tigers picked 11th overall and narrowed the possibilities down to two college righthanders: Drumright from Wichita State, and Matt Morris from Seton Hall. They took Drumright. With the next selection, the Cardinals picked Morris. You know the rest.
The Tigers have legitimate reason to believe a new generation of pitching prospects could change the organization's course, however.
Verlander is 22 and dominating in his first professional season. Zumaya is 20 and every bit as overpowering. Combine them with 22-year-old Jeremy Bonderman, a first-round pick of the Athletics in 2001 who is on pace to win 18 to 20 games in Detroit this season at 22, and there suddenly is this blinding light at the end of the tunnel at Comerica Park. Bonderman, Verlander and Zumaya . . . could they be Detroit's answer to Hudson, Zito and Mulder? Or Glavine, Smoltz and Avery?
Verlander and Zumaya, on the staff together at Double-A Erie, have incredible power arms. Both have hit triple digits on the radar gun this season. They pitch routinely at 98 mph. Both were selected for the United States team in the Futures Game July 10 at Comerica Park, in what will be a sneak preview of what the future may hold for the Tigers.
The second overall pick in the 2004 draft, Verlander’s domination of the high Class A Florida State League this season--9-2, 1.67, 104 strikeouts in 86 innings--was stunning. As was his first start at Erie. He threw seven shutout innings, allowing just a hit and a walk while striking out 11.
Verlander was 21-18 during his college career at Old Dominion. It was expected he would be a diamond in the rough, especially after sitting out his first professional season and missing instructional league last fall because of a nasty contract dispute that eventually led the Tigers to announce they were no longer negotiating with him. Soon after, Verlander's father stepped in to get a deal done--a major league contract that guarantees him $4.5 million. By that point, the Tigers weren't exactly sure what they had in Verlander. Only that he was 6-foot-6, threw hard and received a boatload of their money.
"From our research, we knew that he didn't have a lot of instruction," general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
The summer, fall and winter off turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Verlander used the down time to work on his body. He became stronger and more flexible. "I got into the best shape I've ever been in," he said. And the time off freshened his arm.
Also, because Verlander had not spent a lot of time refining his mechanics, that made it easier for the Tigers staff to mold his delivery. The adjustments were relatively minor. He became more upright and followed through on more of a downward plane. He kept his head more still and on the target. Verlander lost nothing off his fastball, but gained command.
"What we didn't know is just how good an athlete he is," Dombrowski said. "He's exceptional. He understands instruction well and is able to apply it to game situations. He's extremely competitive and will pitch inside and do whatever it takes to win. Those are things you don't know about for sure until you get a player in your system and work with him on a daily basis."
It became evident, as early as spring training, just how Verlander responded to pressure. Because of the major league contract, Verlander was in big league camp.
"He fit in perfectly there, both on the field and in the clubhouse, and it's been the same where he has been since," Detroit assistant GM Al Avila said. "He seems like one of those guys who likes the pressure. It's like he has something to prove and understands how to prove it."
Entering this season, there were no expectations of Verlander reaching the major leagues soon. He has pitched so well, however, that the Tigers had not closed the door on the possibility. Their rotation was set in the first four spots with Bonderman, Mike Maroth, Nate Robertson and Jason Johnson, but they are missing a fifth starter. There were other possiblities in the organization, and they could make a trade. But if Verlander keeps progressing and the Tigers move into playoff contention, he might get the call.
"Obviously, I want to get to the major leagues as soon as possible," Verlander said. "But that decision is not up to me. The only thing I can control is how well I pitch. If I keep pitching well and I keep getting better, that part of it will take care of itself."
Zumaya's career has taken a much different path than Verlander's. He is nearly two years younger than Verlander, yet this is his fourth professional season. An 11th-round draft choice out of Bonita Vista High in suburban San Diego in 2002, Zumaya threw about 90 mph as a high school senior. Instruction his first professional season, along with added strength from maturing physically, increased his velocity. He started throwing in the mid-90s and moved up the Tigers' depth chart.
Now as his delivery has further improved, he owns one of the minor's liveliest arms, not to mention a solid breaking ball and a good changeup. He was 5-3, 3.16 after 15 starts at Erie this season, but what really tells the story of Zumaya's success is the way he misses bats. In 88 innings this season, he has struck out 121 hitters, continuing a pattern he established during his first three professional seasons, when he went 18-15, 3.62 with 309 strikeouts in 263 innings.
The knock on Zumaya is he has a violent motion that will eventually lead to arm trouble. There are scouts who see him as a closer, rather than a starter, because of his explosive fastball and maximum-effort mechanics.
"I don't agree with people who think his motion is still that violent," Tigers roving minor league pitching coach Jon Matlack said. "When we got him, it did seem like his strength was working against him, but now he has got it working for him. That, and just getting older and stronger, is why he is throwing that hard."
As for physical problems, Zumaya has proven durable so far. "He maintains his velocity into the late innings," Matlack said. "He doesn't have to be a one-inning, all-out guy. He has the stamina to be a starter."
On the other hand, the thought of closing games does not bother Zumaya. "I did it a lot while I was in high school and I do like the pressure of it," he said. "But I also like starting. Either way it's helping my team win."
Zumaya says he does not try to strike out every hitter. "When I see how many strikeouts I have, and see how many innings I've pitched, sometimes it does bring a smile to my face," he said. "But that's not my goal. I want to pitch seven good innings every time out and give my team a chance to win. I'd rather do that and not strikeout a lot of hitters than just pitch five innings, but have a lot of strikeouts."
Dombrowski has been at this awhile. He liked hard throwers when he was with Montreal. He liked them when he was with the Marlins. He likes them with the Tigers, too. "Who doesn't?" he said.
The payoff is so great when it all clicks together like it seems to be for Verlander and Zumaya.
"Health is important," Dombrowski said. "You are always concerned about that. But there is no question we have three pitchers here--Bonderman, Verlander and Zumaya--who have the arms to be top-of-the-rotation guys. Maybe number ones. Verlander and Zumaya are not there yet, but we're pleased with their progress.
"It's terrific our fans will be able to see them pitch in the Futures Game. Hopefully it will be the first of what will be many, many times. You can see where these two might help us win a lot of games."