Notes: Grilli faces uphill battle for spot

Notes: Grilli faces uphill battle for spot

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jason Grilli knows the younger starters in Tigers camp have a better shot at the only open spot in the rotation. But he also knows what it's like to be a top prospect trying to break into the Majors. And he argues it's tougher on that side.

"When you're at the top of the stairs and you're in a [Justin] Verlander category and you're highly touted -- which is something I've been through -- I know the attention you get," he said. "I don't have the pressure anymore. I can go out and do my job. I know what's expected of me."

Grilli is the veteran option in a contest that appears to be leaning toward youth. When camp opened, manager Jim Leyland didn't want to mention the candidates by name because he didn't want to discourage anyone else from vying for the job. Since then, though, he has already said Verlander, Roman Colon and Wilfredo Ledezma are in the mix. Joel Zumaya is another candidate.

"Whoever's in that fifth spot probably, most likely will be a younger guy, not a lot of experience," Leyland said Sunday morning.

Grilli realizes he's not a favorite. If he doesn't make the rotation but still makes the club as a reliever, he'll be happy. But he wants a shot at a starting role, and he isn't shy about how he sees his chances.

"I'm pitching my way onto this team this Spring Training," he said. "Whether it's the fifth spot or a bullpen spot, I just want to help this club win. I know I can."

Grilli knows prospect pressure from experience, having been drafted fourth overall in 1997. Three years later, he was in the big leagues, winning his Major League debut in a spot start for the Florida Marlins on May 11, 2000. The next day, he was headed back to Triple-A. Two weeks later, he was on the disabled list with a strained elbow.

He missed the rest of that season for surgery to remove a bone spur, then underwent Tommy John surgery in 2002. In three years, he fell from being one of the Marlins' top 10 prospects to off the map. He's been fighting the roster situation ever since.

"I think I learned a lot about myself and what it means to me to go through adversity," he said. "Any adversity, I don't look at it as negative anymore. It just comes with experience."

Grilli found his way back with the organization for which his father pitched three decades ago. After helping to lead Triple-A Toledo to the International League's Governors Cup championship and winning his first Tigers start Sept. 24, he earned another victory: He landed onto the Tigers 40-man roster this offseason.

After missing out on a spot last year as a Minor League invitee, Grilli's roster situation works better for him this time. He doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster to make the team. Plus, he's out of options, meaning the Tigers can't send him back to the Minors without passing him through waivers.

So far, he has looked relatively polished, able to spot the ball in his second bullpen session on Sunday. He can't boast the overpowering fastball of Verlander or Zumaya, but he has picked up the experience to pitch for quick outs and put the ball in play in his favor.

He has to look good early, because he'll leave camp March 3 to join Team Italy in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. A few good performances there, and he could rejoin the Tigers later in March with something to fight for.

"Whatever it might be, I just know I can be an asset to this team," Grilli said. "Hopefully I can prove that once again this spring."

Second in command: Placido Polanco arrived in camp Sunday and promptly went to work. That's an example of what Leyland loves about him, having seen him for years in the National League.

"This is just the perfect example of a very talented player with a lot of determination," Leyland said. "He's a manager's dream-type player. Not only does he come to the park to beat the other team, but he does the little things to beat the other team. To a manager, he's a real delight."

To this manager, he's the Tigers' No. 2 hitter every day he plays. Nearly a generation ago in Pittsburgh, Leyland found a prototype second hitter in Jay Bell, a shortstop with then-unrealized offensive skills but a penchant for bunting and moving runners over. Polanco, in Leyland's estimation, is better because of his ability to make contact.

To bat Polanco in the leadoff spot, Leyland said, would hurt the team in the top two spots, because they wouldn't be utilizing him best.

That's one example of how much Leyland values situational hitting. Another example comes Tuesday, when he devotes one of the four back practice fields precisely to that aspect of the game.

"We need to find ways to win games when our hitting is not at its highest level," he said.

Hot corner work for Dmitri: Dmitri Young's potential use at third base is looking like more than an emergency option. Leyland said Sunday he'll pick and choose matchups to rest regular starter Brandon Inge, insert Young at third and start someone else at DH.

"We have to be able to utilize him," Leyland said. "That guy's a professional hitter. I've got to find some at-bats for him."

To that end, Leyland already has Young penciled in for extra work with infield coach Rafael Belliard starting Tuesday.

"In fairness to Dmitri Young, if you're going out there and asking him to be Brooks Robinson and you don't think he's going to make an error now and then, you shouldn't do it," Leyland said. "What you do is pick your spots. I think he's a pretty good athlete, I think he's got good hands, and I know he can hit. I've always liked him."

Tryout camp: The Tigers will hold a tryout camp for players age 18 or older at Joker Marchant Stadium on Monday, March 6. No pre-registration or participation fee is required. Registration begins at 9 a.m. with workout times running from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Players must provide their own glove and workout equipment. The Tigers will provide wooden bats, helmets and baseballs.

Tigers on television: FSN Detroit will broadcast two Tigers Spring Training games in Lakeland -- March 16 against the New York Yankees and March 27 against Houston. No regular-season schedule has been announced.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.