Zumaya hopes to prove he can stay healthy

Zumaya hopes to prove he can stay healthy

DETROIT -- Joel Zumaya knows this upcoming season might be his last chance to prove he can be a healthy, productive Major League reliever for a full season. But he also knows the way his arm feels after surgery, which is better than many might have expected.

Zumaya is ready to throw, once team medical officials give him the go-ahead. When that happens, which could be any day now, he's ready to prove a point.

"I'm trying to make some believers," Zumaya said in a Tuesday morning phone interview.

The Tigers believe enough to give him another shot. Where it goes from there, neither the team nor Zumaya can predict, but he's upbeat about it.

It doesn't seem like long ago when Zumaya was the fastballing rookie sensation who mowed down opponents in the seventh and eighth innings for Detroit, becoming a key cog in the Tigers' run to the World Series in 2006. His fastball topped out around 103 mph, his strikeout ratio easily topped one per inning and opponents couldn't top a .200 average off him.

Fast forward to now, and Zumaya is a year out from free agency at age 26. In between his glory season and his contract season stand just 109 appearances over the last four years. His 31 games and 38 1/3 innings in 2010 were his highest totals since his rookie greatness, while his 2.58 ERA and .586 OPS allowed were his lowest.

Zumaya's injury woes and his third potential try at arbitration -- he made $915,000 this year -- provoked speculation he could be non-tendered at Thursday's deadline. But the Tigers, who know what he can do when he's healthy, are expected to bring him back. The risk Detroit takes in guaranteeing Zumaya a salary is weighed against the risk of watching him finally pitch healthy again somewhere else. Given that choice, the latter seems greater.

Zumaya said his agents at Hendricks Sports are talking with the Tigers about a contract, presumably for one year, to avoid any arbitration case. He said he was told they have no intention of non-tendering him.

"I'm not going to be a guy that's going to take advantage of the Tigers," Zumaya said. "I do know what I can get for arbitration. I'm not greedy."

In the big picture, arbitration isn't the concern, for Zumaya or the Tigers. It's what Zumaya can do from there that's the key.

He's arguably a cautionary tale about young pitchers who throw so hard, so often, but that overlooks the fact that he's bordering on a medical marvel. He has undergone surgeries for a damaged shoulder joint, a ruptured tendon in one of his finger, a fractured shoulder and now a fractured bone in his elbow.

Each time so far, he has returned to the mound with his fastball intact. He can't say that yet with any certainty this time, but he's quietly confident from his workouts so far.

He has been working out three days a week, driving from his new home in Central Florida to the Tigers' Spring Training complex in Lakeland each morning. He's heading back home to San Diego for the holidays, but he hopes to be back in Lakeland shortly after the New Year's holiday.

From there, he plans on a workout and throwing program that not only has him ready to pitch for the start of the season, but pitching near his top form. While Zumaya was statistically dominant last April, tossing 14 2/3 innings of two-run ball with no walks and 16 strikeouts, he said he didn't feel as good as he wanted on the mound until later.

From a stats standpoint, April and May were Zumaya's best months of the season. A disastrous outing at Atlanta in late June skewed his numbers for the month, two days before his elbow fracture sent him crumbling to the ground in pain at Minnesota's Target Field.

When he's healthy, the track record shows he can be effective. It's the health that's the problem.

If he's healthy, Zumaya believes he can pitch in big situations alongside new signing Joaquin Benoit. He can worry about next winter and free agency when it comes about.

If he isn't healthy, Zumaya knows the risk. And while he has come to fear the worst when it comes to injuries, he isn't necessarily wrong to do it here.

"This year's going to be my make-it-or-break-it year," Zumaya said. "If I get hurt again, I'm basically going to be done with baseball. I'm going to have to find another job."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.