DETROIT -- The biggest question that faced the Tigers at last season's end was whether Ivan Rodriguez would be back at catcher. One of the few lingering questions as Detroit heads toward this coming season is whether Vance Wilson will be back behind him. With just over a month until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, that answer appears to be yes.
They're both familiar faces, but it took big steps to bring both back. Rodriguez's return came down to a big decision from management and ownership. Wilson's decision comes down to the work he puts in every morning.
It hasn't been an easy offseason for Wilson, as he works his way back from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. The days start early so he can warm up his arm before unleashing some throws, then ice his arm, then warm it up again before hitting the weight room. The progress isn't always evident, and it's more a collection of good days and bad than it is simply a progression of better days.
Through all that, however, is a strong confidence that he's going to be back behind the plate again this year, and that he's going to be the catcher he was before the surgery. At this point, his return is viewed as a matter of when it happens, not if it does. His being ready by Opening Day isn't so clear, but for a backup to an ironman starter, it isn't so important, either.
"I'm feeling good," Wilson said. "I'm getting there."
It's already a long way from where his 2007 season began and ended, his arm unable to let loose on a throw without throbbing in pain in Spring Training. It wasn't until his arm came up sore again during a June rehab stint at Triple-A Toledo that a ligament tear became apparent as the cause.
With that, Wilson went under the knife, a move that can knock out a player for as long as a full year. Even then, Wilson and the Tigers left open the idea that he could be ready for the start of 2008. It's not an expectation -- at this point, it's not even a stated goal -- but it's a real possibility for a player who has been working this offseason with that in mind.
"One day you feel great, the next day you don't," Wilson said. "It's kind of one of those things where I'd be disappointed if I'm not ready for Opening Day, but I'm not going to set any goals."
From a conditioning standpoint, Wilson said he feels better than he did before he was hurt, if for no other reason than he has had so much time to lift weights. He couldn't begin throwing until November, and it'll be the last part of his game to round into shape as his arm regains strength. Otherwise, he has been doing catching drills since around Thanksgiving, working out at the University of Arkansas near his Springdale, Ark., home. His pitch-calling skills and knowledge of the pitchers' repertoire will come together once he begins catching side sessions next month.
He can see the reward for all his hard work coming up, and for someone who couldn't sleep the night before his first throwing session, his first game back could be quite an experience.
"It's actually a frustrating thought," Wilson said, "because I know I have another month and a half to two months to get to that point. But yeah, I'm getting antsy."
Between Wilson and everyday starter Rodriguez, the Tigers have two veteran backstops with experience handling almost all of Detroit's pitchers. Newly acquired Dontrelle Willis worked with Rodriguez in 2003, when then-rookie Willis teamed with Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and others to help pitch the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship.
Rodriguez's success with Willis in Florida helped establish Pudge as a veteran game-caller who had learned to adeptly handle a young pitching staff, a trait that made him very appealing to the Tigers that offseason. Four years later, Rodriguez will enter his 18th Major League season, trying to show he still ranks among the best in the game during what would be the twilight of many players' careers.
The Tigers had to make that determination for themselves before deciding to pick up the $13 million option for the 2008 season.
"We still feel that Pudge is one of the better catchers in baseball," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in October. "We just felt that he did a solid job for us this year, and we feel like he's still one of the top catchers available in the game."
Statistically, it was not one of the top seasons for Rodriguez, either at the plate or behind it. His .281 batting average, 11 home runs and 63 RBIs constituted some of his lowest offensive production in over a decade, while his nine walks for the season afforded him just a .294 on-base percentage. He threw out 21 of 68 would-be basestealers, and his seven passed balls marked his highest total since 2003.
The stolen-base total was somewhat deceptive, because it included a slow start and a much stingier finish. At season's end, he was again named by Baseball America as the best defensive catcher in the American League.
"Sometimes you have ups and downs," Rodriguez said in November, after winning his 13th Gold Glove. "It was a situation sometimes when you rush and you do things, you throw the ball where you don't want it. But in the end, you have to play the game hard."
If Rodriguez remains solid defensively and calls a good game, the Tigers have enough offense up and down the lineup to live with whatever he can do offensively. Unlike Pudge's first couple seasons, when he was batting around the middle of the order, he could now end up hitting near the bottom, depending on how manager Jim Leyland shuffles his lineup with new arrivals Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Jacque Jones.
It's not a bad situation for Rodriguez, who has said he'd like to catch until he turns 40 but who also is a free agent at season's end. His offseason training and physical shape gives him a shot to last that long.
"I have a lot of baseball in me," Rodriguez said. "I have good health, and I want to play this game a lot longer."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.