Zumaya's rehab affects Tigers' moves

Zumaya's rehab impacts Tigers

DETROIT -- Joel Zumaya gave the Tigers a triple-digit fastball route to respectability when he went from the Minor Leagues to the back end of Detroit's bullpen at age 21. Now, as Zumaya makes steady progress back from injury, the Tigers are hoping for the best and preparing for worse.

Their hopes could even include another shutdown reliever from the farm.

Two seasons have passed since Zumaya became a setup force for the Tigers, helping fuel their run to the World Series. The past two years have been a flustering series of injuries for him, from the tendon he ruptured in his right middle finger warming up in Kansas City to the surgery he needed to reconstruct the shoulder joint damaged in an offseason accident.

Zumaya made it back this summer and pitched for about two months before soreness in the surgically repaired shoulder forced him back to the disabled list. What was hoped to be the tearing of scar tissue turned out to be a stress fracture, sidelining him for the final six weeks of the season.

Whether it sidelines Zumaya for the start of next season is a question the Tigers can't yet answer with any certainty. With that, the Tigers have to plan as if he might not be available.

Zumaya pitched in 62 games as a rookie in 2006. He has made 49 appearances in the two years since then.

"It's been huge for us to not have him," manager Jim Leyland said. "It's been a disaster for us to not have him, to be honest with you. The players had so much confidence in him, and fans feed off of him. You're talking about a real impact guy. It obviously hasn't been easy, but you go on and do the best you can."

The news started to become encouraging for Zumaya again this month, when he was cleared to begin exercises to rehab the shoulder. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Monday that Zumaya is pain-free and has full range of motion in the shoulder.

That puts Zumaya on a path towards throwing again soon. However, Rand said, they want to make sure that he works out his shoulder back to full strength before he tries it.

It isn't much yet, but it's a good sign for the Tigers at this point, enough that they're hoping to have him pitching this coming spring.

Hot Stove

"That's what we're hoping for," team vice president and assistant general manager Al Avila said. "It's basically a week-to-week, month-to-month situation. So far, the progress has been good. You couldn't make a conclusion today, but we're pleased with the progress."

Nonetheless, the injury history provides plenty of reason for caution. It also provides plenty of reason for the Tigers to prepare in case he isn't ready.

While the Tigers face positional needs at shortstop and catcher, their bullpen is going to be the trickiest to maneuver. Beyond the obvious need for a closer and a recent search for left-handed relief help, the Tigers have the seventh and eighth innings to fill, too. Zumaya's sugery last year and Fernando Rodney's lingering pain left the Tigers short-handed there to open in 2008, and they never recovered.

Adding a closer pushes Rodney back from his late-season closing role to setup. That would fill part of the role, but likely not all.

That compounds the task for the Tigers, whose interest has ranged from closers such as Trevor Hoffman and Brandon Lyon to several left-handers -- some specialists, others middle relievers. They have an internal option with Zach Miner, though he looms larger as a starter while the Tigers wait for Kenny Rogers to decide whether he'll pitch in 2009 and Freddy Garcia to make some starts in winter ball.

"If we're able to help ourselves by getting a quality reliever, it's obvious you help the depth of your bullpen," Avila said. "It doesn't really matter where you slot Rodney and Zumaya at the end of the day."

Then there's the dream scenario, for history to repeat itself and the Tigers to find another shutdown reliever from the farm system. The problem is that it doesn't happen often, and the Tigers don't have clear-cut candidates, at least at the start of the season. Casey Fien's performance in the Arizona Fall League -- including a 1.84 ERA, no walks and 15 strikeouts over 14 2/3 innings -- certainly gives him momentum heading toward Spring Training.

The wild card could be one of the hard-throwing pitchers the Tigers selected in the early rounds of June's First-Year Player Draft. It's not likely enough for the Tigers to curtail their offseason shopping, at least at this stage. But it's enough of a presence that nobody is ruling out the likes of first-round pick Ryan Perry, Cody Satterwhite or Scott Green at least making the club.

"I'll take talent," Leyland said. "You just have to make sure that they can handle it mentally and emotionally. It's a pretty big grind in the Major Leagues day after day."

Leyland saw the confidence in Zumaya and Justin Verlander in 2006 once he had enough time to observe them in camp. He saw the stuff of Perry and Satterwhite in instructional ball, but he'll need Spring Training to see if they have the makeup.

"Verander's a tough guy," Leyland said. "Zumaya's a real macho guy. That's why I was ready to take them in 2006. I knew they weren't going to get nervous facing big league hitters. Their confidence was too good. I don't know that yet [about these guys]. We'll see how they throw, how they react, how they react when they get knocked around, because they will get knocked around. It's going to be very interesting."

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