Speedy recovery for Tigers prospect

Speedy recovery for Tigers prospect

DETROIT -- Michael Hollimon's torn labrum was expected to put a major road block in his career path. The work he put in to recover has turned it into more of a speed bump.

When the Tigers' middle-infield prospect underwent surgery last September, the expected timetable of a nine-month recovery was slated to cost him the first half of the 2009 season, essentially making it a lost year on the developmental ladder. Six months later, Hollimon says he's doing everything he needs to do in his workouts at near full strength, and he's poised to report to Spring Training at full health.

"No doubt," he said confidently during a stop on last month's Tigers winter caravan. "No doubt in my mind."

It's another challenge he has overcome to get to the cusp of the Major Leagues. Depending on how Hollimon and the Tigers perform, the implications could go well beyond 2009.

Hollimon has been proving himself since before the Tigers snagged him in the 16th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. One of the top talents out of high school, the Dallas native joined the program at the University of Texas, only to fall to the 49th round of the 2003 Draft after struggling as a Longhorn. He stayed in school, but transferred to Oral Roberts for his senior season to get back to his game.

What followed as a pro has shown the talent that made him so promising out of high school -- good hitting with respectable power and speed, plus a highly competitive streak. A trip to the Arizona Fall League after the 2007 season ended with him on the U.S. National team preparing for the 2008 Olympics.

The culmination of his rise came last summer, when Ramon Santiago's dislocated shoulder earned Hollimon a callup to Detroit as a utility infielder. It was upon his return to Triple-A Toledo in July that his struggles started.

Hollimon dislocated his left shoulder on a diving attempt in Spring Training, but he recovered to join the Mud Hens in early April and go on a power-hitting tear. It was around the midway point in July, Hollimon said, when he noticed his left shoulder feeling weak.

By August, it was much more than weakness. And in the process, the pain was a lot more than physical. He hit just .183 in July, then .145 with 30 strikeouts over 76 at-bats in August. He was part of a group of Mud Hens whose second-half struggles after spending time in Detroit proved frustrating to club officials.

Hollimon finally told the medical staff about his shoulder, and they set up the tests that found the labrum tear.

"Every time I moved, it felt like there was a 30-pound weight attached to it," Hollimon said. "And there were times when I'd just be standing around and it felt like it was about to slide out."

Hollimon learned a lesson to pay more attention to his aches and pains and tell someone before he does more damage. Still, he doesn't regret trying to play through it.

"My motto is to play as hard as you can for as long as you can," Hollimon said. "That's kind of how I go about it."

He approached his rehab the same way. Two factors played a role in getting him back so quickly. Because the labrum tear was in his non-throwing shoulder, the rehab process wasn't as extensive. And because he has dealt with injuries since he was a teenager, he has a longtime physical therapist in Dallas who set up a program and knew how to push him.

"We busted our tails," Hollimon said. "It's just kind of crazy how it's responded."

From taking ground balls to swinging the bat from either side of the plate, the switch-hitting Hollimon is doing everything he normally would. All he hasn't done, he joked, is dive.

Barring an injury to another player, he still has little to no chance to make the Tigers out of Spring Training. If he can open his season on time at Toledo, however, he can work on his game -- especially hitting for consistent contact -- rather than working on his shoulder. The more he develops, the better he might fit into the Tigers' plans.

Though Detroit's starting lineup is set, second baseman Placido Polanco is entering the final season of his contract. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski indicated during TigerFest that the team will wait and see how this season plays out.

The Tigers already have hinted towards getting younger in the next couple years. They signed Adam Everett to a one-year contract partly to keep the shortstop position open in 2010, when prospects Cale Iorg and Danny Worth might be ready to make the jump. Polanco will turn 34 years old next October, but his statistics -- certainly at the plate -- have shown no sign of a falloff.

With a full year of seasoning in 2009, it's conceivable that the 25-year-old Hollimon could be ready to push for some kind of Major League role, starting or utility. But then, so could other middle infielders in the system, notably Iorg, Worth and Scott Sizemore.

That isn't Hollimon's concern. He has to finish the comeback and get on the field first.

"All that stuff's in the past," Hollimon said. "I've put in some hard work this offseason. I'm excited for this year. I really am."

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