Zumaya poised to battle for closer's role
Reliever hopes to compete with Lyon, Rodney for job in spring
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Joel Zumaya believes he's ready to compete this spring.
He doesn't just mean competing against hitters in Spring Training games. He's talking about competing for the job.
Yes, the closer's job.
It's the role Zumaya was seemingly poised to assume after the 2007 season before shoulder surgery set him up for an injury-plagued 2008 campaign. The fact that he feels ready to pick up his career where it seemingly halted says a lot about his confidence heading into 2009.
"I've got two guys that I'm going to be fighting for the role," Zumaya said after throwing his latest bullpen session off a mound on Wednesday. "They're going to be friends. We're going to be part of the team. But when we're out there, it's going to be competitive."
The other two guys to which he refers are Brandon Lyon, whom the Tigers signed as the favorite for the role, and Fernando Rodney, whose struggles down the stretch last year set up the closer search this winter. Neither arguably has the potential of Zumaya, whose triple-digit fastball made him one of baseball's best setup men and a Detroit fan favorite in 2006.
If he earns the right to close, though, it might well be on the strength of his other pitches, including a changeup that has become his Spring Training project. Whether or not he throws 100 mph again, Zumaya is looking to be a little different pitcher, and better for it. Even with his injuries, he's a maturing one.
Wednesday marked Zumaya's fourth mound session since coming to Lakeland about a month ago, having been cleared to throw again around the new year. Reports on his sessions from club officials have been positive. Just as important, the look on Zumaya's face Wednesday as he talked about his game was positive, too.
With three days to go before the Tigers' first formal workout of the spring, Zumaya couldn't hide his pleasure when asked what it feels like to be in this shape. He compared it to that 2006 camp, when he surprised many by winning a job in the bullpen and assuming what ended up being a critical role.
"I made the team. That's what I feel like," Zumaya said.
He has said in the past that he didn't feel like he was part of the team last spring, when he was working his way back from surgery to rebuild the AC joint in his shoulder. Pitching in games was out of the question last spring, so he went about his rehab program largely in the background.
Zumaya progressed enough to return in mid-June, but wasn't out of danger quite yet. With 24 hits and 22 walks allowed over 23 1/3 innings, he had his share of damage with which to deal. Three of those walks and two hits came in his final outing August 12 against the Blue Jays, in which he threw just five of his 20 pitches for strikes and left without retiring a batter.
The Tigers placed Zumaya on the disabled list afterward. A few weeks later, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his shoulder. He didn't need surgery, but he had to rest his arm for several weeks, to the point where Dr. James Andrews was consulted for a second opinion.
Dr. Andrews' opinion was that Zumaya's shoulder injury was similar to that of some NFL quarterbacks, who have continued to play through it. So, too, could Zumaya if he felt right. When he finally had a chance to play catch, he felt better than he could've expected.
"When I threw the first time, it was just me and [younger brother and Tigers Minor Leaguer] Richard [Zumaya]," Zumaya said. "We were out in the front yard. Felt like nothing had ever happened to my arm. ...
"I was excited, like 'Wow, this is too good.'"
That feeling has generally held through subsequent sessions, Zumaya said, with little more than fatigue from building up his arm. He has followed a throwing program set up by new pitching coach Rick Knapp, who has emphasized long tossing as a way to build strength in the arm.
Zumaya threw 50 pitches off the mound on Monday, as well as running and weight training, and came out fine.
"Other than [fatigue], the way I've thrown, you can't ask for anything more," he said.
Thus, Zumaya is asking for a chance to compete. Manager Jim Leyland talked about taking a wait-and-see approach with Zumaya last month during the Tigers' Winter Caravan. But he also knows what a healthy Zumaya could mean for his club.
"Zumaya's health will be a significant factor in the bullpen," he said. "You might almost need two guys to replace Zumaya. He could be that good for us. He was that good in 2006. If we can get in that scenario again, we'll be pretty good."
In addition, however, Zumaya has mentioned building variety in his pitches, too. He has talked about doing that in the past, including last summer, instead of simply relying on raw power.
One thing Zumaya mentioned Wednesday is that he doesn't necessarily have to throw 100 mph all the time. He can sacrifice a couple miles per hour if it can gain him some more command and a more disciplined delivery.
Another key is setting up the fastball, no matter what the velocity, with an offspeed pitch. He has used one in the past, especially when he was a starter coming up through the Minors, but he's trying a different offspeed pitch this spring.
"I've been working on a really good changeup," Zumaya said. "So I have a new toy to come up with, just to throw hitters off a little bit."
He still has at least a week before he can think about facing hitters in camp, and two weeks before the Tigers open their Spring Training schedule. But the way he's working, he can at least think about facing hitters in the ninth inning.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.