Zumaya making another comeback, but where?
Tigers would likely only offer reliever Minor League contract
DETROIT -- A year and a half after Joel Zumaya last threw a Major League pitch, the triple-digit fastballer is ready to show he can pitch again. Whether he does it for the Tigers is a question not even Zumaya can answer right now.
One minute, Zumaya says he would "love to go back there," given everything he has gone through in the only organization he has known. There's so much history there, it's logical he would want to make another comeback try in what he still finds himself instinctively calling "our bullpen."
There's almost too much history, he also acknowledges. The same ties that make it easy to want to stay make it an easy thought to break away. The team that drafted and developed him has also found a way to move on without him. At times, Zumaya sounds like a pitcher in need of a fresh start.
"I think it's best for me that I can start somewhere new," Zumaya told MLB.com in a phone interview Wednesday evening.
The next step comes in two weeks. Zumaya is scheduled to throw a mound session for interested teams in mid-December in Houston, where his agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, are based. At least 10 teams are expected to watch. One is the Red Sox, whom Zumaya said expressed interest as soon as he became a free agent.
The Tigers don't need a scout to watch him. They know what he can do when he's healthy, because they've seen it for years. It's about other teams finding out.
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in his end-of-season remarks that he'd be interested in bringing Zumaya back on a Minor League contract. They're still open to that.
"I think we'd be open to have him back," Dombrowski said at the time, "but with the situation of the uncertainties and what's taken place, we're more in a role where that would be most likely as an invite type of guy."
Zumaya would be invited to Spring Training with the Major League club, but wouldn't be on the roster unless he made the team out of camp. After five straight injury-shortened seasons, it might be the type of contract he has to accept somewhere. With his talent, though, he might still command a Major League contract.
He would like a situation where he stands a strong chance of earning a set role with a team, maybe a club with an opportunity for a late-inning reliever. That isn't Detroit, where Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque form the late-inning core of a bullpen that rarely lost games the Tigers led after six innings and never lost games the club led in the ninth.
The holes in Detroit's bullpen are in the sixth and seventh innings, not the glamour spots. Even then, they're not big holes, not with Coke and Alburquerque returning. The Tigers are beyond needing Zumaya, but they wouldn't bury a healthy Zumaya.
"Deep down inside, I know I can win a job anywhere," Zumaya said. "I have to fight from the bottom now. I'm the type of guy that I know where my level of my game is, and [it's] up there in the big leagues."
Zumaya crashed the roster as a 21-year-old flamethrower, and he ended up pitching 83 1/3 innings out of the 'pen, allowing 56 hits with 97 strikeouts. He was the key part of a bullpen that locked down wins that entire year.
This year featured the Tigers' best relief corps since then, if not better. Zumaya's absence was a big reason why it took so long. The warmup toss that ruptured a tendon in his middle finger cost him the heart of the 2007 season, and possibly cost the Tigers the American League Central. His shoulder injury that fall nearly cost him his career, and cost him most of 2008 and '09.
He hadn't put together three consecutive healthy months in a season since '06. When he did it in 2010, he was seemingly back. Then came the fateful pitch in Minnesota, where his elbow basically cracked.
Zumaya immediately had surgery to repair it, and ended up with a screw in his elbow to help hold it together. The screw, and the surgery to insert it, created enough new problems that he had another surgery, this time from Dr. James Andrews, and a different screw.
"That's why I said my arm felt like it was just broken again," he said.
He had never lost an entire season to injury before. This one cost him his contract year.
"I had to do all this all over," Zumaya said. "I have some personal feelings for all this. After I got the surgery, I kind of figured the days [in Detroit] were going to be done."
That night in Minnesota might go down as his final pitch as a Tiger. Yet if he signs somewhere else, his final throws with the Tigers might be the difference. He finished his contract working out in Lakeland, Fla., getting his arm back in shape with the Instructional League club. When he became a free agent, he went home to San Diego and kept throwing with his younger brother, Richard.
Each time Zumaya gets hurt, he comes back throwing hard. He has every reason to expect the same when he lets loose on a fastball in two weeks. If he can stay healthy, he can still pitch. But all those tries have created a lot of history in Detroit.
It could be too much history to overcome. It could also be too much history to leave. It's tough to tell which.
"I gave everything I could to Detroit," Zumaya said. "I know Dave still wants to invite me back to Spring Training, but I just feel like I need to start somewhere new. [But] I love that city, man. There's something about Detroit. It's weird, but when I'm there I feel I'm around my family, and my family's 3,000 miles away. That's how I feel about Detroit."