LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers were looking for Justin Miller to be a part of their 2014 bullpen before their 2013 season was over. That's how much they thought of him when he became a Minor League free agent at age 26, released by the Texas Rangers in mid-September and signed by the Tigers a few days later.
The fact that no one in Tigers circles seems to be ruling him out of the bullpen mix, even the Opening Day bullpen, says something about their thinking, too.
If there's a dark horse candidate in Tigers camp to not only crack the bullpen, but play a significant role, Miller would be the top choice. It's more about the arm than the results. If it was about the statistics, at least the 2013 numbers, Miller wouldn't be here, at least not on this side of Tiger Town.
The Tigers aren't looking at the pitcher who gave up 23 earned runs on 30 hits over 27 innings between Triple-A Round Rock and Double-A Frisco last year. They're looking at the pitcher who chewed through Double-A hitters two years earlier on his way to a 9-1 record and 1.81 ERA, allowing just 46 hits over 69 2/3 innings with 77 strikeouts.
Two years after Miller underwent Tommy John surgery, the Tigers believe he can be closer to his 2011 effectiveness than the 2013 version.
"He's the kind of guy that if we had in our system, we would consider him a prospect very close to being able to help us at the big league level," assistant general manager Al Avila said.
The belief is that recovery from Tommy John surgery, in which the elbow ligament is replaced, is an 18-to-24 month process. Pitchers can return to game action a year after surgery and throw as hard as ever, but regaining the feel for pitches usually takes longer.
That was the case with Miller, who missed all of 2012 and the first six weeks of 2013.
"Last season was basically [about] trying to find my arm again," Miller said. "When I first came back, my arm felt great. And then there were days when I couldn't feel my fingertips, and there were days when I couldn't feel the ball. My arm didn't feel the same. It was like trying to figure out how to throw all over again."
It was a frustrating, demoralizing series of adjustments for him. His arm improved gradually, his velocity fluctuating around the mid-90s, but his effectiveness waned, especially on a slider that put stress on the elbow. In a Rangers system that has no shortage of gifted arms, patience wasn't something they needed.
For the Tigers, by contrast, it was worth a shot, which is why special assistant Dick Egan placed a call to Avila.
"That's why we tried to jump on [signing him] right away," Avila said, "because we felt that he still had that capability of the upside."
Miller jumped from one contender to another, taking Detroit's offer over Pittsburgh and other teams. The Tigers were wary enough of teams still trying to pry him away that they put him on their 40-man roster at the end of November to prevent teams from taking him in the Rule 5 Draft.
Now, they're going to see what they have. He was in the first group of pitchers in bullpen sessions on Friday and impressed. Now he has to repeat it in game action in a couple weeks.
"The bullpen yesterday felt awesome," Miller said Saturday morning. "I feel like I'm getting back to where I was before."
Verlander continues to build strength in 'pen session
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Justin Verlander knows he has to watch himself as he works his way back to pitching shape following core muscle surgery. The Tigers, even with a new manager, know him enough to know better.
So as Verlander approached the 40-pitch limit in his bullpen session Saturday afternoon, Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones positioned themselves right behind Verlander to be ready to shut him down. Verlander, predictably, asked for one more pitch.
"Whatever the number is, he always seems to be one over," Ausmus said. "When it was 20, he threw 21, when it was 30, he threw 31. When it was 40, he threw 41."
The new manager learns quickly.
"One pitch is pretty docile for me," Verlander said. "Usually I go over by six or seven. But that kind of goes back into not wanting to push too hard. Those guys laughed today after my 40th when I said one more, and then [Ausmus] and Jeff were right behind me and they looked at each other and started laughing."
If the extra pitch suggested Verlander wasn't letting up, his quiet demeanor after many of those pitches suggested he was a little more realistic. He asked his catcher, Alex Avila, for feedback several times, but the usual frustration, the muttering, was muted.
That will come soon enough. Verlander pointed out that he's only about 10 pitches off from his count at this point last spring. For now, though, he wants to focus on getting back there.
"I'm not real concerned about quality right now as I am quantity," said Verlander, whose next session is scheduled for Tuesday. "For me, getting my body working and getting my arm used to throwing every day, that's most important for me right now. Starting probably next week, it'll be a mixture of both, quantity taking a back seat to quality once I realize that I'm ready to go."
Verlander has not yet started taking part in full on-field drills, but hopes to start doing so in the next couple days.
"Really it's kind of getting to the point where I don't even feel anything in my hips or my groin," Verlander said. "Everything feels good. I'm starting to just completely forget about it and focusing on getting my arm ready."
Tigers pitchers enjoy Vizquel's new fielding drill
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Not much changed in the Tigers' workout routine from Friday to Saturday, other than the weather. The on-field drills were pretty much the same, including the rag ball drill that has been drawing raves from pitchers.
The drill features new infield coach Omar Vizquel slapping hard-hit comebackers to pitchers to get them used to reacting quickly. The drill uses a softer material than baseballs so that the Tigers don't lose half their staff to bruises if they have slow reactions.
"They seemed to have fun," manager Brad Ausmus said. "Might try to make a little game out of it, friendly competition. Gotta work out the details on that."
One pitcher who has missed out on it is Justin Verlander, whose rehab from core muscle surgery has sidelined him from most on-field drills other than pitching. He's hoping that changes in the next couple days, especially that drill.
"I just don't want to take one in the groin," he said half-jokingly.
Ausmus more interested in results than appearances
LAKELAND, Fla. -- If anyone was expecting Brad Ausmus to be a stickler for rules, including on appearance and lifestyle, they don't know Ausmus. He has plenty of concerns on his plate, but micromanaging appearance and discipline isn't going to be among them.
The one rule Ausmus put in place that marks a major departure from his predecessor, Jim Leyland, is a no-smoking policy in the clubhouse. His players got a kick out of it, but it's not a worry for them.
The pitching coach, on the other hand, will have to adjust.
"Jeff Jones isn't real happy with the no-smoking policy, but he's whittling his way down," Ausmus said.
Other than that, the rules are few. Ausmus came up through the Yankees organization, with strict rules on facial hair and clothing, but played under such laid-back managers as Bruce Bochy in San Diego, Buddy Bell in Detroit and Phil Garner in Houston.
"I wouldn't say there's anything etched in stone," Ausmus said.
Asked about Andy Dirks' long hair, Ausmus scoffed.
"His hair? I don't care. If he plays well, he can grow it to his feet, as far as I'm concerned," Ausmus said.
• Catcher Ramon Cabrera, the only pitcher or catcher who was missing from Tigers camp for Friday's first workout, arrived on Saturday and was in catching gear for the day's bullpen sessions.
• Former Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers will serve as a guest instructor again this spring, working with pitchers on fielding their position and holding baserunners. He's expected to arrive sometime around Feb. 19.
• The Tigers have been scouting the free-agent workout circuit, including former Phillies closer Ryan Madson last week, but a deal at this point appears unlikely.