Former Tigers top pick Sleeth on road back
Right-hander is feeling strong after elbow surgery
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Officially, Kyle Sleeth came back from Tommy John surgery last summer in the Gulf Coast League. Realistically, he wasn't back until all the leagues had ended, throwing on a practice mound in a relatively empty Tiger Town.
Soon after instructional league ended, he was throwing a bullpen session with Tigertown pitching coordinator Greg Sabat, and his arm was feeling good. It was good enough that after a while, he wanted to try throwing a curveball. Of his four pitches, it was the one that meant the most for him during his stellar career at Wake Forest, and the pitch that helped make him such a top prospect before the surgery. It was also the pitch that had thus far eluded him for control since returning to the mound.
"I threw my first curveball and it was just there," Sleeth said. "It was a strike. It was like I hadn't missed a beat. It was like it came back all in one day."
After sixteen months of work, that day was worth the wait. He was so thrilled that he kept throwing the curveball, fearing he'd forget how to throw it.
"Greg [Sabat] kind of told me to back off," Sleeth said. "I kept throwing for about a month after the season, so I was able to throw about 10 bullpens where I threw a lot of curveballs. I put the muscle memory into my arm so I'd have it coming into spring."
Nearly three weeks into Spring Training, Sleeth still has it, along with all the other pitches in his arsenal. In the process, the Tigers might have one of their best pitching prospects back.
Of all the young pitchers making an impression in Tigers camp this Spring Training, Sleeth is the most familiar name. Before Detroit had Justin Verlander in its system, there was Sleeth, the third overall pick a year earlier in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. His resume included an NCAA record of wins in 26 consecutive decisions, but the past two years taught him how to deal with defeat.
He was ranked the Tigers' second-best prospect after the 2004 season, pitching well in a half-season of Class A ball before struggling to make the jump to the Double-A level down the stretch. He was expected to go back to Erie when he landed on the disabled list to start the year with tightness in his right forearm.
What was expected to be a short setback turned into a career-changing injury when tests revealed elbow damage. He underwent surgery in June, ending his 2005 season before it began.
Without doing anything, Sleeth found his name mentioned with Tigers first-round picks of the past who had major surgery and never seemed to be the same, from Matt Wheatland to Matt Anderson. Years of frustration had trained Tigers fans to look at worst-case scenarios. The best case against it was an organizational effort, from Sabat to organizational pitching coordinator Jon Matlack to player development director Glenn Ezell.
While Sabat and Matlack handled the mechanics and the day-to-day duties, "I always encouraged," Ezell said. "I just let him know I was pulling for him. It was all positive reinforcement, no matter what."
He needed reinforcement as much as anything. For all the physical challenges, Sleeth said, he also had to teach himself how to pitch again. Considering he calls himself his own worst critic, that wasn't easy.
For Sleeth, it was a trial and error process, tweaking pitches and rebounding from setbacks. He was in sufficient shape to get into games last summer as a reliever, but his pitching still didn't feel right, and his numbers reflected it.
"To me, it was really humbling," Sleeth said. "To perform at a high level where I had for a good part of my life, to be down at the level where guys I knew I could compete with were doing great things and I was kind of just sitting here in the same place, it was very, very, very frustrating."
It didn't help that his best pitch was the toughest to get a feel for. Or maybe it did.
"The curveball was kind of a bread-and-butter pitch for me," he said. "I was always able to get that pitch over when I needed it. And to have that taken away from me was really tough. It actually helped me develop my changeup a lot."
He might've kept throwing curveballs all offseason if instructors would let him, but he had to rest at some point. After spending nearly two years in Lakeland for rehab, he had to be back for Spring Training. He was in last year's camp, but spent most of his time watching others throw while he worked out.
So far this spring, Sleeth has been one of the sights. His side sessions last month caught the eye of manager Jim Leyland, then he impressed Tigers hitters when he threw live batting practice a couple weeks ago.
"I'm going to pitch him," Leyland said, "because I've never seen him. I want to see him. The ball moves all over the place. He's got a nasty breaking ball. I'm going to run him out there like anybody else. He certainly appears to have good stuff, but he really hasn't pitched that much."
His first Spring Training game reinforced the impression -- two scoreless innings and three strikeouts last Sunday against the Indians. He'll likely have at least a couple more appearances before going to Minor League camp once their games begin.
Where he goes from there is almost irrelevant. Whatever level at which he starts the season, the goal is to get him through a season healthy, not to put him in any proximity with the Major Leagues. The pitching depth in the organization has improved enough that the Tigers don't need to rush him.
There's enough pitching in the system that anything out of Sleeth could seemingly be labeled. But if he's on, there's enough reason to think he can still be a special arm.
"I don't know if the rich get richer," Ezell said, "but I know we'll get better."
Ezell strongly believes in Sleeth. Now with the curveball, so does Sleeth. As difficult as the comeback was, he thinks he's not only back, he's stronger for it.
"I have the feeling of confidence back when I had a lot of success," he said. "I don't feel lost on the mound. I feel I'm going up there with a game plan, with confidence. I know what I'm doing up there. When I had the setbacks, I felt kind of lost out there. I didn't know exactly what pitches were going to do what, how to locate. It was a mind game with me when I was on the mound then, but now I'm getting up there with confidence."
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