LAKELAND, Fla. -- Joel Zumaya has read and heard the speculation that his future lies as a reliever. He sees the point, even though the Tigers don't see it that way. A spot in Detroit's rotation might well keep him starting.
While Justin Verlander earns most of the attention in the competition for the Tigers' fifth starter opening, his former teammate at Double-A Erie has the enviable position of toiling away in more obscurity with nothing to lose. At 21, having just missed out on the Minor League strikeout title last year, Zumaya could end up anywhere from Triple-A Toledo to the Tigers' bullpen to the mound in Texas on April 8, the fifth game of Detroit's season.
"If I perform as well as I've been performing, I just hope they give me a spot," Zumaya said. "I don't care where it's at. Whether it's late relief, middle relief, closer, starter, I'll take it."
Zumaya has been hard to define ever since the Tigers scouted him in high school. If he had the high-90s fastball then that he boasts now, he might've been an early pick. Instead, he threw in the lower 90s and went in the 11th round. He says his workhorse status as a senior in high school gave him a lot of innings and less velocity.
The power emerged as a pro. Baseball America rated him the fifth-best late-round pick in the draft after he struck out 46 in 37 1/3 innings in the Gulf Coast League in 2002 at age 17. As one of the youngest players in the Midwest League the next year, he fanned 126 over 90 1/3 innings and jumped to third on the Tigers' top prospect list.
The strikeouts came in bunches last year -- 199 in all between Toledo and Double-A Erie. His .189 batting average against also ranked second in the Minors, and his ratio of 11.83 strikeouts per nine innings ranked third.
Many of his characteristics fit a closer, though he hasn't made a relief appearance since 2002. His pitching motion is explosive, some call it violent, propelling fastballs toward the plate at a high frequency as well as velocity. He has a history of back problems that he shook off last year to avoid the DL. His mentality is as aggressive as any reliever, both on and off the mound. He even felt the need to move his legs while sitting down for an interview.
"I'm very aggressive," Zumaya said. "If I'm not doing anything, I get real draggy. It's just not my life. I've got to move. I've got to keep on doing anything. I'm very intense. I hate sitting around."
Yet amidst those reliever tendencies lies a slew of traits that suggest he could just as easily fit into a big league rotation. He was durable enough to top 150 innings last season for the first time in his career. And hidden within all those starts is an ability to adjust and learn quickly.
His 8-3 record at Erie was a matter of two different seasons. He went 2-3 with a 5.66 ERA in his first seven starts before posting a 6-0 record and 1.62 ERA over the next 11 outings.
Once he reached Toledo, he was hit around in his debut for six runs over 3 1/3 innings that he admits felt like "that ball was on a tee."
"It was a big learning process," he said. "You can't just blow fastballs by people up there." Then-Mud Hens outfielder Curtis Granderson remembers it that way, too, but he also recalls Zumaya getting hitters off-balance in his next start. By mixing up all three of his pitches, Zumaya posted a 1.55 ERA over his next seven outings.
"I'm still learning a lot," he said. "I still have a tendency to try to throw it 3,000 mph. I can be throwing 91, 92 on the corners and then when I get ahead of the guy, I can bring it 98, 99."
So far, Zumaya might not be giving himself enough credit. In early bullpen sessions this spring, he worries he's throwing the ball too hard. "When I'm practicing out there, throwing BPs and bullpens, I'm a guy that can't throw the ball soft," he said. "If I throw the ball soft, it'll go all over the place. It's just the way I feel out there."
Others, however, say he's been fine. "He's throwing hard, but it's under control," catcher Vance Wilson said.
So where does he fit? It's hard to tell. He understands the prognostications to the point where he can see a role change.
"Last year I thought about it real well," he said. "I can see myself in the future as a reliever or a closer and not a starter. It's just the way I pitch. It's the way I perform on the mound. I've got the mentality to be a late reliever or a closer."
Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez believes it's way too early to make a judgment. "Right now, I just want him to get in shape," he said. "I don't want him to think as much, just throw. We'll figure out the rest."
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