LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' Minor League Player of the Year is enjoying his time in Major League camp, even though he has almost no chance at a big-league job.
No, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya haven't been knocked down in the fifth starter's race. It's just that Jordan Tata hasn't reached Double-A yet.
While Verlander and Zumaya earned high marks on nearly everyone's top 100 prospects list, Tata earned the Tigers farm system's top honor for pitchers. He doesn't boast a 99 mph fastball. He didn't challenge for the Minor League strikeout title. All he did was win.
He might be the only guy to fly under the radar with a 13-2 record.
"He grinds it out," said third baseman Kody Kirkland, Tata's teammate for the last three seasons. "That's the biggest thing. He just competes."
Most of the time, he competes well enough to come out on top. That 13-2 mark last year led the Florida State League in both victories and winning percentage and included a 7-0 record over his final nine regular-season starts. He helped lead Class A Advanced Lakeland to within a game of the FSL championship after it lost Verlander to a midseason promotion.
Add Tata's second-half performance in 2004 at Class A West Michigan and the 24-year-old right-hander owns a 19-3 record over his last 38 outings. He very nearly owned back-to-back league championships.
Call him a pitcher who simply wins, however, and he'll point to his 8-11 record in 2004. Before his strong finish that year, he went 1-7 during an 11-game stretch in May and June. He led the Midwest League in walks midway through the season and was among the West Michigan Whitecaps receiving regular visits from club officials for pep talks.
"The second half of '04 was when I really started," Tata said. "I hadn't put it all together yet, and I still haven't put it all together, but it's just a matter of challenging hitters. And it got to the point two years ago where it was like, 'Do you really want to play this game anymore? If so, you need to challenge the hitters.'
"That team was expected to do a lot better in the first half, and so we were getting visits from a lot of people trying to right the ship. And we did, which was great, because it saved a lot of our jobs."
The saving grace for Tata was an ability to locate his pitches and shed his fear of going into the strike zone.
Though he's an imposing figure on the mound at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Tata's stuff is deceptive. He can hit 95 mph, but he usually works in the lower 90s -- not bad, but not overpowering.
The equalizing factor that has made him as hard to beat as Zumaya and Verlander is the movement he puts on his pitches. His fastball has a natural sinking motion and his cutter bites in on hitters. When he's on, he's never giving hitters a clean shot at the ball over the plate, always hitting the corners.
Part of Tata's problem in 2004 was that he was aiming to do it that way.
"I was aiming for the corner and it would end up off the corner," Tata said. "I figured I'd just start it down the middle and let it work to the corner."
The difference was big. His walk total dropped from 68 over 166 1/3 innings in 2004 to 41 over 155 innings last year. His batting average against fell from .266 to .239. He earned the honor of best control in the Tigers farm system from Baseball America, which also rated him the seventh-best prospect in the organization.
"He throws a lot of strikes," assistant GM Al Avila said. "He doesn't walk that many guys. He gets a lot of groundball outs. He's got a lot of good combinations."
Kirkland saw the difference in confidence as much as repertoire. He no longer waited for things to go wrong.
"Instead of waiting for things to happen," Kirkland said, "he was making things happen."
The wins came in turn, though Tata won't take credit for them.
"I had a winning record last year on an unbelievable team," he said. "We scored. We fielded. We did everything right the majority of the season. For me, the winning column is a compliment for the whole team. We had (Nate) Bumstead with 12 wins. If Verlander had stayed there all year, then he probably would've gotten 15 wins himself. That team was built to win."
So, many would argue, is Tata. His next challenge logically will come at Double-A Erie and Eastern League parks that are cozier than the spacious outfields in Florida. He'll have to keep pitching for ground balls and he'll have to maintain his control. Fortunately, most of his Lakeland teammates are making the jump with him.
Before that happens, though, he'll get his chance to work against Major League hitters in Spring Training.
"There'll be more nerves than usual," he said. "Hopefully, once I get out there with those first couple pitches, then I'll settle down and try to do my own thing. I want to compete with my stuff. If I get hit, then at least I got hit doing what I know how to do."
If not, he'll make another impression. If nobody notices, so be it. Spending Spring Training in obscurity doesn't bother him.
"I don't mind it at all," he said. "I mean, I'm right next to Zumaya and he's always getting pulled aside for interviews. I just get in and out and get my work done."