July 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tigers' utility man Danny Worth tosses aside knuckleball to stick in infield

Tigers utility infielder Danny Worth, now in Triple A Toledo, made two appearance as a relief pitcher for the Tigers. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

It was a tempting scenario, rich in irony and potential. Danny Worth, fighting to stick in the big leagues as an infielder, would instead find life and longevity as a knuckleball pitcher.

His knuckler is good enough to have struck out a pair of Rangers in the ninth inning of an out-of-hand May game. The Tigers, in fact, had loosely talked with Worth earlier about heading to winter ball for some knuckleball development.

But it isn’t about to happen. Not soon. And probably not with the Tigers, even if a 28-year-old utility man decides throwing a flutter-ball might be his calling, after all.

“I’ll entertain it as a thought down the road,” said Worth, who is now with Triple A Toledo after the Tigers designated him for assignment when they promoted rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez.

“But I’m trying to be a utility infielder somewhere. I know I can still pick it (field grounders) better than most guys in the big leagues.”

Worth has been a case study in baseball’s cruel ways. He never has played more than 43 games in any of his five seasons with the Tigers, who drafted him in the second round in 2007 out of Pepperdine. He never has hit enough (.230 career average, .588 OPS) to earn the kind of long-term security Ramon Santiago enjoyed during his 2006-13 stint as Detroit’s primary infield backup.

But the Tigers would be the first to agree Worth never had the benefit of regular or sustained work in Detroit. They also would acknowledge, as manager Jim Leyland did at the end of 2013 spring camp, Worth deserved to join a team he missed making, mostly because Santiago had a guaranteed contract.

Worth also could agree he twice has cleared waivers and, if another big-league club saw potential the Tigers were missing, that team could easily have claimed him.

History, though, and a player’s personal confidence, are factors that have all but guaranteed Worth will move on after this season and likely sign with another team, probably as a minor-league free agent.

He could have turned down this month’s Toledo assignment and been free to sign with another club. But he and his wife, Breanne, are expecting a baby daughter, and his compensation will be stronger if he sticks with the Tigers.

For now.

No matter where he plays in 2015, Worth says he has no plans to seriously pursue the knuckler, which earned him a wildly entertaining, and effective, big-league pitching baptism when he was asked to handle the ninth inning of a game the Rangers won 9-2.

Worth struck out two that day and allowed a hit. He walked no one. The Tigers and Rangers knew what Worth had always known: He owned a rare big-league pitch.

Worth had always played with the knuckleball. He had thrown it from his days in Little League when he pitched and had no feel for a change-up. The knuckler felt good. It began to drift and wobble on its no-spin flight paths. And so he continued to fool with it even as shortstop evolved as his big-league ticket.

Worth was asked on May 24, two days after his big-league initiation, to handle another late-inning emergency against the Rangers. This one didn’t go as well: three hits, one run, no strikeouts, no walks. But neither did it invalidate that first outing.

“If I didn’t cut my nails before that second game, I’d have been all right,” Worth said. “But I had no nails to grip it with. If I could ever take it seriously, I could get it (knuckler) dancing real good.”

R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays right-hander who makes his living with the knuckleball and won a Cy Young Award with the Mets in 2012, says Worth has a shot.

“I started throwing it when I was 31,” said Dickey, who turns 40 in October. “That pitch has a lot of hope in it. There are a lot of nuances to it, and he’ll have to see if he can repeat his mechanics, but there’s no reason he can’t do it.”

The Tigers aren’t making any formal pitching overtures to Worth. They regard it, as he does, as something Worth might want to pursue down the line. Those earlier conversations about winter ball? It was the kind of discussion that occurs loosely, almost fancifully, as it did that day when Worth talked with David Chadd, director of amateur scouting for the Tigers, about perhaps polishing his knuckler during the offseason in one of the Caribbean leagues.

But the dialogue went no further. Now, it’s a safe bet Worth’s days with the Tigers will go no farther than 2014.

“I could make it back in September,” said Worth, speaking of a time when big-league roster limits expand and he might rejoin his Tigers teammates. “Hopefully, a spot opens.”

But it would as an infielder, he realizes. Pitching? Not now. Not for a man who still sees himself as a big-leaguer. As a shortstop. The dream doesn’t yet dare to die.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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