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Healthy Zeid looks to put best foot forward with Tigers

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Josh Zeid knows the story.

He's well aware of how the Tigers ripped off the Hoston Astros last spring, picking up J.D. Martinez for nothing — and then watching him become one of the best hitters on the Tigers.

So, Josh, will you be next?

"I can guarantee you that I'm going to try my darndest to be the next J.D. Martinez," Zeid said during a conversation earlier this month. "There's no chance I'll hit 24 home runs.

"If I was only so lucky to have half the impact he had, I'll be happy."

Martinez was a very-little talked-about signing last March, just before Opening Day, after the Astros had surprisingly sent him and his retooled swing packing. Zeid is in the same boat. Few Tigers fans are thinking much of him right now, even though he's a reliever — and the Tigers have been in a years-long search for an admirable bullpen.

There are only three "locks" for the bullpen: Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria and Al Alburquerque. The Tigers assume Bruce Rondon, coming off Tommy John surgery, is another one.

That would leave three spots remaining, and at least one and probably two for left-handers. That means just one more right-hander could make the mix, and there is a whole lot of competition facing Zeid: Alex Wilson, Luke Putkonen, Buck Farmer, Chad Smith, Drew VerHagen, Joel Hanrahan and, rotation pending, Alfredo Simon.

But Zeid isn't fretting about the seemingly long odds. He's just excited a championship-caliber team like the Tigers would be interested in him in the first place.

"Absolutely," he said. "The second I got picked up, I got a phone call from Al Avila and Dave Dombrowski. They let me know, 'You come into spring training and give it your all, we're never gonna guarantee anything, but we want to put you in the best position to make the team.' Whether or not that happens, that's completely up to me. And that's exciting to me."

There's a backstory to Zeid's excitement.

The last two seasons — 2013, when he had a nice rookie year out of Houston's bullpen, and 2014, when he didn't fare as well — he suffered from sesamoiditis. That means there were chipped, fractured or broken bones in the bottom of both feet.

Imagine just walking on that. Ouch. Now imagine trying to pitch on that, when your front leg is landing hard on delivery. Double ouch.

"The pain starts at the top of the big toe to the middle of the foot. Running, walking at a firm pace and definitely wearing metal spikes, that's probably the antitheses of what you should be doing," Zeid said, laughing.

Still, as a young man (27) trying to stick in the majors, he, understandably, pitched through the pain, which got progressively worse over time. Finally, with the Astros going absolutely nowhere, they decided he should shut it down last July. He had one of the surgeries in August and then had the other in October.

He's been rehabbing five days a week since, with running and weight-lifting. Four weeks ago, he started throwing again, off flat ground. Zeid doesn't see much point in pushing it on a mound yet.

"I couldn't be anymore excited going into a season 100 percent healthy," said Zeid, "and going to a ballclub with such a rich recent history."

The Tigers have received promising reports on Zeid's recovery, which is why they wasted little time in scooping him up off waivers Nov. 20.

Avila, the Tigers' assistant general manager, is impressed with Zeid's repertoire, which includes a four-seam fastball that sits between 93 and 96 mph, as well as a change-up and a slider. Zeid also has been working on a two-seam fastball, perhaps to fix the control issues that plague him.

The Tigers believe the foot injury could've been a significant factor behind some of the wildness, as Zeid acknowledges altering things — his workouts, delivery, etc. — in an attempt to prevent a little pain. That said, the walks date back to his minor-league days, too, after he was a 10th-round pick by the Phillies in 2009.

"Our scouts felt he should be better when healthy," Avila said. "He is a big guy with a real good arm that, when he gets healthy, we felt it was worth going after."

Zeid was thrilled with the news, even though and his wife, Stephanie, a neuropsychologist, recently made Houston their full-time residence, with the purchase of a house.

The house got a little fuller Dec. 8, when they welcomed their first child, Parker William.

How's he sleeping?

"Him?" Zeid said, laughing. "Great!"

Zeid's sleep schedule is a little more out of whack, but at least he's not losing sleep about his baseball future, which could be promising in Detroit.

He has several acquaintances on the Tigers, including manager Brad Ausmus, who Zeid played for on Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifier. He's also former teammates of Martinez in Houston, Anthony Gose in the Philadelphia minor leagues and David Price at Vanderbilt, and he played for Dave Clark when the Tigers third-base coach was in Houston.

Still, Zeid said he plans to arrive in Lakeland and keep quiet, knowing his place as the new guy, and allowing himself to just absorb his new surroundings. Martinez had the same mindset coming over to Detroit, but quickly got comfortable and made a lot of noise — with his bat.

Zeid can only hope his arm is a similar surprise story in 2015.

"I'm gonna be a completely different pitcher, obviously, than I was in 2014," said Zeid, who had a 6.97 ERA over 23 appearances this past season, after a 3.90 ERA in 25 outings the year before. "And probably even 2013."

Getting to know ...

Josh Zeid, RHP

Age: 27 (March 24, 1987)

Born: New Haven, Connecticut

Colleges: Tulane, Vanderbilt

Drafted: 10th round in 2009, by Phillies

Stats: 5.21 ERA in 48 appearances, with 42 strikeouts in 481/3 innings, in parts of two years with the Astros. ... 4.11 ERA in 200 appearances, with 394 strikeouts in 3851/3 innings, in parts of six seasons in the minor leagues, split between the Phillies and Astros systems.

Resides: Houston

Family: Wife Stephanie, son Parker William