Three Tigers bracing for spring competition

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Three players, all at different stages of their careers — left-handed reliever Tom Gorzelanny, backup catcher Bryan Holaday and utility man Hernan Perez — each facing a stiff fight to win a spot on the Tigers' Opening Day roster.

Gorzelanny, 32 and a 10-year veteran, is 13 months removed from shoulder surgery. This has been his first normal, rehab-free offseason in two years.

Holaday, 27, is coming off a solid first full season as the Tigers backup catcher. But he will have to fend off a serious challenge from rookie James McCann to keep his job.

Perez, 23, was once considered the team's second baseman of the future. Now, he will be adding outfielder to his skill set this spring with hopes of filling the multi-positional shoes of departed Don Kelly.

All three, mainstays at pre-camp workouts at the Tigertown complex this week, were among the first group working in the warm early morning sun Thursday.

"I feel great," Gorzelanny said. "Everything is going well. I feel strong."

Gorzelanny, who's pitched for the Pirates, Cubs, Nationals and Brewers, was signed by the Tigers essentially to replace Phil Coke as one of two lefties in the bullpen. Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol, Kyle Ryan, possibly Kyle Lobstein and non-roster invitee Joe Mantiply also are competing for those two spots.

"It's a good situation," Gorzelanny said. "It's a great team with a good chance to win. Speaking for myself, and I am sure I can speak for a lot of guys, being on a winning team is something you desire when you are a free agent.

"This is a good place to be and a good opportunity to prove myself as a reliable bullpen arm."

Gorzelanny was a starter early in his career and he made 23 starts for the Cubs as recently as 2010. But since 2012, his best work has been done as a reliever. Still, you wonder if he allows the phrase "situational lefty" in his vocabulary.

"Everything is kind of in my vocabulary," he said. "Whatever they need me to do or want me to do. I just want to be relied upon and be depended on. I want to be a guy Brad (Ausmus, manager) can call on and know I can get the job done."

That guy was largely missing most of last season. But first things first. Gorzelanny has to show his arm has fully recovered from the shoulder surgery.

In December of 2013, he had the deluxe clean-out procedure — rotator cuff, labrum, bone spurs. He came off the DL on June 13 last season and pitched in 23 games. Although he only gave up two earned runs in 21 innings, he said his velocity and sharpness were nowhere near what they'd been pre-surgery.

"Anybody who has had that surgery will tell you, the first year you come back is kind of a struggle," he said. "A shoulder surgery is a lot tougher to come back from. You go through the ups and downs of feeling good a few days and feeling bad for a few.

"Talking to guys who have done it, you just have to grind your way through it that first season. Then you get a full offseason and things are a lot better."

That's where he is today. The struggles are in the rear-view and he's put the full offseason to good use.

"The injury has motivated me to not have that happen again," he said. "It wasn't a fun time, missing the season. It's motivated me to be healthier and do everything I can to avoid that."

Catching competition

Holaday spent his Thursday morning first in the weight room before walking out to catch one of Justin Verlander's non-mound throwing sessions. He shook his head in appreciation as Verlander fired clothes-line strikes from 120 feet.

But that's where he left him. While Verlander headed over to another field to run 12 100-yard sprints, Holaday happily returned to the clubhouse.

"Doc is a tremendous asset on the team," Ausmus said during TigerFest last month. "He's high-energy, always prepared and the guys like him. He's got a good sense of humor and he cares."

He also handled the pitching staff capably and was a sound defensive catcher. What he wasn't, though, was much of an offensive threat. He hit .231 in 62 games with just six extra base hits in 171 plate appearances.

Thus, he will be in a dogfight with McCann this spring.

"The way I look at it is just like I look at every spring training," Holaday said. "Just take care of what I can take care of and work my hardest and give it my best."

It's not the same, though. McCann is well-credentialed and ready to play at the big league level. Ausmus said he will have a chance to not only make the roster, but also possibly platoon with starter Alex Avila.

So where does that leave Holaday?

"I can't get caught up in that because it would just distract me from what I am trying to do," he said. "I just have to keep getting better. I put in a lot of hard work this offseason and I am looking forward to spring training to see if it paid off."

Expanding role

Funny thing about this whole learning to play outfield thing — it's tough to do when there's nobody around to hit you fly balls.

Perez has been putting time in the weight room and batting cages, he's been throwing and running. He's even taken ground balls. But as for getting some outfield work in, nada.

"No practice yet," he said. "There's no one to work out with yet."

He was supposed to play outfield in winter ball, but that didn't happen after he was sidelined by a knee injury. So, until spring training opens next week, Perez's only outfield experience will be a handful of games in the Venezuela Winter League in 2012.

"I know I can catch a fly ball," he said. "When I signed (with the Tigers) the scout said, if you can play shortstop, you can play anywhere."

If Perez is at all bothered by having his role redefined by the organization – from potential everyday middle infielder to utility man — you would never know it.

"It's exciting," he said. "My mindset is good. I am going to work hard every day. Winning that spot on the roster is going to be awesome for me."

He's going to have to beat out veteran Andrew Romine, another middle infielder who will take some outfield reps this spring.

"That's the goal," Perez said. "To be on the roster opening day and stay there all season. Being a utility guy, you never know what could happen during the season. You might end up playing every day. It's a good role."