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Joel Hanrahan is healing, ready to cut loose

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Joel Hanrahan's 33-year-old body has had quite a bit to say the past two years, and not much of it has been good. But as he threw a full bullpen session on a sun-kissed morning Friday at the Tigertown complex, he didn't hear a peep, not even from his surgically repaired right elbow.

"I feel good today," the Tigers reliever said. "It's hard to simulate a game or anything over there but I am just trying to work on some stuff, throwing strikes and being able to walk out on my own and feel positive when I am done.

"That's what I did today and that's what I'm going to keep trying to do."

Amid the collection of question marks that comprises the Tigers' bullpen — can Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria return to form, can Bruce Rondon stay healthy, can Al Alburquerque handle high-leverage situations, etc. — Hanrahan stands out as an intriguing X-factor.

He was a two-time All-Star and saved 76 games for the Pirates in 2011 and 2012. From 2010 through 2012 he struck out 228 batters in 198 innings. But he's only pitched 7.1 innings since, and none last season even though the Tigers signed him for $1 million in May.

The Tigers re-upped with Hanrahan in November, giving him another one-year, $1 million contract, with an incentives package that could net him another $2.5 million.

"We know he feels good and he's working himself up to spring training," president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said last month. "The key is going to be when he goes out there and has to throw hard on a consistent, regular basis. Can he bounce back? That's what we need to see. That's the real question we don't know right now."

It's been some 20 months since Dr. James Andrews performed a nasty bit of elbow surgery on Hanrahan (in May 2013). Not only was the Tommy John ligament replacement surgery performed, Dr. Andrews also repaired a torn flexor tendon and bone spurs.

"Dr. Andrews said there was quite a bit done in there," Hanrahan said. "That's why it's taken a little longer and been frustrating."

Hanrahan is throwing every day, mixing in bullpen sessions like on Friday every few days. But he's not throwing at full velocity on back to back days yet. In fact, he hasn't sat down with the Tigers' trainers or pitching coach Jeff Jones to map out a plan for spring training.

But he's done worrying whether his body will hold up.

"I kind of got over that part toward the end of last season," he said. "I was wondering what my body can do. Now I am just not going to listen. I am just going to go out there and let it eat and see what happens."

He let it eat Friday and it felt good, almost normal, he said.

"I feel like the ball is coming out of my hand like it used to, but that's up to the hitters," he said. "You can sit here throwing a side or a pen and feel like you are Cy Young, then go out the first day and give up a couple of home runs. It's just too hard to tell in this atmosphere."

For a guy who's gone from elite-level pitcher to non-roster invitee in two years, Hanrahan has seemingly managed to keep his frustrations and anxiety in perspective.

"It's part of the game, part of the process," he said. "It's one on the risks we take when we sign up for this game. There is a possibility you could be told you're done playing tomorrow. But I am just going to go out and I am going to have some fun and see what my arm can handle."

Hanrahan harbors no illusions about his prospects for winning a job out of spring training. He knows there are others who are in line to get the first shot, and he knows he's going to need some time, even if he's healthy, to knock the rust off.

"I am realistic when it comes to it," he said. "I haven't been in a game for pretty much two years and the games I was in I wasn't 100 percent healthy. So there's no telling. It will be nice to put the pants on, get back on the field and have some fun.

"Like I said, I've been through the process for almost two years now and I am at the point where I want to just go out, let it eat and see what happens."

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky