Tigers prospect Ravenelle is back on course

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

They had reason to be pleased, the Tigers did, when their fourth-round draft turn arrived in June of 2014 and Adam Ravenelle was unclaimed.

Here was a right-handed reliever with size and pedigree. He was about to close with a save Vanderbilt's NCAA baseball championship. He was 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, and was the brand of bullpen pitcher who might move quickly, maybe even all the way to Detroit inside of two seasons.

That was the plan. Until his body began acting up in ways that weren't career-threatening as much as irritating.

Ravenelle, who last summer signed a $412,400 contract with Detroit, had his first downer in mid-summer when he tore a pulley tendon in his right middle finger. That was the end of 2014.

But there was always 2015, and at Single A West Michigan he figured to build a portfolio that might push him deep into the farm system's food chain.

Then, in April, after settling into the greater Grand Rapids area for a taste of life in the Midwest League, he was socked with an acute sore throat. It was a virus so bad it melted 15 pounds from a body that didn't need slimming. It was so potent it knocked him from active duty for 2½ weeks and warranted a return ticket to the Lakeland, Fla., Tigertown complex where he could rehab and rediscover his old pep and energy.

"They thought at first it was strep, and gave me strep medicine, but that didn't work," Ravenelle said this weekend, speaking from Fort Wayne, Ind., where the Whitecaps were playing a weekend series. "It was just one of those things. It wasn't overall pain, really. It was just a really bad sore throat where I couldn't eat much food. It was very similar to mono (mononucleosis)."

Ravenelle regained weight during his Lakeland convalescence and last month returned to West Michigan. He had a pair of back-to-back rough outings (including seven earned runs in a game against Lake County) but hasn't allowed a run in any of his other five appearances.

In his last three games, Ravenelle, 22, has pitched 3⅓ innings, yielding a single hit, striking out five and walking none. Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham pegs his fastball, at the moment, as a low-90s pitch that can occasionally graze the mid-90s.

"His first couple of innings after he came back his pitches were up and his velocity was down," Graham said, "but now I'm bringing him into situations where the game's close. The other night, we were up a run and he pitched 1⅓ innings and did great.

"Last year, I saw him for a few innings and it was obvious he had an above-average fastball with sink and, at times, an above-average slider.

"Then he had that little problem with his finger. And in spring training it didn't look like he had the command he had shown last summer.

"But, when he got back (last month) he had put on close to 20 pounds, so the rehab staff did a good job. He's looked a lot stronger than he did the year before and now you're seeing him regain confidence."

Ravenelle grew up in Sudbury, Mass., and in 2011 was a 44th-round pick by the Yankees following some glittering years at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High. The son of a school superintendent, Ravenelle instead opted for Vanderbilt.

He was a junior when the Tigers drafted him following a 2014 season that saw him put together a 1.35 ERA in 40 games for the national champion Commodores.

"It's definitely been a tough past year, with all these freak illnesses and injuries," said Ravenelle, who in four professional innings a year ago (GCL and West Michigan) didn't allow a hit or a walk, while striking out six.

"But I'm beginning to feel like I did last year. My slider is starting to come back, and my fastball is coming out of my hand better."

Ravenelle, as well as Graham, figure the fastball will throttle up a bit more as a pitcher reunites with strength and rhythm he largely lost to a torn tendon and a crazy virus. That slider, too, which is the out-pitch for a reliever who doesn't throw a change-up, is beginning to regain some of the bite scouts particularly liked when they studied him at Vanderbilt.

"It's definitely been a long process," Ravenelle said. "I'm just glad to be back."