Lakeland, Fla. — In one corner of the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant stadium sit six players, all non-roster invitees, all with big league service time, all looking for another opportunity however long the odds may be against them.
Outfielders Nate Schierholtz (Giants, Cubs, Nationals, Phillies) and John Mayberry, Jr. (Phillies, Blue Jays, Mets), are over there, as are pitchers Drake Britton (Red Sox), Preston Guilmet (Indians, Orioles, Rays, Brewers) and Lendy Castillo (Cubs).
The sixth member of that group, right-hander Logan Kensing, has had perhaps the longest and most unfortunate journey of them all.
“I don’t want to say it’s been long because it makes me sound old,” he said. “But it’s been up and down. Lot of hills and a lot of valleys. I’m 33 and I’ve battled through a lot.”
Kensing was a second round pick of the Marlins in 2003 and made it to the big leagues in 2004. By 2006 he was a key contributor in then manager Joe Girardi’s bullpen.
Things quickly went off the rails. It started with an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery in August of 2006. He made it back by the end of 2007 and wound up going 6-1 with an ERA under 4.00 between the end of 2007 through 2008.
By 2010 he was unemployed.
He was traded to the Nationals in 2009 and injured his shoulder. A surgery was performed to remove bone spurs.
“I went all the way through the rehab process only to find out they didn’t remove the right bone spurs,” Kensing said. “They had to redo it.”
It took him more than three years to work his way back. He was pitching in the Independent League in 2011 before the Yankees, with Joe Girardi managing, gave him a shot with their Triple-A team.
“People don’t like to buy cars if they can’t test drive it,” Kensing said. “So, I had to go show people.”
In 2012 he signed with the Pirates and pitched his way from high-Class A to Triple A. In 2013, he was with the Rockies’ Triple-A team and finally got back to the big leagues for one game late that season.
The last two years he was with the Mariners. He was called up late last season and went 2-1 with a 5.87 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 19 games.
It was enough to entice the Tigers to give him a look.
“When you have that much down time, your mind plays a lot of tricks on you,” Kensing said when asked if he ever thought of quitting. “But at the end of the day, you only get one shot to play this game. Keep going until you can’t get a job or until you really get tired of it.
“I’m not there.”
Studies on the effects of Tommy John surgery have shown that the transplanted elbow ligament will typically hold up under normal major league baseball rigors for seven to eight years.
Former Tigers pitchers Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria each went seven years between Tommy John surgeries, for example.
The question comes up because of right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who is beginning his sixth year post-Tommy John.
“The truth is, nowadays, anytime a pitcher takes the mound, Tommy John is a concern — even if they never had the surgery before,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “I know there are studies out there, but what am I going to do about it. Someone might get injured. Well, if I knew what day he was going to get injured, I’d sit him.”
Ausmus closely watched right-hander Shane Greene’s bullpen session on Saturday. Ausmus has made the point that he didn’t want Greene to be forgotten man in the Tigers' pitching plans.
Greene’s strong showing Saturday validated that. Healthy after dealing with a nerve issue in his shoulder last season, he’s throwing hard with heavy sinking action on both his fastball and slider.
“He had an off year, but the stuff we saw a couple of years ago is still in him,” Ausmus said.
Although Ausmus hasn’t made anything official, it appears Greene will be working as a reliever, at least early in camp.
“I don't want to pigeonhole him, but I think his velocity might tick up a bit (in relief), and he'd have a little harder slider,” Ausmus said. “Plus, you only need two pitches coming out of the pen."