Tigers give VerHagen shot at starting rotation

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Drew VerHagen, right, gets set during fielding drills Tuesday in Lakeland, Florida.

Lakeland, Fla. — Be clear on this: Drew VerHagen will pitch in any role, any situation, the Tigers need him to.

But over the winter, as he was doing rehabilitation work four days a week in Arlington, Texas, healing from surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, he came to the belief that working every fifth day as a starting pitcher would be easier on his body than working out of the bullpen.

“I think just the routine of being in a five-day rotation, for where I’m at with my strength and conditioning routine, it will definitely help,” the 26-year-old right-hander said Tuesday. “It’s just better for my overall body. Being up (in the bullpen) every day is a little more taxing. I am still capable of doing that, but I want a chance to come in this spring, get stretched out and see if I can compete.”

VerHagen made the 25-man roster as a reliever last season and was pitching in high-leverage situations before the injury. But when, last month, he asked pitching coach Rich Dubee and manager Brad Ausmus for the chance to work with the starting pitchers this spring, they quickly said yes.

“It was his request and we decided to try it,” Ausmus said. “He also communicated to us that he’d pitch out of the ’pen if we needed at the big-league level. There are differing opinions whether it’s easier on him as a starter, throwing every fifth day, or easier as a reliever — not throwing as many pitches, but you get up more often.”

Adding VerHagen to the mix lengthens the depth of the rotation to 10: Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Buck Farmer, VerHagen and Myles Jaye.

“I think we were deeper in 2016 than in 2015, and I think we are even deeper now in 2017,” Ausmus said. “Part of that is some of the guys we had in ’15 and ’16 have more experience the big-league level. Part of that is guys we’ve brought in. And part of it is guys maturing into big-league players.

“From the starting pitching perspective, I would say we are on the deep side. But, of course, like I’ve been saying, a lot of the depends on health.”

VerHagen was drafted in the fourth round out of Vanderbilt in 2012 as a starting pitcher. He has made 48 minor league starts and one big league start.

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“I still like both,” he said. “But I just want at least a shot. They told me they were open about me. If I came in and stretched out (innings-wise) and got built up, and the need was in the pen, I could easily bounce back.

“I’m ready for that. I ready to bounce back and forth — whatever they need.”

Working again as a starter means VerHagen can go back to being a three-pitch pitcher. He relied on his mid-90s fastball and knee-buckling curveball last season. He will be able to reintegrate a change-up, a pitch he only threw 18 times last season.

“I’ve been working on throwing the change-up quite a lot,” he said. “It just feels good to be throwing again. I missed it. I am happy to be back having baseball pants on and getting ready to play.”