Lakeland, Fla. — It’s easy to forget that these players, especially those on the roster bubble fighting for jobs, are human beings with real lives. And not all of them can afford to make everyday, logistical hassles disappear by throwing money at them.
Take Tigers right-hander Johnny Barbato. He was designated for assignment by the Pirates and claimed by the Tigers in the second week of January, a month before pitchers and catchers were to report for spring training. He’d already rented a place to live in Bradenton, already made arrangements to have his car transported there.
Now he had to rush around and find a place in Lakeland — which, believe it or not, is not an easy thing to do unless you can afford paying $8,000 or so to stay in a place for seven weeks. Two-month reservations are scarce, and the ones that are available are secured well in advance every year.
Hotel rooms are just as scarce and often cost-prohibitive.
But Barbato found a place and hastily moved all his stuff from Bradenton to Lakeland, and he thanked his lucky stars that he wasn’t claimed by a team that trains in Arizona.
Now flash ahead to this week. Until his right elbow tightened, Barbato had put himself in a good spot to win a bullpen spot on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster. But after being shut down for a week, his grip on that spot became more tenuous.
So, what was he supposed to do?
He needs a place to live up north, but where? Detroit? Toledo? Somewhere in between? He’s from Miami. He isn’t familiar with the real estate options up north. How is he going to get his car up there? He’d send it up the same time as the other roster players do — the Tigers help arrange transport — except now he might have to stay in Lakeland an extra week or two to work through his elbow issues.
His life is essentially in limbo right now.
“It is what it is,” Barbato said Sunday. “Right now I am just worried about getting healthy. Other than that, I really don’t care what happens. I am just trying to get back on the mound and be healthy.
“Because I know I can help this team out eventually.”
The Pirates last season asked Barbato to lose weight and transition into a starting pitcher. Neither was in Barbato’s best interest. The leaner body translated into a decrease in velocity (2-3 mph).
Worse, the Pirates rotation was pretty much set, and Barbato, who still has not made a single big-league start, knew he’d be spending time in Triple A.
So, although it was surprising and a little hurtful, getting DFA’d by the Pirates was a blessing for his career. He came to a Tigers team revamping its bullpen, and to a pitching coach (Chris Bosio) who values big bodies and big arms. He put the weight back on (healthy weight) and his velocity was back up to 95-96 mph this spring.
Until his last two pitches of his last outing on March 16. It was the first time he’d thrown in back to back games this spring and he felt a twinge in his right elbow.
“It got a little tight on me,” he said. “I threw a curveball and it felt tight, kind of flared up. I told the trainers and they told me to back off a little bit.”
Barbato has a history of elbow issues. He missed half of the 2014 season with a strained right flexor and ulnar collateral ligament. So erring on the side of caution was the right call, even if it might cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster.
“This wasn’t nearly as severe as that one (in 2014),” he said.
He threw his first bullpen since that outing on Saturday and said he felt good. Except, again, he felt that same tightness when he threw his curveball.
“It still felt kind of tight, but it’s going in the right direction,” he said. “I think for now I might just stay off the curveball for a little bit. I will go back to it hen everything gets a little stronger.”
Barbato is scheduled to throw to minor-league hitters on the back fields Tuesday.
“He’s not going to be ready to break with us,” manager Ron Gardenhire said on Saturday. “We’ve got to see him throw. We have to see him healthy and throwing.”
Barbato understands that. The important thing is to be healthy and available for the long haul.
“You can’t rush something like this,” he said. “Just sit back, relax and let the healing do its thing. I am just going to do what they say and take it one day at a time.”
Small consolation? At least now he has extra time to scout out a place to live up north.