Lakeland, Fla. – The Tigers' early-morning infield workout – highlighted by the labor intensive Good Morning America drill – can be a rather rude, exhausting way to start a day, even for players who are fortunate enough to stay at one position throughout the entire process.
Imagine what it’s like for John Hicks, who takes reps both at first base and catcher. He will set two gloves near the first base coaching box. Usually he starts out at first base, taking throws and fielding ground balls for a couple of rounds.
Then he will set the first baseman’s glove down, pick up the catcher’s glove and take a few reps with the catchers. And this is after he’s already taken some swings in the cage and did blocking and framing drills with the other catchers.
You’d never know Hicks is just six months removed from having bilateral core muscle surgery.
“No problems at all,” Hicks said last week. “I haven’t felt it one bit, which has been great because the more I do, the more comfortable I feel.
“It’s been a couple of months since I’ve felt anything.”
If you wonder how it’s possible for a baseball player to feel this good, this soon after basically having his adductor muscles on both sides of his body pulled off his pubic bone and then repaired by sewing a cone of mesh into the gap – well, so does the Tigers’ training staff.
“Yeah, (head athletic trainer Doug) Teter told me, ‘Your rehab was probably the easiest of anyone that ever had the surgery,’” Hicks said. “I don’t know why. I mean, you never know how anybody is going to react after surgery, but it’s been good.”
Hicks had the surgery on Aug. 15. After six weeks of rest and rehab, his physical therapist set him in front of a hitting tee and let him take some swings. He knew right then that he was going to come through this just fine.
“I hit off a tee and then did some flips (short tosses) and then shut it down like a normal offseason,” he said. “Then I started hitting again in early December. It all felt fine. It felt normal. I was able to do my normal lifting program – ready to go.”
Scar tissue can be an obstacle to a fast rehab process, but with Hicks, it seemed to form in smaller chunks and heal gradually, which caused far less pain and discomfort than had it built up into a larger mass. There were no physical setbacks in his rehab process.
“He did everything that we asked,” Teter said. “He basically followed everything we asked to a T. And the results have been beneficial to this point.”
Left fielder Christin Stewart also had bilateral core muscle surgery this offseason. He also began hitting off a tee within six weeks and has no residual limitations or setbacks.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Stewart said. “But to not be able to get out of bed (immediately after surgery) and then five or six weeks later being able to swing a bat is pretty crazy.”
Chalk it up to clean surgeries performed by Dr. William Myers and to the wondrous healing powers of young, strong men, but both players are displaying no ill-effects. Neither has missed a drill this spring and both are expected to get a full workload throughout the exhibition season.
Hicks caught back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday, then played first base on Monday in Port St. Lucie. Again, no ill-effects, other than normal muscle soreness.
“I got a full offseason workout,” Hicks said. “It was a three-month, four-month offseason, which is pretty much the same. I never face live pitching in the offseason anyway. So I don’t feel any different from any spring training.”
In December, Hicks began hitting in a cage and taking regular L-screen, coach-pitch batting practice.
“I would move him up closer so it would be come in harder,” Hicks said. “I would have him mix in some breaking balls and change-ups when I wasn’t expecting it just to make it as realistic as it can be. But no matter how many swings you take in the offseason, when you step in for that first live BP, it looks like it’s coming a million miles an hour to everybody.
“It doesn’t matter when you took your last swing.”
Hicks, whose 2018 season ended on Aug. 6, is expected to back-up catcher Grayson Greiner and first baseman Miguel Cabrera. He could also get some at-bats as the designated hitter. He hit .260 (.403 slugging) with nine home runs and 32 RBIs in 312 plate appearances last year.
The feeling is, though, he was dealing with the injury for more than a month before he shut it down. In his last 21 games, he hit .201 with 21 strikeouts and just three extra-base hits.
The Tigers would love to see what he could produce if he got 400-450 healthy at-bats.
Hicks would, too.
“I hope so,” he said. “My plan in my head is that I will play as much as I can, as much as they’ll let me. I am prepared to play every day if they want me to, whether it’s DH, first base or catch. Maybe they will get crazy and put me somewhere else.”
He has played a game at third base.
“Hey, I’m prepared to play any of them,” he said with a laugh.