Lakeland, Fla. — Another summer afternoon’s shower arrived a half-hour ago but has since departed.
The air at Tigertown is cooler now, in the lower 80s, as you stroll through a parking lot that five months earlier would have been jammed with Grapefruit League cars.
Up ahead, in a posh rehab facility that was part of a $40 million makeover finished in 2017, a celebrity Tigers prospect works to put his baseball life back on its once-lustrous track.
Franklin Perez is trying to make that talented right shoulder strong and resistant to the breakdowns that have sabotaged his past two seasons.
Perez has let it be known he is not interested in discussing rehab routines nor his thoughts on the future. There is no benefit, he concluded, to talking about something that requires acts, not words.
And while he is only 21 and youth remains his ally, particularly when doctors have found no “structural” issues with his bothersome right shoulder, there is a single stubborn question:
How long can a doctor’s reassurance clash with what he has been feeling for two long seasons on the sidelines?
Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, was asked that very question this week.
“Last year, he missed a big chunk of time, and this year, the same thing,” Avila said, as he watched the GCL Tigers hatchlings during a game this week. “It does delay development. You’d hope, with his talent, he can bounce back.”
A follow-up question: Could the Tigers GM remember any previous pitcher who had dealt with anything so similar for so long?
“I can’t recall going back and comparing this to anyone else,” Avila said. “I don’t remember anything like this."
Perez arrived two years ago fresh from a celebrity trade with the Astros. Justin Verlander had been shipped during the last minutes of August to Houston as the Tigers pulled three blue-chippers from the Astros’ rich farm system: catcher Jake Rogers, outfielder Daz Cameron, and Perez, whose talents were so hoary they made him an instant Tigers No. 1 prospect.
He had national status, as well: No. 39 on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 line of big-leaguers-to-be.
Perez was 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and with a mid-90s fastball and three more zesty pitches, he already had cracked Double A as a 19-year-old. It looked like an early payoff for the Astros, who had given him $1 million as a 16-year-old when he signed out of Valencia, Venezuela.
Perez since has pitched 27 innings spanning nine starts in 2018 and 2019. It’s nearly a two-year layoff in development and in adjusting to professional baseball’s rigors.
And so he drives virtually every day from his home in Orlando to Lakeland. He spends hours during each session toughening a shoulder doctors say is suffering from “weakness” tied to the malady that ruined his 2018 season as he got ready to break spring camp:
The latissimus dorsi — lat, as it is commonly known — is a flat, V-shaped muscle in the back that is most responsible for shoulder movements.
It was the lat that gave way 17 months ago. The manner in which Perez’s lat and his right shoulder are intertwined explain two years of intensive rehab that have yet to offer Perez any extended mound time.
After the lat flared in 2018, Perez pitched in only seven games, from June 25 to July 26, before reuniting with the injured list.
He pitched twice this year, on May 15 and June 18, sandwiched among three more trips to the injured list: April 4, May 19, and June 23.
Each time, it was the shoulder that shelved him.
Each time, doctors repeated that there were no issues with his rotator cuff or with the labrum or with any shoulder mechanics that otherwise would hint at a deeper, more career-endangering presence.
He rehabbed. He threw well. He experienced no pain.
Except when it returned once he began throwing in games.
“We’re doing treatment right now on that right shoulder, trying to get that shoulder as strong as possible,” said Avila, who speaks for a team that, like all big-league clubs, is aware of HIPAA privacy laws and fights to tread a tight line when discussing a player’s health.
“We do expect him to begin throwing at some point this fall — in October or November.
“We want to get him hot (fluid and throwing with ease, minus pain) and get him ready for spring training. Other than that, he’s not going to be doing much other than simply strengthening that shoulder.”
Had his health been as stable as it had been during his early Astros years — he had minor knee issues in 2017, but nothing serious — Perez today might be part of baseball’s gaudiest minor-league rotation.
Or, he might be working in Detroit.
That would not have surprised a Double-A manager, Joe Mikulik, whose Frisco RoughRiders team was strafed by a few of Perez’s mound bullets in 2017.
“First and foremost, what you saw was this kid take the mound and you realized (then) he’s only 19 years old at a pretty advanced level,” Mikulik said. “You saw the composure, the size, the arm strength.
“We don’t tend to really evaluate the opponents during a game, but he stood out. He jumps out on that mound, a big guy coming at you. And when you look out across a field, that’s something you can’t help but measure.”
Already at Double A, the Tigers are flashing starters any of whom they are counting on soon in Detroit: Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo, Anthony Castro, Tarik Skubal, Joey Wentz.
If a pitcher like Perez who two years ago stood as a sterling combination of power and finesse were part of this fleet, the Tigers’ rebuilding push might look more like a future playoff march.
But it is a given in big-league baseball that pitching will always present casualties. Tragedies, even. The pitching arm and shoulder apparatus is complex, it is subjected to almost-inhuman strain, and it leads to scores of potential stars leaving the game as young men, betrayed by the fragility of their arms or shoulders.
Avila acknowledges that not everyone makes it through the barbed wire that arm anatomy can become for prospects who might otherwise know dreamy big-league careers.
“It’s why they say you never have enough good pitching,” Avila acknowledged.
And then he repeated the diagnosis, program, and hopes for Perez and for the Tigers.
“It’s weakness, that’s the best way to describe it,” Avila said. “Last time, the report was slight inflammation that caused his velo (velocity) to go down.
“But you can get it back. You get the inflammation down, and we had gone through that process, and then it came back again. This time (June), we shut him down again. We’re going through a prescribed treatment plan, a strength and conditioning plan, and then we’ll get him back on the mound and pitch him — at this point, sometime this fall, or even early winter — and then we’ll get him revved up, hot, and throwing full-bore, all before next spring training.
“And then, hopefully, he comes back next spring, ready to go.”
That’s the hope. That’s been the hope for two years. It is reasonable to say 2020 could be a star prospect’s personal definition of that worn-out baseball word: pivotal.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer.