After COVID KO'd 2020, Teheran ready to pick up the pieces with Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Julio Teheran didn’t suddenly forget how to pitch. Can we be clear about that?

From 2013-2019, the two-time All-Star flat-out posted every five days. He made over 30 starts in each of those years, averaged 191 innings with a 3.64 ERA and a .231 opponent batting average. And he’s still just 30 years old.

Tigers pitcher Julio Teheran joins Michael Fulmer for a bullpen session in Lakeland, Fla.

So what happened last year after he was bought out by the Braves for $1 million and signed a $9 million deal with the Angels? He will be the first to tell you he wasn’t the same player — even if his 10.0 ERA in nine starts didn’t give it away.

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What happened? For starters, COVID-19 happened.

“COVID got me right before I came to camp,” said Teheran Saturday. “Before that, I was ready to pitch. I didn’t think those three weeks (quarantine) would affect the way I’m going to pitch. But we’re talking about a virus that was killing people.

“Since I’m an athlete and I work out and I’m healthy, I thought it wasn’t going to affect me. I thought I would just get through it.”

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The reality was, the virus weakened him. He didn’t have the same leg strength or arm strength. And his attempts to compensate and fight his way through it messed up his mechanics. Messed them up to the point where he started to feel soreness in his shoulder.

“I never complained or anything,” he said. “I just go forward, no matter what. I didn’t feel I was ready, but I went out there and gave it my best. Which obviously wasn’t my best.”

So here he is now, ever the proud competitor, the two-time All-Star, the longtime top of the rotation guy in Atlanta, in camp with the Tigers on a make-good, minor-league deal fighting for a spot on a team that’s had four straight losing seasons.

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Reality check, no?

“I was having conversations with different teams, trying to get a Major League deal,” he said, quite forthrightly. “But when the Tigers came out with their offer, it just got into my mind. I told my agent to work with Detroit. I felt like it was a great idea to come here and get that opportunity.

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Julio Teheran throws.

“It is a minor-league deal, but for me it’s a challenge, another challenge in my career. I accept the challenge.”

General manager Al Avila and assistant GM David Chadd laid a juicy incentive package in front of Teheran — gave him about 4 million reasons to take the challenge. He will earn a base salary of $3 million if he makes the team, and another million if he makes 20 starts.

“It’s not like I’ve never been in this position,” Teheran said. “Where I have had a bad year or I’ve had a slow start. You just have to work harder to get better. That’s how I am taking last year. Just put it in the past and look forward to the Detroit Tigers, to making the team, being in the rotation and trying to help them win a lot of games.”

Helping to sell Teheran on Detroit was his former teammate in Atlanta Anibal Sanchez. The former Tiger also helped Teheran get his mechanics back in order. 

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“He was happy when I told him I was coming here,” Teheran said. “We trained together (in the offseason). He helped me with my mechanics. He was really happy. He told me about the organization and that got me really motivated and anxious to come here.”

Teheran, through the illness and then the shoulder issue, completely lost the fluidity in his delivery. His lower body and upper body got out of sync, one constantly lagging behind the other. The result was lower velocity and lower spin rates and a lot of hittable pitches.

“Anibal showed me how to feel myself,” he said. “I felt like I was totally lost with my mechanics. Just not working in the same direction, I would say. He got me to feel my arm working with my legs. It was simple. It’s not like a big change, but it made the difference.”

Former Tiger Anibal Sanchez was pleased to hear former Braves teammate Julio Teheran was coming to Detroit.

Teheran probably doesn’t know it yet, since he just got to camp Friday, but he has a master kinesiologist for a pitching coach. One of Chris Fetter’s fortes, some might call it a healthy obsession, is body connectivity. Fetter's lab could a huge asset in helping Teheran regain form.

“I know how to pitch,” Teheran said. “But when you don’t know how to move, that’s a different thing. Right now, I think I have both.”

Teheran, who has maintained his throwing program throughout the offseason, threw his first bullpen for the Tigers Friday. He will throw live batting practice early next week before he makes any game starts. But he said he doesn’t feel behind.

“Actually I feel like I’m ahead,” he said. “Arm-wise I feel close to being (at the same level) as these guys. I know I came a week after, but I feel like we’re at the same spot.”

It’s still too early in camp for any brash predictions or declarations, but there is a path for Teheran to make the Tigers’ rotation, especially if it’s a six-man unit. After Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Jose Urena (who was signed to a $3.25 million deal), the competition is open.

Michael Fulmer has the inside track on one spot, but he is still a question mark coming off knee and elbow surgeries. It’s certainly possible that both Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — two of the club’s most prized and talented pitching prospects — could make the team. But given their lack of experience and workload last season, the Tigers could start one or both in Triple-A.

In that scenario, Teheran’s fight could be with lefty Tyler Alexander, who also has value as a reliever.

“Everything is at the place I want it to be,” Teheran said. “My shoulder is doing good. My arm and my legs, everything is on the right side and I’m ready to go.”

Twitter: @cmccosky