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Published: Wednesday, 5/30/2001

Weaver proves he belongs with Tigers, quickly

DETROIT - You can argue the Detroit Tigers' decision to rush Jeff Weaver to the majors without the security blanket of significant minor-league experience.

On second thought, why bother?

Count me among the knuckleheads who believed Weaver was too young, too skinny - simply too out of his element to make it big in the bigs on the accelerated plan.

I thought the Tigers gave Weaver the bum's rush. That bypassing the minors would retard his development.

Besides, Weaver didn't fit the profile. He wasn't attempting to fit in, feel his way around, make a couple of inconsequential starts, before returning to the minors until he was ready to join Detroit's rotation fulltime.

From Day One, despite having only six minor-league starts and being one year removed from Fresno State, Weaver has pitched like he belonged in Detroit.

A fourth of the way into his third season, No. 36 is one of baseball's best young pitchers.

Don't be fooled by Weaver's pedestrian 4-5 record this year. His 3.09 ERA is best among Detroit's starters. With a little better run support, Weaver becomes a legitimate candidate for the All-Star team. His ratio of 55 strikeouts against only 28 walks is superb.

“I don't think I came up too fast. I wouldn't change a thing. I always felt I had the ability to pitch in the big leagues,” said Weaver, who has pitched at least seven innings in eight of his 11 starts this year.

Tigers manager Phil Garner admitted yesterday that Weaver's learning experience in 1999 was “tougher than most (young) guys.” Despite reaching the Tigers so quickly,Weaver won six of his first nine starts, posting a 6-3 record and 2.89 ERA.

Weaver then went 13 consecutive starts without a victory, going 0-6 with seven no-decisions, including a stretch of five straight no-decisions featuring a sparkling 3.00 ERA. He pitched a credible 1632/3 innings and finished with a 9-12 record as a rookie.

“It's how you deal with the ups and downs that makes you better,” said Weaver, who doesn't turn 24 until August. “You get into situations where you try to do too much. I learned from my mistakes and became a better pitcher.”

Weaver opened last season with the Triple-A Mud Hens as the Tigers utilized a four-pitcher rotation early. He finished 2000 leading the Tigers in innings pitched (200), and was second on the team in wins (11), games started (30) and strikeouts (136). His ERA dropped more than a run from the pervious year, to 4.32.

The Tigers selected Weaver 14th overall in the June 1998 draft. The White Sox drafted Weaver the previous year, but failed to sign him.

Tigers director of scouting and player development Greg Smith scouted Weaver several times in college before recommending him to GM Randy Smith (no relation).

“We saw Jeff as a pitcher who faced a lot of challenges at Fresno State,” Greg Smith said. “He was a walk-on who had to earn a scholarship. He dealt with adversity and didn't let it deter him. We determined that he could pitch well in the majors and pitch well quickly.”

Weaver has been dominant in his last six starts. In a 3-0 win at Cleveland last week, Weaver struck out 10 and allowed six hits in nearly eight innings.

Right now, fan favorite Bobby Higginson is the identity of the Tigers. Higgy is a good guy, good player. But in another couple of years, Weaver will be the backbone of the franchise.

I wonder if the White Sox would sign Weaver now if they had the chance. I bet they would.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at jharris@theblade.com.



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