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Friday, July 11, 2014
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Published: Friday, 7/13/2001

Rushing young pitchers has hurt the Tigers

The losses don't tell the complete story about what's wrong with the Detroit Tigers.

No, the losses are the result of a much larger problem.

It's not Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark or down-on-his luck reliever Todd Jones.

It's not the manager either. Phil Garner may very well be the best man for the job, although sooner or later he's going to have to start winning games on a consistent basis.

Detroit's attempts to escape mediocrity can't be pinned down to any one aspect.

A lot of things have gone wrong with the Tigers under general manager Randy Smith, but I can't think of anything worse than Smith's insistence on rushing promising young pitchers to the big leagues.

Last week the Tigers released 27-year-old left-hander Sean Runyan, who set a major league rookie record with 88 appearances in 1998.

Runyan had shoulder surgery after the '98 season and again during the '99 season. He made it back after his second surgery, but pitched in only three games for the Tigers last year, and was 0-1 with an 8.44 ERA in 11 outings with the Triple-A Mud Hens this year.

“It looked like he had a chance to be a very good relief pitcher,” Smith told reporters. “But looking back at it, he was overused his first year.”

The Tigers, who were short on left-handed relievers, overworked Runyan, who admitted later that his shoulder was hurting toward the end of his rookie year and that he probably should have stopped pitching while experiencing discomfort.

Runyan was not a homegrown product, so his departure isn't as potentially damaging as the loss of right-hander Seth Greisinger, the club's first-round draft pick in 1996 (sixth overall). Last month, Greisinger, 25, said doctors told him there's a chance he may never pitch again.

What went wrong? Once again, the Tigers rushed one of their young pitchers. Too many innings, too soon.

Greisinger pitched 159 innings in 28 starts with Double-A Jacksonville in '97 and struck out 105 while finishing with a 10-3 record.

In '98, his first season with the Tigers, Greisinger pitched 130 innings, third among American League rookies, and made 21 starts in finishing 6-9. However, he was sidelined for the entire '99 season after undergoing “Tommy John” elbow surgery (ligament transplant), and has yet to pitch in another game.

Thank goodness that Jeff Weaver, a 24-year-old right-hander and the Tigers' 1998 No. 1 draft pick, hasn't suffered a similar fate.

Weaver has a 27-35 record in 21/2 seasons and will likely pitch 200 innings for the second straight year.

Not surprisingly, Weaver - who was rushed to the majors and battled fatigue for the second half of his rookie season - has experienced a decline in his fastball. After throwing consistently in the 90s, Weaver has been clocked in the high 80s on several occasions.

In another example of what's wrong with the Tigers, right-hander Erik Hiljus, who posted a 5-3 record with 81 strikeouts in 701/3 innings with the Mud Hens last year, signed a minor-league contract with Oakland and recorded 108 strikeouts in 1012/3 innings with the A's Triple-A club before being called up last month. In his first start with Oakland, Hiljus, 28, fanned 10 in a win over Texas.

All teams make mistakes.

But the best teams make more good decisions than bad ones.

When will we be able to say that about the Tigers?

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



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