LAKELAND, Fla. - The Detroit Tigers haven't had a true ace on their pitching staff in more than a decade.
Not since Jack Morris filed for free agency after the 1990 season.
That could change in the not-so-distant future.
The Tigers' braintrust believes that Jeff Weaver, a 24-year-old right-hander and former first-round draft pick, has the potential to become the team's ace.
“I definitely want to be the ace of the staff,” Weaver was saying yesterday during a rare off-day during spring training. “Hopefully, at some point this year, I will be able to assume that role. I definitely feel more comfortable than I have in a while. I know what I have to do to get ready.”
Weaver was the 14th selection overall in the 1998 major league draft after winning 33 games and striking out a school-record 477 batters in three seasons at Fresno State.
No one disputed Weaver's credentials - then or now.
“I agree that he'll be a No. 1 pitcher,” general manager Randy Smith said. “But whether it will be in 2001, I don't know.”
Weaver, 6-5 and 200 pounds, was rushed to the majors three years ago after making just six minor league starts - including one at Double-A Jacksonville - as Detroit's pitching staff was beset by injuries. He finished with a 9-12 mark and wore down as the season wore on.
Weaver, who is signed through this season, began last year as the Tigers' No. 5 starter. He eventually finished second on the team in wins (11), starts (30) and strikeouts (136), while walking just 52 batters.
Overall, Weaver has a 20-27 major league record with a 4.88 earned-run average.
“He's impressive,” manager Phil Garner said yesterday. “He's a kid. He's going to get better and better. He's not there yet, but there's nothing not to like. He has great stuff. He's got a great demeanor.”
Garner has selected Weaver to start the Tigers' April 3 season-opener against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Veteran Brian Moehler started the last two openers for Detroit.
“It's a great honor, but it caught me a little bit off-guard,” said Weaver, who was not on the Tigers' Opening Day roster the past two seasons. “Mentally, I'm ready to start the season right now.”
Weaver, who already has made 59 major league starts, insists he isn't afraid of the extra pressure that comes with being considered Detroit's ace.
“People might say there is pressure, but all these expectations that other people are having about me, I have the same feelings. I'm expecting some big things out of myself.”
Weaver has been the talk of spring training, especially around Joker Marchant Stadium. He is 2-0 and has allowed just five hits and one earned run in 10 innings - an ERA of 0.90.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” pitching coach Dan <$eb>Warthen said. “Jeff has thrown the ball quite well. It looks like he's ready to take it to the next step and be a big winner for us.”
Catcher Mitch Meluskey also has been impressed with Weaver's makeup and mechanics.
“He has a take-charge attitude on the mound that only the good ones have,” Meluskey said. “I never faced him, and hopefully never will. I don't like to get embarrassed.”
Brad Ausmus had been Weaver's primary catcher the past two seasons, but he was dealt to the Houston Astros in the off-season, along with pitchers Nelson Cruz and Doug Brocail. In return, the Tigers got Meluskey, outfielder Roger Cedeno and pitcher Chris Holt.
Weaver said he hasn't had any trouble adjusting to Meluskey or his backup, veteran Scott Servais.
“It took an adjustment period for the first year with Brad,” Weaver said.
“I think I can handle this quicker than I did with Brad. I know myself a little better now, so I can relay the information to Mitch much quicker than I did to Brad in my first year.”
It wasn't all that long ago that Weaver would lose his cool and his focus on the mound, either when his teammates made a bad play behind him or the umpires squeezed the strike zone.
Warthen and Garner addressed the issues with Weaver.
“We wanted him to improve his demeanor on the mound and not let things affect him, or outwardly affect him, as much,” Garner said. “I think he's more polished now.”
Weaver still likes to pitch inside. He hit 15 batters last year, tops in the American League. Boston ace Pedro Martinez hit 14.
“I have been able to work on how to focus those frustrations on the hitter that's coming up to bat instead of putting the pressure on myself,” Weaver said.
Garner is expected to announce his starting rotation today, and he said he plans to start the year with 11 pitchers.
Although Weaver is his ace, Garner didn't want to pin all of the Tigers' hopes on Weaver having a breakout year.
“You have to have some guys to win,” Garner said. “But I think you have to have a supporting cast too. You have to have everybody.”