LAKELAND, Fla. -- The wind whipping across Florida on Friday morning led Tigers pitchers to throw their mound sessions indoors. Off in the far corner of the cages, a young right-hander had a good amount of attention as he fired fastballs to his catcher.
And as Franklin Perez talked about his latest throwing session, it was hard for him to hold back a smile.
"I feel fantastic," Perez said through translator Carlos Guillen. "This is one of the best moments for us as pitchers, focusing on improving our pitches instead of rehabilitating and getting back to business. It feels great to be back here."
The irony of that last sentence is that Perez has spent the vast majority of his Tigers tenure in Lakeland. Two and a half years have passed since Perez was the headline prospect the club received from the Astros in the Justin Verlander trade. Perez has thrown 27 innings in the Tigers' organization, all based out of Lakeland in either the Class A Advanced Florida State League or the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
When Perez hasn't been pitching, he has been injured or rehabbing, mainly in Lakeland. A right lat strain in Spring Training delayed his 2018 debut in the Tigers' organization until July. By month's end, he was shelved for the season with right shoulder inflammation. He returned last year in big league camp and threw an impressive inning in Grapefruit League play before right shoulder tendinitis delayed his season. Perez came back twice, with two Class A starts a month apart. Both times, he felt soreness and went back on the injured list. His 3 2/3 innings on June 18 marked his last time on a mound for the year.
Perez didn't have surgery, just a cortisone injection. What he had was time to recoup and regroup.
"We just want him ready for Spring Training," general manager Al Avila said at the Winter Meetings in December.
Perez took that time seriously. His personal trainer has worked with him since his teenage years in Venezuela. He worked in Lakeland with the Tigers' athletic training and medical staffs. Beyond rehab, he worked on nutrition, finding a diet to foster better healing
"I would say it's been very, very productive," Perez said.
What Perez won't say is frustration. Whether or not his body has been healthy, his mindset has.
"From all the bad things, you learn something good," he said, "so I'm taking things positive. During this, I've been able to learn myself even better, know my body composition even better, and that's what I'm focused on trying to be ready for Spring Training."
By all indications -- very early indications -- Perez is ready. That doesn't mean he'll be without restrictions. Even if healthy, he'll have innings limits. But as he throws off the mound, the easy motion, the pitching arsenal all still seem to be there behind the formidable body frame.
Two years after he was ranked as the Tigers' top prospect, Perez still has a chance to approach his potential, having just turned 22 years old in December. He's seven months younger than top prospect Casey Mize, and 54 days older than Matt Manning.
At this point, though, Perez isn't thinking that far ahead. He just wants to keep this healthy feeling going.
"Right now, I feel normal. I feel OK," Perez said. "I know I've been having setbacks and injuries in years before, but right now I feel completely normal. In fact, when I'm doing bullpen [sessions], I'm focusing on my mindset getting ready for Spring Training. I think I can throw normally. I think I can throw in games, and I'm just getting ready for that."