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Zimmermann pain free, hoping to rebound in '19

Righty has struggled with neck, back pain for years; Cowart, Hardy offer Tigers flexibility
January 25, 2019

DETROIT -- Jordan Zimmermann usually has had his share of ice fishing by the time he arrives in Michigan for the annual Tigers Winter Caravan. He makes his offseason home in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up, and he actually enjoys winter.This offseason, however, Zimmermann set out for the sunshine

DETROIT -- Jordan Zimmermann usually has had his share of ice fishing by the time he arrives in Michigan for the annual Tigers Winter Caravan. He makes his offseason home in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up, and he actually enjoys winter.
This offseason, however, Zimmermann set out for the sunshine with more important things to do. The fact that he has been throwing at the Tigers' Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., for the last couple weeks says plenty about how he's feeling at this point, and how important the season ahead is for him.
"I'm outside throwing long toss," Zimmermann said. "I'll probably [start throwing from] the mound next week sometime."
Zimmermann has completed the rehab from core muscle surgery last October, and the neck and back restrictions that have plagued the veteran right-hander since his first season in Detroit aren't an issue right now.
Zimmermann has received nerve block injections to alleviate tightness in his neck and back the last few seasons. They had become so routine that he planned one around the start of Spring Training last year to allow him to potentially get through a season pain free.
This year, Zimmermann said there's no pain, and he has no nerve block shots scheduled.
"I haven't felt any tightness or anything, so I'm just going to let it be," Zimmermann said. "It doesn't pay to mess with it if everything's feeling good. This is the best I've felt in a long time. I'm excited to get out there and hopefully be able to put up 32, 33 starts this year."
If he does, it'll be the first time Zimmermann has made 30 starts in a season as a Tiger. He made just 25 last year thanks to a right shoulder impingement that landed him on the disabled list in May.
Zimmermann's best stretch last season came right before and after that DL stint. He looked like a potential comeback story in the first half of last season, going 4-0 with a 3.51 ERA before July 11, but he went on to post a 3-8 record and 5.28 ERA over his final 14 starts.

An effective curveball was crucial for Zimmermann during this stretch, giving hitters an offspeed pitch to worry about. The pitch ranged from inconsistent to ineffective to nonexistent down the stretch.
The healthier Zimmermann remains, the more he can focus on his pitching. Just as important for the Tigers, the more innings Zimmermann can provide, the less burden falls on their bullpen or their younger starters.
Tigers take flyer on two-way player Cowart
Sometimes, it pays to pay attention to semantics. The Tigers' waiver claim Thursday on Kaleb Cowart was one such occasion.
On Twitter, the Mariners announced the move as infielder/pitcher Cowart being claimed, a nod to Seattle's initial plan to give Cowart a chance to pitch along with his previous utility role. The Tigers later followed suit with the two-way label, which could provide some intrigue in camp next month.

The 26-year-old Cowart was a highly rated pitcher in high school in Georgia before focusing on playing the field after being selected in the first round of the 2010 Draft by the Angels. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was familiar with Cowart's background when Seattle claimed Cowart off waivers from the Angels last month, and he told beat writers that he saw Cowart as a potential super-utility player who could pitch out of the bullpen.
"We tried to do this with Kaleb for a bit back in 2014, and during that season, we put him on the bump and without having pitched since high school, it's 94 to 95 mph," Dipoto told Mariners' reporters last month, according to colleague Greg Johns. "He's recently begun doing that again with the Angels, and the results have been the same. He's 91-96 mph."

Detroit was one of the few teams to not use a position player to pitch in a game last year, partly the result of having an eight-man bullpen for stretches. Still, the Tigers, who had a 40-man roster spot open up with Gregory Soto's suspension by MLB last week, will explore it.
Hardy ready for whatever role
While Cowart joins the Tigers looking to utilize his versatility, Blaine Hardy was the most versatile pitcher on Detroit's roster last season, making 13 starts and 17 relief appearances. The left-hander said Thursday that he hasn't been told whether to prepare as a starter or reliever this spring, but he's keeping himself ready for either role.

"I'm going to try to extend myself a little bit to prepare for if I need to take over one of the starting roles," Hardy said. "And if I get bumped back to a bullpen role, it's no big deal. It's a lot of harder to go from bullpen to starter than starter to bullpen."
Hardy might not be the only Tigers pitcher in that situation. Daniel Norris looks like he's on the outside looking in on a rotation spot with Matt Moore and Tyson Ross in camp, but Norris will stretch out and compete as a starter.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.