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Verlander happily takes veteran mentor role

Tigers righty keeps close eye on young pitchers, offers advice, answers
MLB.com @beckjason

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Daniel Norris has the image of a free spirit who searches for the perfect wave to surf and lived in his van last Spring Training. Justin Verlander dates a supermodel, loves to golf and owns a bevy of sports cars.

Superficially, they seem like opposites. Yet when Norris became a Tiger to finish his rookie season, he found help from a similar baseball mind.

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Daniel Norris has the image of a free spirit who searches for the perfect wave to surf and lived in his van last Spring Training. Justin Verlander dates a supermodel, loves to golf and owns a bevy of sports cars.

Superficially, they seem like opposites. Yet when Norris became a Tiger to finish his rookie season, he found help from a similar baseball mind.

Tigers' Spring Training info

"I actually had a really good conversation with Verlander in the offseason," Norris said last month. "He was like, 'Obviously I can't tell you that you're going to make the team or not, but I remember you telling me about dead arm in April last year, and I think it would be a good idea for you to prepare for 200 innings rather than 25 in March.'"

The tips continued when Norris arrived in Florida a few weeks ago to train in Lakeland. Once camp began, Verlander kept his eyes on the Tigers' young pitchers.

"Norris and [Matt] Boyd are the guys I'm around most, obviously," Verlander said. "Boyd, some people have talked about his new cutter-slider thing, and that's really good. Norris, he looks great. He's working on his changeup every day."

Tweet from @JustinVerlander: First game tomorrow! #letsgo #baseballisback #gotigers https://t.co/uWvhxq8NXC

Other young pitchers have gotten tips. Verlander gave reliever Angel Nesbitt advice on his pickoff move.

It's a different dynamic from Verlander. Once the young arm on the Tigers, could he now be the veteran mentor at age 33?

"Yes," manager Brad Ausmus said.

Former pitching coach Jeff Jones noticed something similar.

"It's good," Jones said, "because he's a veteran guy who's had a tremendous amount of success, and the guys look up to him. Any advice you can give, or leadership, is welcome."

Video: Verlander ready for another Opening Day start

For years, Verlander was better known for pushing his teammates -- competitively, not physically -- and being pushed to succeed in turn. His complicated camaraderie with Max Scherzer drove both to greatness. David Price and Verlander had a lot in common, but as Price continued his rise on his way to free agency, Verlander was struggling to find his top form -- or last year, struggling to get back to pitching.

Price's trade to the Blue Jays last July came the day after Verlander dominated the Rays, tossing eight innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts. Suddenly, a team that had the look of a strong rotation again became a team "rebooting," as then-general manager Dave Dombrowski put it.

Detroit's pitching staff became a lot younger, with Norris and Boyd in the rotation, and Bruce Rondon and Drew VerHagen in the bullpen. As well as Verlander pitched down the stretch, he couldn't keep the Tigers in it, but he could help teammates suddenly thrust into bigger roles.

Ausmus turned to key veterans to help keep up team morale. Verlander helped out, talking with young players.

"Everyone talks about growing as a player in terms of experience and physical skills," Ausmus said, "but sometimes you grow as a player in the clubhouse as well. You realize you can take on more of a role in the team's success not only between the lines but in the clubhouse."

Jones noticed Verlander's influence earlier.

Video: MLB Tonight on Verlander getting Opening Day start

"He's always been a good leader, but I think even moreso in the last year or so," Jones said. "He's taken more of a role, and it's been good. He's a smart guy and he's been through it all. He's had success. He's had some injuries. You couldn't ask for a better guy to do that."

In some ways, it's a reminder of a decade ago, when Verlander was a highly touted rookie in camp and Kenny Rogers was a 41-year-old veteran who helped him along.

For his part, Verlander said it's nothing conscious.

"I mean, I've always been available," he said. "I think we just have a few more younger starting pitchers that are willing to ask or talk to me. For years, we had all the guys that were pretty locked in and established, but it's a little different now.

"I've made it clear to them: If they have any questions, ask. If they want to work on anything, I'm here."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast.

Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander