Joey Wentz is a 6-foot-5 left-hander with a quiet demeanor and an even-keeled temperament. He will not be mistaken for a professional infielder anytime soon.
And yet, when the Tigers took the field for the normally mundane drill of pitchers fielding practice one morning a few days ago, his enthusiasm caught the attention of new manager A.J. Hinch.
“I’ve never seen a pitcher happier to do PFP in the first couple days of camp than a rehabbing pitcher like Joey Wentz,” Hinch said.
After a year of working out in the weight room, not picking up a baseball after Tommy John surgery, Wentz can be happy about anything he can do on the field. But the Tigers' No. 9 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is overjoyed at being back at Spring Training, where his troubles began last year.
“I can’t even explain it, because you miss it so much,” Wentz said on a Saturday afternoon video conference with reporters. “Even like putting the jersey back on was refreshing. [There are] definitely things I appreciate now that maybe before, you don’t so much look forward to.
“... Mentally it’s just nice, because it’s hard to just continue to rehab. It gets a little monotonous. So it’s definitely been a breath of fresh air to be back in a team environment.”
Plenty of pitching prospects have gone through Tommy John surgery and the year-long rehab process that follows the reconstruction of elbow ligaments. Fewer went through it last year when baseball was shut down for four months.
What is usually a busy Tigertown complex in the summer, bustling with prospects, was nearly deserted last year with no Minor League season. Wentz wasn’t just away from baseball, he was isolated from a lot of people during his daily routine. Not until instructional league in October did he see many faces.
Wentz isn’t cleared to pitch with his fellow Tigers campers, but he can do just about everything else. He can’t get on a mound and throw a bullpen session, but when he climbed the slope of a bullpen mound and played catch, it marked his first time throwing off anything other than flat ground since the surgery.
He made just 15 throws, but they were important ones.
“It was awesome, super cool,” Wentz said. “It’s something you miss as a player, just getting out there. Obviously with Tommy John, it’s a big process and there’s a new step after a couple weeks. And that was a big step, to get back out there.”
It keeps him right on schedule. The Tigers haven’t announced a timetable for Wentz’s return, but general manager Al Avila said they’re hoping to have him back pitching later this season. Wentz hopes to be pitching somewhere in the Tigers' system by midseason.
“I think I’ll be back on a roster sometime maybe late May or June,” he said, “but I’ll have to start facing hitters I think in late April and some rehab games in May.”
Where he does that might depend on how the rest of the Tigers’ promising pitchers are doing. If Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning are filling out the rotation at Triple-A Toledo in preparation for midseason callups, or if the Tigers need to use Mud Hens slots to keep other pitchers ready, Wentz could return to Double-A Erie, where he finished out the 2019 season after arriving from the Braves in the Shane Greene trade. If the Tigers have their pitching in Detroit sorted out, they could have flexibility to use spots in Toledo for development for the 23-year-old Wentz, who didn’t have much trouble with Eastern League hitters on his way to a 2-0 record, 2.10 ERA and 37 strikeouts over 25 2/3 innings in Erie.
Those numbers put Wentz in the conversation with then-rotation mates Mize, Manning and Skubal. Hinch wants to group them together again.
“I keep telling him, ‘Eventually, we’ve got to stop talking about just Manning, Mize and Skubal in whatever order,'” Hinch said Friday. “'Eventually, we’d like to add a name to that. And once you’re healthy, you’re going to be very much a part of this, this young pitching core that we’re developing.'”
• Though Wily Peralta was mainly a short reliever in Kansas City, Hinch said the just-signed right-hander wants to compete for a longer role with the Tigers, more like his earlier days as a starter in Milwaukee. Peralta isn’t expected in camp for a while due to visa paperwork and intake testing.
• Right-handed prospect Franklin Perez was cleared to enter the Tigers' complex Saturday as he makes his way through the intake protocol. “Not an active participant yet,” Hinch said, “but we’re getting so close to getting him back into activity. And he’s ready to go.”
• Hinch said he does not expect to have the full roster in attendance for the first full-squad workout Monday due to travel and intake matters, but he does have Miguel Cabrera, who was an early arrival to camp on Saturday and was on the back fields for defensive work. Other early arrivals include Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro and Zack Short.