A month after the Tigers and Cameron Maybin finally agreed on a contract, the first-round draft pick has started to show the club he was well worth the wait.
Of all the Tigers prospects who spent time in Lakeland for the fall Instructional League, Maybin was the most anticipated. The 10th overall selection in June's First-Year Player Draft was one of the last first-round picks to get on the field, mired in a lengthy contract negotiation that stalled in the summer. The two sides finally reached an agreement in late September, in part because Maybin wanted to join the team in time for instructional ball instead of spending his entire year working out on his own.
Maybin arrived in time for about three weeks of work and more than two weeks of game action. Though he showed the rust of having not played competitive games since his high school season ended last spring, his on-field skills and off-field intangibles made a first impression.
"I saw a kid that has a world of ability," Tigers Minor League field coordinator Glenn Ezell said. "I saw a kid that was not afraid to work. I saw a kid that was a very good teammate. I saw a guy whose makeup is very strong, as is his baseball ability."
Fall Instructional League works somewhat similar to Spring Training; it's an all-day affair, with workouts and drills in the morning followed by games in the afternoon. Statistics take a back seat to specifics, in terms of learning. For many Minor Leaguers, it's a chance to work on certain aspects of their game after the Class A and lower-level seasons are completed. For those who sign later, instructional ball can mark their first exposure to pro ball.
By all accounts, Maybin took to the format. On the field, he showed signs of the talent that made him the second-ranked high school player in the draft, hitting a couple of home runs and displaying a quick bat for his lanky 6-foot-4 frame. Defensively, the center fielder showed strong instincts and read the ball well off the bat.
Just as important to Ezell, the 18-year-old made an impression as a teammate. Rather than a first-round pick, Maybin was one of the guys, cheering on the rest of the team.
"The guys, they really took to him and he took to them," Ezell said. "He fit right in and was a treat to be around."
While Maybin earned his first taste of baseball as a career, Justin Verlander went to Lakeland to finish up a year that saw him rise from Class A Lakeland to the Majors in his first professional season. Sidelined since early August to rest a tired throwing shoulder, Verlander was initially expected to make a couple of game appearances to face live hitting again before he was shut down for the winter. Instead, Verlander regrouped well enough to pitch for the entire campaign.
Verlander pitched the first and last days of Instructional League, Ezell said, making a handful of starts on a regular schedule in between and throwing at full velocity. A couple of mechanical adjustments were the only tweaks made, and he's expected to report to Spring Training at full strength.
The Tigers had more good news on the injury front when Colby Lewis returned to game action. The big, hard-throwing right-hander, claimed off waivers from Texas a year ago, had been in Lakeland since Spring Training dealing with continued shoulder problems, which began with rotator cuff surgery in April 2004 and required follow-up work this summer after he was on the verge of pitching in games again.
This time, Ezell said, Lewis returned in health, making a handful of relief appearances in the Instructional League, including back-to-back innings. If he remains healthy, he could pitch in games next Spring Training.
Other players had their own points of progress. Jeff Frazier picked up his hot hitting where he left off from Class A West Michigan. Fifth-round draft pick Jeff Larish continued to show his power at the plate while honing his craft at first base. All in all, Ezell said, every player in instructional ball made progress.
"They try to make sure they learn something every day," Ezell said. "If that takes place, we're going to be a pretty good ballclub. That's why we had such a great record in the Minor Leagues [this year]. They're not afraid to work. They do what they're supposed to do. They're accepting responsibility for what they're doing. And consequently, our whole organization is getting better because of it."