Saturday, March 18, 2006

Grilli Still Aiming for Spot in Rotation

Jason Grilli ended the 2005 season as an emergency fifth starter for the Tigers and now has a chance to win the job outright in 2006. The four pitchers still in the running for the fifth spot in the rotation are Grilli, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya and Roman Colon. Wil Ledezma, who has continued to struggle this spring, is likely no longer a candidate.

Verlander is still the favorite to win the job but Grilli has not hurt his chances this spring. After his 4 shutout innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers today, he now has a 1.23 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. This includes 4 2/3 innings of shutout ball pitching for Italy in the WBC. If the 29 year old right-hander does not make the team as a starter, he has a chance to secure a bullpen role. He is out of options and his performance so far this spring might make it difficult for him to clear waivers.

After a very successful college career for Seton Hall, Grilli’s professional career has been a long frustrating journey. The San Francisco Giants selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 1997 amateur draft and signed him to a 1.875 million dollar signing bonus. At that time, Grilli was a power pitcher with a 92-94 fastball, hard curve and promising change-up (STATS 1999 Scouting Notebook).

He pitched well in his first professional action for AA Shreveport in 1998 and earned a promotion to AAA Fresno less than one year after signing his contract. He struggled in AAA but was still considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game. In July, 1999, he was traded with Nate Bump, another promising young pitcher, to the Florida Marlins for Livan Hernandez. Most of his time with the Marlins was spent fighting a series of injuries which ultimately lead to Tommy John surgery in 2002.

The Chicago White Sox tried to salvage his career when they chose him in the 2003 Rule 5 draft but he had a miserable year in 2004 both with the White Sox and with AAA Charlotte. Finally, the Tigers signed him to a minor league contract in February, 2005. Now more of a finesse pitcher than a power pitcher, he pitched 167 innings for Toledo posting a modest 4.09 ERA along with 120 strikeouts and 58 bases on balls.

With the Tigers reeling and the pitching staff plagued by injuries, he was re-called in the middle of September and pitched well in two starts and one relief appearance. In his first start, he gave up just 2 hits in 7 innings in a 7-1 victor over the Seattle Mariners. He received a lot of cheers that night but his biggest supporter in the audience was his father Steve who pitched in 69 games (mostly as a reliever) for the Tigers between 1975-1977. The father is now hoping to see a lot more of his son pitching in Comerica Park this year.

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