For Tigers and Joel Zumaya, Only Thoughts of What Might Have Been

In some ways, I get it. Detroit Tigers president and General Manager Dave Dombrowski had been fooled far too many times by promises of a healthy Joel Zumaya. When the flame throwing right hander came to camp with the Tigers last year, sporting a brand new $1.4 million deal, the Tigers were counting on him to be an integral part of their late-inning bullpen.

Instead, Zumaya gave them one Spring Training appearance in early March and never saw the field again.

Yesterday, Zumaya agreed to a one-year deal with the Minnesota Twins, thus ending his tenure in Detroit.

Zumaya’s career with the Tigers has been one of the more memorable and disappointing for a player in recent memory. Zumaya burst onto the scene with a 103 mph fastball as a rookie in 2006. but that very season was the last that he’d toss more than 40 innings in a season.

Each year after that, there would be a new injury, often one that could only be described as “freak”. In 2007, there was the ruptured tendon in his middle finger, and injury suffered while warming up in the bullpen. That off-season, as he spent time at his parents’ house in Chula Vista, CA, Zumaya was helping his Dad clear boxes from the attic ahead of advancing wildfires in the area.

A large box fell on his talented right shoulder and crushed the joint. Surgery would follow and though Zoom was able to return to the mound with blazing fastball intact in 2008, the next season was cut short by a stress fracture that occurred in the joint, a result of the previous injury.

In 2010, it looked like maybe all the bad luck was behind him until that fateful June night in Minnesota. Zumaya was in the midst of his finest season since 206. He was working in his 31st game of the year, had shown the ability to mix his pitches instead of relying so heavily on his 100 mph heater.

With one delivery that night, however, Zumaya’s season and ultimately his career with the Tigers came to an end. Zumaya’s elbow had effectively exploded under the stress of the delivery of the baseball.

Though he recovered well from the surgery and reported to camp with no limitations in 2011, it didn’t take long before soreness crept up. Zoom was shut down for a week to allow the inflammation to subside. When that wasn’t long enough, they extended his hiatus. Again, the soreness remained and Zumaya eventually wound up back in the office of Dr. James Andrews.

Andrews removed the original screw that had been installed to stabilize the tip of Zumaya’s elbow and replaced it with another. For all intents and purposes, Zumaya’s season ended right there. Rehab alone would keep him out.

Last month, Zumaya threw for more than a dozen scouts in an effort to show he was healthy. The Tigers, who had stated that they would only offer a minor league deal, did not attend the workout. Though Zumaya impressed many with his session, there were scouts who wondered if Zoom could pass a physical with their club.  Finally, yesterday, Zumaya reached an agreement on a major league contract with one of those clubs; the Twins.

Zumaya will go down as one of the more tragic heroes in Tigers history, perhaps not far behind Mark Fidrych in terms of raw talent that was cut short by unfortunate events. From the ill-advised and much publicized keg stands, to the tendinitis suffered from too much Guitar Hero, Zumaya’s immaturity cost him time very early in his career. Immaturity cannot account for the injuries detailed above, however. Those are accounted for only by the fickle nature of the Baseball Gods.

Perhaps Zumaya will never again see a major league mound. At just 27 years old, that would be a shame. Maybe Zumaya will finally be able to escape the injuries of the past and put forth a full season in 2012. Maybe these past five seasons in Detroit will wind up as a mere footnote on his otherwise stellar career.

I hope so.

Zumaya is a rare talent even in a era where every club, it seems, has a bullpen full of mid-to-high-90s arms. ‘Twould be a shame if he was unable to continue his once-promising career. It’s already a shame that his journey will not continue with Detroit.

John Parent is the Director of Development for FanSided MLB and the former Editor at Motor City Bengals. You can reach him at [email protected] or on twitter @JohnJParent

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  • johnmcgeehan

    When Zumaya was coming up from the minors, where he was a starter, the common belief was that he would need to transition to relieving because he put so much stress on his arm. I wonder now if that was backwards. Perhaps had he remained a starter he would have learned to pace himself like Verlander. Curtis Granderson was interviewed recently about Verlander and explained that the 92 to 100 mph range on his fastball makes him so tough. So Verlander can cruise with the low effort 92 mph fastballs and be more effective than just throwing heat. Maybe Zumaya would have been forced to learn that as a starter and his arm would not have exploded. But we will never know. As frustrating as he has been, I hope he can pitch effectively again.


    Like you said John, I guess I understand why the Tigers finally cut bait. Regardless, I’ll miss Joel and will continue to wish him well and follow his career….even though he’s a friggin’ Twin.
    Every time I hear Voodoo Child, I can’t help but think of Zoom Zoom and the magical 2006 season!

  • timoteus

    Yeah, 100% with you guys. Hope he does well (just not against us). Very sad that he didn’t work out for us. But at a certain point – you just have to let go. Was hoping no other team would offer him a major league contract, and he’d come back to us in Spring Training. C’est la vie, I suppose ….

  • jerseycitytigerfan

    Zumaya adjusted his motion before his last injury, throwing from a much lower angle and risking elbow injury. He could no longer hit much more than the high 90′s which is great IF you know how to locate or pitch and Joel never learned either. While he might, night learn to pitch and might, might not hurt his arm again, I’d say the odds of these happening are quite small. Obvious, the Tigers’ brain trust feels the same.