Ledezma to get his shot

Tigers have high hopes for Ledezma in 2007

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers aren't necessarily looking for Wilfredo Ledezma to emerge as the replacement for Jamie Walker. They want him to focus on being Wilfredo Ledezma.

As pitchers begin throwing, Ledezma looks like someone who believes in himself.

The Tigers aren't harping so much on defining Ledezma's role as they are refining his game. The young lefty could fit anywhere from an insurance starter if someone is injured to a middle reliever to possibly even a left-handed specialist if he's the only southpaw in the bullpen.

Yet whatever role he falls into, he'll need to concentrate on the hitter, throw strikes generally and throw his breaking ball around the strike zone specifically. That was the big step last season that helped him return to the big leagues. Now, it's the next step towards getting himself established in the Majors.

"I was really impressed with him," manager Jim Leyland said, "and he got us some big outs last year. I'm hoping that he can continue to take that step forward, because he's on his way. His thing was probably the ability to concentrate on a consistent basis when something didn't go right, and I think he got better at that last year."

A year ago, Ledezma's struggles to locate his pitches proved his undoing in Spring Training. He was an early cut out of Major League camp, and he ended up in the rotation at Triple-A Toledo, the same place where his 2005 season ended. A gem of a Rule 5 pick back in 2003 and a Futures Game pitcher in 2004, he was on the outside of the Tigers pitching staff looking in.

But the one major difference between 2005 and 2006 was his health. A once-tender arm was strong, and it allowed him to snap off sharper pitches. But he needed to challenge with it.

"It wasn't so much the delivery as much as he was feeling better physically," Tigers bullpen coach and then-Toledo pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "He realized that he needed to get better to get a chance to come back. He really worked hard from Day 1. We sat down in Spring Training and talked about the command of his fastball first, then we started working on the breaking ball."

Once the breaking ball improved, the rest of his game became tougher. He struck out 38 batters over 29 2/3 innings for the Mud Hens last April, including 12 strikeouts in one six-inning performance. After picking up where he left off following a brief DL stint with a right oblique strain, he was back in the big leagues by mid-June.

His performances from there ranged from lefty-specific situations, such as two-thirds of an inning in a late win over the Cardinals on June 25, to long work like 4 2/3 innings of relief in a July 22 loss to the A's. But he hit his stride in August, when his 22-inning scoreless streak was the best by any Tiger all season.

The young pitcher who relied on changing speeds had his movement back, and hitters -- especially left-handers -- struggled to adjust.

"That pitch helped me a lot last year," Ledezma said. "I learned. I made a lot of outs last year with that pitch, because it was consistent."

By the stretch run, he was in the rotation, filling the void when Mike Maroth's return was put on hold. He didn't dominate, but his ability to work with trouble on base made an impression on his new manager.

"I found out a lot about him last year, a lot that I really liked," Leyland said. "Maturity's a great thing, and I think he took great strides last year in learning how to concentrate on the situation at hand, pitch by pitch. I think that's something he couldn't do before. Before if he threw a breaking ball that wasn't a real good one, it frustrated him and he got out of whack a little bit. Now he's starting to get some poise."

It's the poise of a young hurler who jumped from Class A to the big leagues and had to grow into the role.

"Being healthy was most important. But you know, I worked with my mind, too," Ledezma said. "Those things helped me a lot last year."

With the rotation all but set as long as Maroth and the incumbents are healthy, Ledezma's poise and concentration will take on extra importance in the bullpen. If the Tigers carry one lefty reliever, it'll most likely be Ledezma, who's out of Minor League options. That could put him in a role like Walker had before leaving for Baltimore as a free agent.

"He's a big lefty pitcher," Ledezma said. "He made those outs. He has a good curveball, and I talked with him a lot."

The shorter the outings, the better Ledezma seemed to be. Opponents hit just .197 in his first 15 pitches of an outing last year, and .143 (7-for-49) over his next 15. Once he topped 30 pitches, the averages and the ERA rose dramatically.

It wasn't just a question of role, but control. The fewer the walks, the quicker the outs. In relief, aggressiveness matters, and Ledezma's breaking ball could be critical.

"I think it's going to help him a lot," Jones said. "Not to say that he's not going to get people out with his fastball, because he will, but the breaking ball is going to be something."

Until the rest of the bullpen fills out, where that breaking ball is going to come up is still in question.

"I don't care where I'm going to be," Ledezma said. "I just want to be part of this team."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.