Notes: Valuing bullpen sessions

Notes: Valuing bullpen sessions

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The mitts pop. The pitches dart into the dirt or off the plate. Front-office members and coaches watch intently.

But how much do the Tigers really learn from bullpen sessions early in Spring Training? In the grand scheme of making out a pitching staff, not a whole lot, but it's still a start for manager Jim Leyland to learn about young arms. So when Leyland points out that he's impressed with one pitcher or another, it's all relative.

"That's why I've never been real big on sideline [sessions], because you can't really tell," Leyland said. "You don't really know what's going to happen. I always use the example that when they put the extra two tiers on the stadium and David Ortiz stands in, it's a heckuva lot different than throwing a sideline at Tiger Town.

"But at least you can see the equipment that they have. If they can take that to the mound and take it to those situations, that's what separates Major Leaguers from Minor Leaguers."

At least for the early bullpen sessions, more established pitchers tend to dial it back, both on velocity and on pitch selection.

"The most important part of the first few sessions is just finding your release point," Kenny Rogers said. "If you've been going off the mound 10 times already [this spring], you're getting a solid foundation. But a lot of us came here and we really didn't have a whole lot of mound work before we got here. The first few times, you're going to be all over the place, no matter who you are. But if you're a guy who knows how to locate, knows how to pitch, it's going to come quicker than others. But for me, I'm trying to back off enough to where I get a feel for the slope before you try to ask more of yourself."

It's a lesson Joel Zumaya learned firsthand. When he was trying to make an impression last spring, he took to the practice mound firing with fastballs at around game speed. Coaches tried to have him take something off his practice pitches, but he didn't know how.

He now has a better idea, thanks to all of the times he warmed up in the bullpen over the regular season.

"I'm slowing it up a little bit," Zumaya said. "Half the time when I got called up in the bullpen, I'd go 100 percent, and sometimes, I wouldn't even get into the game. And I'd be wasting pitches out there."

Catcher Vance Wilson is on the receiving end of all kinds of sessions, from veterans to would-be rookies, established arms with jobs to non-roster invitees.

"Really, at this point, you can't tell a lot," Wilson said. "Some guys do really good about throwing strikes in the bullpen. Then you get a hitter in there, and then they try to do too much. You really have to wait for the games. That's the big thing. You can tell a little bit of the movement in the bullpen, but you can't really tell [how hitters would react]."

Big pitch for Bondo: One established arm making something out of his sessions is Jeremy Bonderman, whose work on an offspeed pitch has begun. Leyland said he saw 10 changeups from Bonderman in Sunday's bullpen session, and eight were "outstanding."

"He's going to figure it out," Leyland said. "And when he figures it out, that's just another weapon."

Casey at the clubhouse: Sean Casey took a one-year contract and a pay cut over what he might have had on the open market because he badly wanted to come back to the Tigers. So it was no surprise that he was all smiles when he walked into the clubhouse on Monday.

"I wanted to come back here -- I really did," Casey said. "I wanted to come back to what was going on here with Jim Leyland and all these guys. I just really felt comfortable here. For me, it was just a matter of wanting to play here."

As for the money, Casey said, "For me, it wasn't about going to get a little bit more somewhere else and not be happy. I've made a lot of money in my career. This is my 10th year, and I know a good team when I see it. And that was just it for me. I really wasn't looking to break the bank or anything like that. I wanted to come back here."

The unofficial reporting date for position players is Tuesday, but Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco are the only regulars who haven't yet appeared. The first full-squad workout is Wednesday.

Workout wrapup: Better weather on Monday allowed Leyland to conduct situational defensive drills on the practice fields. It's another day of drills, but it works into Leyland's theme of disciplined, orderly, efficient workouts -- working smart as opposed to just working hard.

"I just believe that disciplined teams have a tendency to win close games," Leyland said. "And I think it starts with the organization overall. I like [camp] run precisely, and I want everybody to run where they're supposed to be. I don't want them to be waiting for anybody, and I don't want anybody waiting for an instructor."

Ticket update: Ticket sales for Spring Training games are about 70 percent above the level they stood at this point last year, according to Lakeland Flying Tigers general manager Ron Myers. The March 10 game against the Red Sox is sold out, while games against the Yankees in the final week are nearly sold out.

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