LAKELAND, Florida — Every year, Justin Verlander's birthday falls right around the start of spring training, and this time it was the same day as his team's first official workout for pitchers and catchers.
"I woke up early today and couldn't get back to sleep," he said. "It's like the first day of school."
Verlander turned 32 on Friday, and perhaps no Detroit player better exemplifies the challenge the Tigers face this year.
Four seasons ago, the hard-throwing right-hander was the American League's MVP, helping his team start a streak of division titles that's still going.
Now, Verlander is coming off one of the worst years of his career, showing signs of wear and tear while his franchise tries its best to keep its window of opportunity as a championship contender open.
This season may go a long way toward forecasting what the rest of Verlander's career will look like — and how much longer Detroit's run atop the AL Central will last.
"I've seen him throw a bullpen and I've watched him play long-toss since I've been down here — I got down here a little bit early," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "I'm pretty excited about what I'm seeing right now. He looks a lot stronger. He has had a full offseason, and knowing him, I expect a big year out of him."
At this time last year, Verlander was methodically working his way back from core muscle repair surgery that had interrupted his offseason.
Verlander was ready by opening day, but although he surpassed 200 innings for the eighth straight year, the 6-foot-5 workhorse went only 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA.
It's hard to say how much of that can be blamed on any lingering effects from his operation. Perhaps Verlander could have taken more time to return after surgery, but he says he has no regrets. The Tigers won their fourth straight division title by the slimmest of margins — one game over Kansas City.
"My job is to pitch. It wasn't the way I'd like to pitch but I did it. Who knows if it would have been any better if I'd taken a couple more weeks?" Verlander said.
"There's no way I can say I wish I did because I don't know if it would have helped. I know I take pride in getting out there on the mound. That's what I wanted to do and I did it," he said.
Manager Brad Ausmus hopes a more normal offseason will help Verlander.
"It's been important to him physically, but I think it's been probably just as important to him mentally. He seems to be in a great frame of mind," Ausmus said. "He feels good physically, which is why he's in a great frame of mind mentally. We're banking on Justin to bounce back."
Verlander is signed through at least 2019, so the Tigers have a lot invested in both his immediate and long-term future.
Verlander is 28-24 with a 3.99 ERA, along with 376 strikeouts and 140 walks, in two seasons since signing a $180 million, seven-year contract. Prior to that deal, he was 124-65 with a 3.40 ERA, with 1,454 strikeouts and 470 walks.
Even if he no longer hits 100 mph on the radar gun in the late innings, Detroit needs Verlander to be productive.
In 2013, he went through some ups and downs, but he still finished with a 3.46 ERA and was phenomenal in the playoffs. If he can return at least to that level of effectiveness, the Tigers will have an easier time withstanding the loss of star right-hander Max Scherzer, who left via free agency.
"I've obviously thrown a lot more now than I had at this time last year," Verlander said. "So obviously that helps. Just the combination of strength, being able to throw, just everything — a normal offseason."
Now, Verlander and the Tigers will find out more about what the new normal is. Friday was a day to acknowledge that the right-hander is another year older — but also a day full of hope and anticipation of what a new season might bring.
"It feels great," Verlander said. "A lot of hard work. I worked my butt off. Hopefully it translates. So far, so good."
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