March 7th, 2010

Strieby powers way to top prospect status

strieby.jpgThe first thing that stands out about Ryan Strieby is that he’s big, really big. He’s every bit of his listed size of 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. Dontrelle Willis gave him the nickname Polar Bear while they were working while they were working out at the same performance complex in Arizona this winter.

Strieby’s bat lives up every bit to his size. His two home runs so far this spring — one in the exhibition win over Florida Southern that didn’t count in the stats, the other in Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays — have both been big, wind or no wind. Whenever he connects to the ball, it seems to be with authority.

“I mean, I’m a pretty big guy,” he said, “so I guess I should have pretty good power.”

He doesn’t mean that to brag. He says it unassumingly. He considers himself a hitter rather than a power hitter, but he hits the ball hard so often.

“I guess a lot of people view me as a power hitter,” he said, “but I really don’t try to hit the ball out of the park. Try to stay up the middle and hit line drives. A lot of times, I hit the ball with backspin and it carries out of the yard.”

He hits with enough power that it’s hard not to notice him. He certainly has caught the Tigers’ attention, even before Sunday’s homer.

Manager Jim Leyland uses the term “top prospect” maybe a little more loosely than others, but he nonetheless does it with a purpose. A top prospect, by his definition, has a chance to be an everyday player in the big leagues. Strieby fits the category of top prospect.

He has the talent to hit regularly in the big leagues. Now he has to have the health to go with it. He might finally be at that point again.

The start of Strieby’s injury problems came down the stretch of his breakout 2008 season. He hit 29 home runs at Class A Lakeland, pounding the ball in what is historically a pitcher’s league with big ballparks, when he fractured the hamate bone in his left wrist down the stretch. He recovered in time for Spring Training last year in minor league camp, but had some more problems that shelved him there. He bounced back healthy early in the season, only to have his hand problems come back.

It sapped some of the power out of his frame. He had moved from spacious Joker Marchant Stadium to the cozy surroundings of Erie’s Jerry Uht Park, what should’ve been paradise for a right-handed power hitter in the summer, yet his power just about vanished once the weather warmed up. He hit 19 home runs for the season, and 12 of them came in April and May. He could still hit for average, mind you, but the power wasn’t there.

With the hand bothering him, he said, he couldn’t turn on a pitch the way he usually does.

“When the hand’s feeling good, I can turn on [the ball] a little bit more,” he said. “The pitch away is a little bit easier. When the hand’s hurting, I can go with that. But when the hand was hurting on the top side, getting my hand through on the inside pitch, that’s what was causing that pain was that movement. That’s what was making it difficult to get through the inside pitch.

Doctors found a bone fragment in his hand and almost immediately operated. He lost not only the tail end of his regular season, but his assignment to the Arizona Fall League. His good friend and Erie teammate Casper Wells made a return trip there in his place and thrived.

Now, after going through the rigors of performance training over the winter, they’re both thriving in camp. Strieby is turning on pitches, and Leyland is catching a glimpse of what he hopes could be a homegrown power hitter if he develops further at Triple-A Toledo, where he’s likely to see time.

“To be healthy, that’s the main thing,” Strieby said. “Coming in, I’m just happy with how my hand’s felt so far. That’s the No. 1 priority, to get through Spring Training healthy, especially after hurting it last year and not knowing exactly what was wrong with it, trying to play through the pain.”

The whirlwind journey of Casey Fien

Caught up today with Casey Fien, who finally seemed to be settling in after going from Tigers camp to Red Sox camp to Jays camp in just over a week. He said had just finished up his physical Sunday for the Jays, who had claimed him on waivers from the Red Sox, who had claimed Fien from the Tigers, who had designated him for assignment to make room for Johnny Damon on their 40-man roster.

“I think I lead the league in physicals,” Fien joked.

The jokes were abundant, which at least shows Fien is able to make light of it. He was assigned a jersey number from the Red Sox, but never got to wear the jersey.

“I had a number. I had 84,” Fien said. “I’m 86 here.”

He still hasn’t had a chance to wear the jersey in a game yet, but as he pointed out, at least it was still in his locker when he showed up Sunday morning. That meant his time with the Jays had outlasted his time with the Red Sox, which he estimated was about 48 hours.

“It’s not like they even saw me throw a baseball,” Fien said.

There is no evidence that he was ever a member of the Red Sox. When he got into camp and unpacked his bag, he found some Red Sox caps at the bottom. He had no use for them, so he went out to the field and gave them away to some kids who were hanging around the fence looking for autographs.

“‘I’m happy here,” Fien said. “All the guys, they’ve welcomed me, talking to me. When I was with Boston, some of the coaches, it’s not like I didn’t feel welcome, but I didn’t even meet half of them. It was just awkward for me.”

He did get to meet manager Terry Francona. About 12 hours later, he was no longer Fien’s manager.

As dizzying as it was for Fien, who drove from Lakeland to Fort Myers to Dunedin, it was just about as rough on his family, who was following from home in California.

“I called my mom, and then my mom throws it on Facebook,” Fien said. “And then, all of a sudden, when it’s on Facebook, boom, I’m getting text messages: ‘Red Sox Nation, baby!’ So everyone knew, and then I got traded over to Toronto. Called my mom again, and then everyone’s texting: ‘Blue Jay Nation! Blue Jay Nation!’

Sunday: Tigers at Blue Jays (again)

The Tigers at back at Dunedin Stadium? And Jeremy Bonderman is starting against the Jays? Is this Groundhog Day? Apparently not, considering it’s about 25 degrees warmer than Round 1 of this matchup last Wednesday.

It’s also a different lineup with more regulars. Other than the injured Brandon Inge and the healthy Miguel Cabrera, every Tigers regular is in the lineup. Guillen is starting in left field, while Johnny Damon is the DH.

TIGERS

  1. Jackson, CF
  2. Damon, DH
  3. Ordonez, RF
  4. Strieby, 1B
  5. Guillen, LF
  6. Raburn, 3B
  7. Laird, C
  8. Sizemore, 2B
  9. Everett, SS

P: Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Zach Miner, Armando Galarraga

BLUE JAYS

  1. Jose Bautista, 3B
  2. Aaron Hill, 2B
  3. Adam Lind, DH
  4. Vernon Wells, CF
  5. Randy Ruiz, 1B
  6. Jeremy Reed, RF
  7. John Buck, C
  8. Alex Gonzalez, SS
  9. Travis Snider, LF

P: Brian Tallet, Jason Frasor, Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, Shawn Camp

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