‘I can’t give it up’: At 29, Tigers RHP A.J. Ladwig still chasing big-league call

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — This wasn’t part of the dream.

When he was drafted by the Tigers in the 11th round back in 2014, the last thing right-hander A.J. Ladwig could’ve imagined eight years down the road was being 29 and humping it through another minor-league minicamp.

But here he is.

“It (calling it quits) was definitely a thought in the back of my head at times,” Ladwig said after his workout Thursday. “But I just, I can’t give it up. I still have that drive, still have the will to be there. And honestly, I just love being out here with everybody and being part of a team.”

Here’s the kicker. He’s pitched well at every level. Between 2015 and 2017, the sturdy 6-5, 220-pounder made 70 starts and won 34 games over four minor-league rungs (Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A). He averaged 144.3 innings with an ERA just over 4.0, averaging 96 strikeouts and 21 walks.

He threw 133 more innings in 2018 between Erie and Toledo, posting 10 more wins and putting himself in the conversation for big-league camp in 2019. That didn’t happen and on the final day of minor-league spring training he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm.

He wouldn’t pitch again for two years.

“I was supposed to leave the next day when I hurt my elbow,” he said. “I had (Tommy John) surgery April 12, 2019. Then 2020 came and two weeks before I was supposed to throw my first bullpen, we got sent home (COVID-19 pandemic). It’s been a rollercoaster.”

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As he grinded through the rehab and endured the isolation of 2020, he cheered as a parade of his former teammates achieved what remains for him a Holy Grail — a callup to the big leagues.

Joe Jimenez and Spencer Turnbull made the climb from his short-season rookie ball team in Connecticut in 2014. Artie Lewicki and Spenser Watkins made it off his 2015 low-A team in West Michigan. Tyler Alexander, Matt Hall, Zac Reininger, Warwick Saupold, his running mates at high-A Lakeland in 2016 all made the show. Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Kyle Funkhouser, John Schreiber, Anthony Castro, Matt Manning, Drew Carlton, teammates from the 2018 Double-A Erie team have all got that call that still haunts, taunts and eludes Ladwig.

But he can’t let go of it.

“Just to make it, you know?” he said, when ask what motivates him to keep chasing the dream. “I just love being around the clubhouse, being around the guys, coming here every year putting in the work — just to be able to say I made it. Give myself a chance to be up there and to stay up there.”

Ladwig made 21 starts at Double-A Erie, posting a 4.80 ERA, elevated by a career-high 23 home run balls, and a solid 1.17 WHIP. He finished the year with seven innings of scoreless relief at Toledo.

“It was more getting my feet back under me again,” he said. “Going through the everyday stuff, playing catch every day, just getting back into baseball shape, getting a feel for the off-speed pitches. But I was happy with last season. I made it through a full season.”

Ladwig has lived through the entire evolution of the Tigers’ player development system. From the old-school dark ages and crumbling facilities to the fully refurbished facility at Tiger Town with better food, a fleet of young instructors and a whole new world of developmental technology at his disposal.

“I feel kind of like a new guy coming in, basically, with all the new guys that are here now,” Ladwig said. “We have a great staff here. They are all friendly, all willing to put in the work for you, willing to do anything you need, really.”

More: ‘It’s all good:’ Ex-Tiger Niko Goodrum not bitter about the past, pumped for future

It’s a far cry from 2016 when the renovations were being made at TigerTown. Ladwig and his Lakeland Flying Tigers teammates played their home games at Florida Southern. They’d have to get dressed in the cramped old locker room, which has since been demolished, and then bus 30-40 minutes depending on traffic to play their home games.

“That was an eye opener,” he said. “We faced adversity most of that year, but we made it through and we had fun.”

The housing is much better these days. Transportation is better. Minor league players will be paid more per diem for food and other expenses. The facilities are infinitely better.

“They’re making strides in the right direction,” Ladwig said, wistfully. “Wish it would’ve been a little sooner.”

Ladwig came back last season after a two-year absence with essentially the same arsenal of pitches he’s always had — low-90s four-seam fastball, slider and change-up, sprinkling in the occasional curveball. He may not look the same in 2022.

More: Tigers hope they’ve struck Rule 5 gold with late-blooming RHP Nick Kuzia

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? He’s added a two-seam fastball and a no-seam fastball to his mix.

“The no-seam is like a regular fastball but it has a little drop to it,” he said. “I want to see how it plays out. I’m still throwing in the low-90s but I want to get that up a tick and keep it there.”

He may be the second oldest player in this camp — second to 30-year-old German-born pitcher Markus Solbach — but his zest for the game and the hunger to finally get that call to the highest level of his profession are second to none.

“I feel like I’m right there,” he said. “I just need to keep working and get up there. I still dream about it, all the time.”


Twitter: @cmccosky

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