Lobstein striving to make big league jump
Rule 5 Draft pick competing for spot in Tigers' bullpen
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Kyle Lobstein slept through the moment that saved him from another Minor League camp and just might take him straight to the big leagues with a World Series contender.
Major League Baseball's Rule 5 Draft started at 10 a.m. ET on Dec. 6 in Nashville, Tenn. Lobstein, left unprotected by the Rays, had an idea he might be selected. The 23-year-old left-hander compared his emotions the night before to the build-up he experienced before the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, when he was picked in the second round, albeit not quite as nerve-wracking.
By the time Lobstein woke up in Arizona on the morning of the Rule 5 Draft, he'd been picked up by the Mets, and his trade to the Tigers for cash considerations was already in the works. A little more than two months later, Lobstein can sit in front of his locker at Joker Marchant Stadium -- admittedly a fan of nearby superstars like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder -- with a realistic chance of breaking into the Majors after his first big league Spring Training.
"I know most people didn't expect it, for sure. Obviously, they're taking a big chance on me," said Lobstein, who is 30-30 with a 3.85 ERA in his four-year Minor League career. "But for them to be able to do that with the caliber of club they have and that they had coming back, plus the guys they added in the offseason, it's definitely a special honor."
Of course, a spot on the big league roster is far from guaranteed. Lobstein will have to earn it, and he'll have to beat out plenty of other candidates to become the Tigers' second left-handed reliever, likely in a long-relief role. That's the job Lobstein is fighting for despite spending his entire Minor League career to this point as a starter in the Rays' farm system, most recently with Double-A Montgomery, where he went 8-7 with a 4.06 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 144 innings a year ago.
Right now, with his role still up in the air, the plan is to keep him stretched out like a starting pitcher. That will work in his favor if he's called upon as a long reliever or spot starter, but it's also helped him make the adjustment to big league camp and his new club. The Tigers haven't tried to overhaul his routine, so he's training and preparing in a familiar way despite this completely unfamiliar situation.
"I can definitely bring a lot of [the Rays'] stuff over here and still keep it with me, because obviously it works for their guys, as you can see with the amount of guys that they bring up through their system," Lobstein said. "But at the same time, I'm all ears over here. These guys know what they're doing here."
As much as he's strived to stay the same, Lobstein knew at least one thing would have to change. He realized he could claim a spot only in the Tigers' bullpen, so he began talking to relievers, picking their brains to see how their habits and strategies differ from his own. Particularly helpful in this regard was Astros right-hander Hector Ambriz, Lobstein's offseason catch partner.
"It's different in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways, it's the same," Lobstein said. "You still obviously have got to go out there and pitch the same ball to the same hitters. It's just going about it in a little bit of a different way."
But there's another, more immediate issue hanging over Lobstein's head this spring: If he doesn't break camp with the Tigers, or if he's removed from their 25-man roster at any point this season, Detroit must offer him back to Tampa Bay for $25,000, half of the $50,000 it cost to pick him in the Rule 5 Draft.
In addition to switching clubs again, there's a profound difference between spending the season with the reigning American League Central champions and riding the buses in the Southern League with his old Montgomery Biscuits teammates. So you'd assume he has to feel some sort of pressure as he's preparing to prove himself in Grapefruit League games, right? Not so much.
"At this point, I'm trying to keep that out of my mind," he said.
Lobstein isn't exactly handling this potentially major decision in his sleep, like he did back in December. But he's done his best so far to soak in his first Major League experience, focus on earning a job with the Tigers and forget about his next move, whether it's to Detroit or back to the Rays' farm system.
"Either way," he said, "I'll still have an opportunity to play ball this year."