LAKELAND, Fla. — The baseball gods who control injuries owe Clete Thomas good health for the rest of his career.
Thomas, 28, had to have Tommy John surgery in 2008 and then underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2010.
Thomas played 40 games for the Tigers in 2008, batting .284 with one home run and nine RBI. He then played in 102 games with the big league club in 2009, batting .240 with seven home runs and 39 RBI.
But the knee injury completely derailed his major-league career at that point.
Thomas was mostly healthy last season, playing 113 games with Triple-A Toledo, batting .251 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI. He also had 20 stolen bases.
Manager Jim Leyland did not forget about Thomas. He even mentioned his name during Prince Fielder’s introductory news conference when he was talking about the possible lineup for the upcoming season.
“I like him a lot, still do,” Leyland said. “He’s fought through some injuries for a period of time and came back.
“This spring he’s showing no signs of any side effects of past injuries. He looks really good right now.
“He’s a very athletic guy, very good tools guy — power, speed, good outfielder. My reports basically were that he started to come on at the end pretty good. Sometimes it takes time to get over those injuries.”
Thomas, the Tigers’ sixth-round pick in the June 2005 draft, said he feels great this spring.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Thomas said. “Had a good year last year coming off the knee surgery and this year it feels even better, so I’m ready to go.”
Thomas admits it was nice to hear that the organization didn’t forget about him while he was trying to come back from his injuries.
“It always feels good to know that you’re on their mind and they haven’t forgot about you. That he’s going to be there watching and know that he still thinks that I could help the team, because I can,” Thomas said.
Thomas is out of options this season, so it might come down to him and Andy Dirks for a reserve outfield spot.
Dirks had 28 stolen bases in 41 games with Toledo last year, so he has some speed as well. But Leyland indicated speed would not be a decisive factor.
“But if you’re asking if he’s in competition, you’d certainly have to consider him,” Leyland added.
Thomas, like many of the players not guaranteed a roster spot, said he can’t let himself think about making the team.
“I just try to go out there and play and let that speak for itself and try not to worry much about that because it just puts extra stress on you that you don’t need,” Thomas said.
Thomas is excited about the prospect of being on the big league club again, especially with the focus on not only getting into the playoffs, but getting to the World Series.
“Of course you want to be part of a good team, a playoff team, win a ring,” Thomas said. “It’s part of everybody’s goals and dreams to do that, so of course that’s a great goal.”
Joaquin Benoit, who did not throw as scheduled two days ago due to a stiff neck, is feeling much better.
“I’m throwing batting practice today,” Benoit said before Tuesday morning’s workout. “So it’s basically coming down. Still a little bit but not a big deal.”
Florida Southern game
The Tigers finally get to start playing games when they host Florida Southern in their annual game Friday.
Leyland, who said he has the pitching set through late May to early June with the exception of the fifth starter, said Andy Oliver, Drew Smyly and Casey Crosby would all pitch in the game.
“I’m gonna play the big guys one at-bat and then pull them out of there,” Leyland said. “So that way the kids can say they saw (Miguel) Cabrera.”
Tigers sign five
The Tigers on Tuesday agreed to contract terms with five players for the 2012 season: pitchers Collin Balester, Luis Marte and David Pauley; infielder Danny Worth; outfielder Clete Thomas.