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Veteran Justin Verlander 'feels great' heading into 2016

Justin Verlander says he's in a good place, which wasn't the case last spring when a triceps injury derailed him. Leon Halip/Getty Images

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Call him a veteran, a mentor, or the longest-tenured member of the Detroit Tigers. He’s earned all three designations. But do not call Justin Verlander old.

That’s enough to make the 32-year-old ace bristle.

Verlander may be the only holdover from the 2006 Tigers team that went to the World Series, but he’s still got plenty in the tank, he assured reporters on Thursday, when pitchers and catchers officially reported to Joker Marchant stadium for the first time in spring training.

“I’ve been the only one standing from that team for a few years now. It’s crazy to think,” Verlander mused. “But I don't think I'm the old guy. A couple of years ago I probably would’ve thought that, yeah, [my] body's starting to age on me. Everyone says at 30, things change and that kinda got in my mind a little bit. And it ended up not being that at all. It ended up being something that was out of my control and I feel great now.”

Verlander is of course referring to the triceps injury that derailed him last spring, a demoralizing injury that dashed the first few months of his 2015 season. With that disappointment now behind him, Verlander begins this spring anew -- healthy and optimistic about the season ahead.

“I don’t want to say it was night and day from last year -- we talked about it last year in spring training and I felt pretty good -- but obviously I ran into an injury in the spring. But, right now it feels the best I can remember in a long time. I’m able to throw every day. I’ve been long-tossing a lot, something I wasn’t able to do the past few years. [I’d] long toss one day, come back the next day not feeling too great so you don't want to push it too hard. But I don’t even feel like I’m pushing it right now. Just naturally feeling good.”

Verlander completed his fourth bullpen session on Thursday, around which many of his cohorts were huddling to observe.

Considering Verlander may be the singular player whose performance is most integral to the club’s success, his teammates were rapt with attention and dialed in on his progress.

Verlander feels he’s in a good place. That hasn’t necessarily been the case the past few springs when the club has convened at its Lakeland complex.

“It feels like how it used to feel. Normal hasn’t been the status quo the past few years, but I feel great,” Verlander said. “It’s a lot of fun being able to go through my normal routine, long toss when I want, get off the mound when I need to without any issues.”

The 2011 AL Cy Young winner has another reason to feel encouraged heading into 2016: a strong second half of the 2015 season in which he seemed to rebound from the mixed results he experienced following his initial return from the disabled list. His bounceback was important not just on a personal level, but to the team as well.

“I’m definitely excited, I can tell you that,” Verlander said. “Feeling like I pitched well last year went a long way for everybody -- about being excited for this upcoming season. It’s even better right now than it was last spring training, so I’m ready to step on the gas. I’m ready to go.”

Perhaps both general manager Al Avila and team owner Mike Ilitch were heartened by his about-face, too, considering the aggressive way in which they built around the club’s ace in strengthening the rotation and shoring up the bullpen. All that spending and offseason shopping has resulted in a bevvy of fresh talent in Lakeland.

“It’s a whole staff, bullpen and everything, absolutely, lots of new faces. But I really like all the acquisitions,” Verlander said. “You have to applaud Al -- Mr. Avila -- and Mr. [Ilitch]. We had a lot of holes that we filled. And I think we did a great job not just filling those holes but implementing great ballplayers in those roles [with guys] that are going to succeed.”

Verlander is not old, not even by baseball standards, but he is savvy. Upon ending his first press briefing of the season, he took the opportunity to deliver a not-so-subtle jab at the preseason prognosticators that have, thus far, doubted the Tigers for 2016.

USA Today, namely, predicted the Tigers would finish fourth in the AL Central.

“On paper, I'm really pleased with this team,” Verlander said. “I know USA Today doesn’t think so, but in this clubhouse, we do.”