A dominant two-month stretch for short-season Vancouver in 2010 should have put right-hander Matt Thomson on the fast track through the Oakland A's minor-league system.
The 6'4'' right-hander was a senior draft pick out of the University of San Diego last season and had the look of a polished college pitcher who would move quickly. In his first stop, Thomson shredded Northwest League competition to the tune of a 1.94 ERA, 71:10 K:BB ratio and .196 BAA in more than 51 innings of work.
But a minor tear in the back of his right labrum abruptly ended Thomson's run in Vancouver and delayed the start of his 2011 season. He was only recently sent out to a full-season affiliate after pitching in extended spring training.
"From the end of Vancouver to extended is seven or eight months, and I really didn't throw much," said Thomson.
"It was a matter of getting my arm back in shape. We took things slow and weren't trying to rush anything since it's a long season. I'm up here [with Low-A Burlington] at a good time and I've joined a great team."
Thomson hasn't yet been cleared to throw without any restrictions by the A's training staff, and he is pitching on a schedule with Burlington.
After allowing just one hit and striking out three over two innings in his initial outing last Wednesday, Thomson wasn't quite as successful on Sunday against West Michigan when he surrendered three runs on six hits in a pair of innings.
Thomson says his fastball velocity has taken a slight dip since the injury, but attributes that more to his limited workload this year. He hit between 90-93 MPH in Vancouver, but has worked in the 88-90 range at extended spring training and in Burlington.
"I think it's a little down because I haven't thrown as much," he said. "When my arm gets back into shape my velocity will be back where it normally is. It's down a little, but if you're hitting spots you can still get outs."
Oakland will continue to monitor Thomson as a member of the Bees' bullpen. The 23-year-old says he anticipates he will continue to work in relief even when he is completely cleared by the training staff.
After starting throughout much of his first year in the A's system, Thomson hasn't altered his approach much in 2011.
"I've pitched out of the bullpen so much in the past and feel like I know what I need to do to be ready," Thomson said.
"Right now I have set days when I'm pitching because I'm on a slower program and not rushing things. I'm on a routine, so I'm not really in that relieving state of mind yet. But pretty soon I'm sure I'll get back to what I did my senior year of college."
While Thomson convinced the A's brass of his abilities as a starter last summer, the right-hander actually had more success as a reliever in college. He pitched out of the ‘pen as a sophomore and senior, and was called upon as a starter his junior year.
Thomson has the arsenal of pitches to be a starter and confidently throws a fastball, slider, change-up and curve ball. Out of the bullpen he has chosen his two best pitches and stuck with those.
"I might throw them all in the bullpen and pick the two that are working best that day," Thomson said.
"And hopefully one of them is the fastball, since it would be difficult to go out there just throwing sliders and curve balls."
After having sustained success in Vancouver last summer, one can only wonder what Thomson is capable of when fully healthy. And especially given that Thomson was likely pitching with a torn labrum his entire time in the Northwest League.
"I'm pretty confident that I pitched with it my entire time in Vancouver," he said.
"There wasn't really a lead-up to it. I don't know for certain when I got injured. There wasn't any velocity drop off that I know of and my arm didn't hurt any more than normal. I had some stiffness that had kind of been there the entire summer."
No matter his role, Thomson just looks forward to becoming a larger part of a Burlington pitching staff that has ranked at the top of the Midwest League for much of the season.
"It's a very good team," he said. "The pitching staff is awesome and the numbers they've put up this year are ridiculous. I've known a lot of these guys for over a year now, so it's a great team atmosphere up here and everybody is rooting for each other."