The Unfortunate Road of Danny Hultzen

More than 2 1/2 years after being drafted as the prospect many labeled as "closest to the big leagues" in the draft, Mariners left-handed pitching prospect Danny Hultzen and the club are awaiting news from the foremost expert on labrum injuries. If he needs surgery, Hultzen could be more than a year away from returning to a pitching mound.

When the Seattle Mariners selected University of Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen with the 2nd overall pick in the 2011 draft it was clear that they liked the talent that he had. But in a draft that had a lot of players who were viewed as higher ceiling talents, it was the opinion of many that one of the clear marks in Hultzen's favor was his proximity to the big leagues. He was a college junior who had started since day one in the program, and one who was polished with plus command of three pitches that were seen as plus as well.

He showed those traits right out of the gate in 2012 in Double-A, getting more and more dominating with each start before being promoted to Tacoma for the second half. But he struggled in Triple-A, being hit a bit, but oddly struggling with his command and control. Still, the overall performance of the year was nothing to be concerned about: a 3.05 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 6.3 H/9 and 9.9 SO/9 in 25 starts. Heading into 2013, it seemed very reasonable to assume that Hultzen would break into the big league rotation for the Mariners at some point around the All-Star break this season.

Mid-way through April, that projection looked like it could be moved up a little further as the left-hander had seemingly completely overcome his command issues in turning in four sparkling starts for the Rainiers: a 2.78 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 25 strikeouts with only six walks over his first 22 2/3 innings. But he experienced difficulty warming up for his next start and was consequently shut down not once but twice with what the club labeled as a rotator cuff strain.

Hultzen himself offered some ideas about what was causing the should discomfort in a late-season radio interview, suggesting that it had been notice that his landing spot was closer to first base by more than a foot from his college days. According to Hultzen and Jack Zduriencik, the club apparently brought this up as a concern and worked with Danny to correct it a bit, back to where his college landing spot was. What that could potentially do to his arm was covered in-depth in this piece by Kyle Boddy at Hardball Times last month. Boddy has his detractors out there, but regardless of what you think of him, it does stand to reason that if Hultzen were throwing more across his body than had been his normal motion that it could have further aggravated any minor shoulder issues.

Which brings us to the latest. Zduriencik said on Tuesday that Hultzen was going to head to Alabama to see Dr. James Andrews to get a second opinion about his shoulder, which had continued to be a problem even after those two layoffs. After being named as one of the players Seattle was sending to the Arizona Fall League, Hultzen went down to Peoria early to get some work in with the Instructs players and coaches where he again experienced discomfort in the shoulder.

Zduriencik spoke with the beat writers about Danny's appointment with team physician Dr. Edward Khalfayan and painted a pretty bleak picture. "Ed saw him and quite frankly he doesn't like what he sees," he said. "He saw some damage that he was unhappy with. It's not the rotator cuff. It's the tendon area, labrum area. He has every right to have a second opinion and Ed wants him to have a second opinion. We've been in touch with Dr. Andrews and we're trying to work on getting him in there on Thursday and let them look at it, and make a decision at that time."

A recent example of a labrum issue that M's fans should be familiar with is that of Michael Pineda. The Mariners traded 2011 All-Star Pineda to the New York Yankees in a deal for Jesus Montero prior to 2012 and Pineda came up with shoulder issues in spring training which ended up costing him all of 2012 and the first two-plus months of 2013. That isn't atypical. Labrum injuries have been devastating to pitching careers throughout baseball history. Chris Carpenter, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling all returned from labrum surgery and went on to complete fantastic careers, but the list of pitchers who have not come back at all or come back with much less success is a lot longer. Erik Bedard is one of them.

Now, these pitchers all had tears that required surgery. No one has said that Hultzen is definitely facing that -- yet. But if he does end up needing to go down that road, 8 to 12 months is the expected post-op recovery time. In a worst case scenario that could mean that Danny Hultzen, the "close to the majors, polished" pitcher drafted in 2011 possibly wouldn't be back on a mound -- a minor league mound -- until 2015.

Hultzen was about as close to a sure thing or a safe pick as a pitcher ever can be, but the unfortunate road that his career has been on to this point shows just how much of a misnomer that notion can be.

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