Name: Matt Bush
Bush came into the season as a .221 hitter over 177 minor league games spanning three seasons. He never displayed much pop and had trouble hitting under the ball, often popping up or hitting a routine fly to the outfield. The adjustments never came easy. While no one questioned his arm at shortstop, he would rush his throws and not smooth out his footwork, resulting in errant throws.
The buzz before the season began surrounded a possible move to the mound. Grady Fuson, the Padres' vice president of scouting and player development, squashed those rumors after Bush had a solid Spring Training and the young San Diego native began the year with Lake Elsinore of the California League.
The troubles continued with the Storm. He managed to hit .204 over 29 games while also hitting the disabled list with knee inflammation.
At the beginning of June, Fuson confirmed that Bush would move to the mound. He began the assimilation to the nuances of pitching off a rubber again with Lake Elsinore, under the tutelage of Storm pitching coach Steve Webber.
"Matt Bush is now officially on the mound," Fuson said at the time. "I have been thinking about it for a while and it is one of the reasons I went to Lake Elsinore last night – to talk to Matt and see what his feelings were.
"I think he is ecstatic about making this change. I think it is relieving a lot of pressure from him. It is something he really wants to do."
The former Mission Bay High School (San Diego) alumni went 9-1 with a 0.42 ERA, striking out 91 in 66 innings as a prep.
"I don't think it's going to be a very difficult transition for him based on what he did before, but the one thing he is going to have on his side is he did have an opportunity to play as a regular as a professional and some of those experiences are going to help him," Padres closer Trevor Hoffman said. "He knows that it's not that easy to succeed at the plate and to take that experience with you on the mound and don't give them much credit. Be aggressive throw strikes the only real downside is walking people and not making them earn it."
Bush worked with Webber, keeping his comfort zone by staying around the team he broke camp with and doing side sessions.
"I thought I could throw hard right away, but it wasn't like it used to be when I was a senior," said Bush. "Slowly but surely I got my velocity back, and it wasn't that much different from high school."
The right-hander was also introduced to a new conditioning and strength program. He worked himself into simulated games with his team, throwing to batters standing in the box without swinging before throwing a live batting practice.
Breaking the familiar routine, Bush was shipped to Peoria, Arizona where he would truly begin the conversion process. It was in the Arizona Rookie League that he would throw in games and test his wares.
"It had been three years since I pitched so I had to remember to follow through, the leg kick, the landing point – all those little things," said Bush.
On June 22, Bush took the hill for the first time in a game. He struck out two of the three batters he faced, hitting 97 MPH with his fastball.
What surprised everyone wasn't necessarily his velocity. It was the smooth mechanics he displayed. Perhaps it was a product of being away from the mound for so long and not picking up poor habits – he could essentially be taught the right way to throw from the start and his mind quickly conditioned itself to simply go through the motions without effort.
"Bush was absolutely outstanding," pitching coach Dave Rajsich said. "I was shocked – pleasantly surprised. To see his command at the knees was mind-boggling. It looked like he had been pitching – like he never lost anything. For him to step on the mound for the first time in three years and come out throwing strikes the way he did was impressive.
"It was smooth and easy out of his hand. Bush was throwing 97 miles per hour and it is easy. That is what was so beautiful. ‘You have to be kidding me.' And at the knees with command. I was excited.
He missed roughly two weeks after experiencing soreness in his arm after just two outings but the prescribed rest seemed to pay off.
Bush would allow one run over 7.1 innings in the desert, striking out 16 of the 29 batters he faced while walking two and surrendering five hits.
He was nasty. He touched 98 MPH with his fastball while generally sitting in the mid-90s, flashed impressive command and was much further along than anyone could have anticipated.
While his fastball is certainly in a different class because of his ability to locate it, his secondary pitches are nothing to sneeze at. Bush sports a curveball that has good bite, but he will tend to overthrow it and leave it hanging up in the zone or drop it in the dirt when he wants a low strike.
Bush also tosses a slider that reacts differently than the curveball and could become a plus-pitch, and the feeling is he will abandon the hook as the slider becomes more consistent.
The changeup remains a work in progress for the youngster, mainly relegated to side sessions, but was a definite point of emphasis for the righty.
"He threw one slider and I said, ‘What was that?' He said it was a slider and I said, ‘No, no, no. No sliders. We will work on the fastball and changeup,'" Rajsich explained. He has a curveball, which is 83 or 84, and we will just forget that. We will show you the slider and just get fastball, changeup."
After dominating in the AZL, Bush was promoted to the Fort Wayne Wizards and the Midwest League. Two batters into his mound debut with the Wizards, Bush tossed a breaking ball and grabbed his arm in pain – ending his season and resulting in Tommy John surgery.
It was a bitter way to end a run that placed him squarely back on the prospect map.
"I don't think it's going to be a very difficult transition for him based on what he did before," Trevor Hoffman said. "But, the one thing he is going to have on his side is he did have an opportunity to play as a regular as a professional and some of those experiences are going to help him. He knows that it's not that easy to succeed at the plate and to take that experience with you on the mound and don't give them much credit. Be aggressive throw strikes the only real downside is walking people and not making them earn it."
Bush has faced many challenges through a career that began in 2004 as the number one overall pick in the MLB Draft. Tommy John surgery represents the newest hurdle. Injuries and Bush have become commonplace, but this battle may be one he has to fight inside his own head. The success rate of Tommy John surgery has been staggering. After finally tasting success, Bush has to listen to his own body and not try and push himself too fast or his career might ultimately suffer more than it already has.
"He has all the potential in the world," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current major league scout Bill Bryk said.
One thing is certain; Bush is ten times the prospect now than he ever was as a shortstop – even with a year of recovery looming.
"On schedule," Fuson said of his progress in late January. "His (injury) took place later in the year so (he is) going to basically miss most of 2008. Bush has been good. He is back in Arizona on the rehab program. He is still a ways away."
ETA: Surgery limits the ability to accurately predict how Bush will fare moving forward. He is still young but the timetable will be ticking as soon as he returns. He will have to be protected at some point in the not so distant future and will have to prove he is healthy and back in command of his arsenal. If he does come back strong, Bush will move quickly – the Padres want a return on investment and it sure would be nice to throw mid-90s fastballs in the face of all the detractors.