Q&A with Rangers 13th-round pick Sam Stafford

Left-handed pitcher Sam Stafford's talented arm made him the Yankees' second-round pick in last year's MLB Draft, but he didn't sign and ultimately needed shoulder surgery. Lone Star Dugout interviews Stafford, who has already agreed to terms with the Rangers as a 13th-round selection.

The Texas Rangers took a flyer on an injured pitcher with good stuff in the 13th round of this week's MLB Draft, selecting University of Texas product Sam Stafford.

The 22-year-old southpaw was the New York Yankees' second-round pick in last year's draft. Although he'd initially agreed to sign for a slightly above-slot $400,000 bonus, a pre-signing physical revealed some shoulder issues. Stafford ultimately chose to turn down a lesser bonus (reported $200,000 by Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman) in favor of returning to the 40 Acres for his senior season.

Upon returning to Austin, Stafford pitched in three fall scrimmages for the Longhorns last October. He pitched well, yielding one run on two hits in six total innings, striking out eight and issuing one walk.

But in early February, about one week prior to the start of the 2012 campaign, Stafford learned that he'd need to undergo labrum surgery to repair his left shoulder, causing him to miss the entire season. After meeting with Rangers team doctor Keith Meister, he was also diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. Stafford also had surgery on the TOS, an injury that the Rangers are more than familiar with, as he explains in the following interview.

Stafford, a Houston-area native, was selected by Boston in the 40th round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of Klein Collins High School. Although he's always shown good raw stuff, Stafford lacked polish early in his collegiate career and logged just 23.1 total innings during his first two seasons at Texas.

Still, Stafford drew the attention of scouts while pitching summer ball with the Santa Barbara Foresters in '08 and '09. In two summers, he racked up 122 strikeouts in 81 innings while showing a promising curveball and throwing his fastball up to 96 mph in bursts.

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound prospect returned to Texas for his junior season––in 2011––ready to claim a full-time starting role.

He was able to do just that, improving as the season progressed and posting a 1.77 earned-run average in 19 appearances (17 starts). Over 81.1 innings, he yielded just 51 hits, walked 42, and struck out 91.

During that junior campaign, Stafford's fastball sat mostly between 89-92 mph with good life, reaching up to 93-94 on occasion. While he entered college with well below-average control and command, he began to show an improved feel for pitching in 2011, often sacrificing some velocity for command. His mid-70s curveball showed good shape and the makings of being a potential plus pitch. Rarely using a changeup in college, Stafford began throwing a cutter as his occasional third pitch during his junior year.

Stafford has already agreed to terms with the Rangers, and he's expected to finish his shoulder rehab at the club's minor league complex in Surprise, Ariz. As he mentions in the following interview, the rehab has gone smoothly thus far, and he's hoping to be back at 100 percent in time for spring training next year.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with Stafford following this week's draft.

Jason Cole: Give me your general thoughts on being drafted by the Rangers today.

Sam Stafford: I'm extremely excited about the opportunity. Dr. (Keith) Meister did my surgery. I fully trusted him, and I've got full confidence that I'm going to make a 100 percent recovery.

Cole: Considering that Dr. Meister is also the Rangers' team doctor, do you think the fact that he's worked with you played a big role in them selecting you today?

Stafford: I think it definitely shows the confidence and the respect that the Rangers have for their team doctor, with them picking me. He's one of the best. Like I said, I fully trust his ability. He's a great guy. Whatever he says goes. Whenever he lets me know that I can start throwing the baseball again, that's what we'll do.

Cole: You grew up in Houston, so I'm assuming that you probably grew up as an Astros fan.

Stafford: I did grow up an Astros fan. But a lot of my mom's family is in the Forth Worth and Dallas area, so a bunch of them are Rangers fans. They're excited about it.

Cole: Take me back through the shoulder surgery. Can you talk about exactly what the surgery was? And when did you have it?

Stafford: I had my labrum operated on, and I also had thoracic outlet syndrome. That's where you have to have your first rib removed because the rib is putting pressure on the nerve and causing some problems in the arm. It's something that can potentially cause blood clots or aneurysms. I was glad to get both of those taken care of.

Cole: The TOS is something that the Rangers, as well as Keith Meister, have had experience with over the last few years. I know Hank Blalock and Matt Harrison had that surgery.

Stafford: Yeah, exactly. We knew about the labrum because of my physical with the Yankees. But Dr. Meister's eye, listening to my symptoms, he was the one that said, "I think there's something else here." So I think that was a blessing that he's that good at what he does––to find that problem.

Cole: You were pitching for the University of Texas last fall, weren't you? I recall you pitching in the scrimmage against Texas State.

Stafford: I did, I did. I pitched against Texas State, Sam Houston State, and the University of Houston in the fall.

Cole: Was there any pain with the TOS at that point?

Stafford: No, no symptoms then. It didn't happen until right after the new year. Dr. Meister said it's one of those things that, when it comes on, it comes pretty hard.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the greatest timing. I wasn't able to pitch at the University of Texas. I missed this whole season. I'm extremely excited for this opportunity with the Rangers. I just can't wait to get back out there.

Cole: After last year's disappointment with the Yankees in the draft, and then missing this season at Texas, was there ever a time where you felt that chance to play professional baseball may not come?

Stafford: That's something that is kind of out of my hands. All I was really focusing on was getting those surgeries taken care of and working as hard as I possibly could in my rehab to get back healthy.

So there has never been a doubt in my mind that I wouldn't get back healthy. It's one of those things where I just hoped a team would take a chance on me and give me an opportunity. And thankfully the Rangers did that.

Cole: Tell me a little bit about your rehab process. What has it been like? Who have you been rehabbing with?

Stafford: Well, I'm down here in Houston with Russ Paine at the Ironman Institute. I'm going five days per week with him. He's been doing this for 30 years. He has seen a lot of guys with this same thing, and he is one of the best, as well. I'm just listening to what he says and pushing myself as hard as I can.

Cole: Where in the rehab process are you at right now? What kind of things are you doing?

Stafford: My range of motion has pretty much all come back. So right now it's just the strengthening phase. I'm just working on the rotator cuff and the other muscles in the shoulder, the back, and the chest. You lose it pretty quickly when you have to take that much time off.

But it's starting to come back. I'm putting some weight back on and getting some muscle. So I'm seeing improvement every single day. Like I said, I just can't wait until I can start throwing again.

Cole: Is there any timetable, right now, for when you can start throwing again?

Stafford: It should be about two months until I start my throwing program. I'm going to be evaluated by Dr. Meister within the next month or so. I'm going to see what he says. If he says that all is a go, then we'll star getting after it. But right now, I'm just focusing on the strengthening aspect.

Cole: Are you hoping to be back in game action next season?

Stafford: From talking to Dr. Meister, the goal was to be 100 percent by spring training. I think that's realistic. Hopefully I'll have the chance to throw some bullpens. I'm not sure––it's going to be in the Rangers' hands with their medical staff and their coaches. What they say is best. So I'm just the one along for the ride, and I'm here to put my work in.

Cole: I'm sure you have a history with Randy Taylor, who was the Rangers' long-time South Texas area scout and is now the regional crosschecker. Did you have much contact with him prior to the draft?

Stafford: I did, I did. Randy was the main guy that I was talking to. I've known Randy since I was in high school. I played for him out at the Area Code Games. He's a great guy, and he's a straight shooter. I'm thankful that he had good things to say about me. I'm sure he was a big part of the Rangers selecting me.

Cole: As a guy coming off injury, is it safe to assume that you will be signing with the Rangers?

Stafford: It's safe to assume that. I'm ready to start the next chapter and continue to chase the dream of playing major league baseball. I love the University of Texas, and I wish all my teammates and all my coaches the best. But I'm ready to start this next chapter, and I'm extremely excited.

Cole: Your last season at Texas, in 2011, was obviously kind of your breakout performance-wise. Can you talk about what led to you taking that next step forward?

Stafford: Just continuing to better myself as a pitcher, with my work ethic in the weight room and the throwing program. (Texas pitching coach) Skip Johnson really helped me learn how to pitch. I think that was kind of a turning point from when I came in out of high school.

I would consider myself as a thrower out of high school. Before the injury, I really started to learn how to pitch. It's one of those things where I try to focus on getting better as a baseball player every single day. I set goals daily, and that's something I'll continue to do as my career continues.

Cole: You've always been a fastball-curveball-changeup guy on the mound, but didn't you work with Skip Johnson to add a cutter in 2011?

Stafford: I did. It was something that we had been working on a little bit during my sophomore year. Then, the junior year, it definitely helped me out. It's a great pitch. It's something else to confuse the hitters. I think that pitch helped me out a lot.

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