Stafford back on the mound

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Left-hander Sam Stafford is currently making his return from shoulder sugery, and he's created some buzz with his early-spring performance on the back fields. Lone Star Dugout has a feature and interview with the intriguing prospect, including a video from his first post-surgery live batting practice session.

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

The early returns on Stafford are positive. Coming off shoulder surgery just over a year ago, he's already back on the mound and ready for game action; he'll be full-go when minor league spring training games begin later this month.

Stafford threw his first post-surgery live batting practice session just a few days ago, in fact. The prospect looked sharp and flashed a fastball with some zip––video from that live BP can be found below.

Although Stafford is now fully healthy and ready to begin his professional career, he's had a long journey to this point. Stafford hasn't thrown a pitch in an official game since June 2011, when he faced off against North Carolina in the College World Series.

The 22-year-old southpaw was the New York Yankees' second-round pick in the 2011 draft––two weeks prior to his CWS appearance. 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 campaign.

Upon returning to Austin, Stafford pitched in three fall scrimmages for the Longhorns in October 2011. He pitched well, yielding one run on two hits in six 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 (and Dr. Meister) are more than familiar with.

Stafford, a Houston-area native, was selected by Boston in the 40th round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of Klein Collins High School. While he's always shown good raw stuff, he 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 short bursts.

The 6-foot-4 hurler 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 ERA 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 mostly sat 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 plus pitch. Rarely using a changeup in college, Stafford began throwing a cutter as his occasional third pitch during his junior year.

As Stafford explains in the following interview, he spent the offseason looking to refine that changeup––he wants it to be a bigger part of his arsenal as he enters the professional ranks. Standing approximately 6-foot-4, 200 pounds in college, he's also filled out his frame over the last year.

It's difficult to project how Stafford will perform in game action before he actually gets a chance to prove himself on the mound. But his bullpen and live BP sessions to date have all been positive, showing clean mechanics with a fast arm; he's generated a little buzz around the back fields early in camp.

Prospect Video:

Sam Stafford Live Batting Practice: 3/3/2013 (best viewed in full screen and HD).

Jason Cole: When you signed with the Rangers last summer, you were obviously in the middle of your rehab process. You continued that into the offseason. What did you do in the offseason to finish your rehab and prepare for this year?

Sam Stafford: I was just trying to keep myself focused, really. There's something that my dad has been telling me since I was a little kid. When you're going about your business––whether it's sports, school, your job, or whatever––he says, ‘All you really have to do is chop wood, carry water, and everything else will fall into place.' It's basically about showing up and taking care of your business.

There's a great training staff here as well as the rest of the staff in the organization. But they took care of me. I just busted my butt, and I'm continuing to bust my butt, trying to stay healthy now that I am healthy.

Cole: During instructs last year, where were you at in that rehab process? You were throwing by then, right?

Stafford: Yeah, I was throwing off the mound then. But it really didn't feel like it started to come out like it had in the past until I shut it down for that month and a half or two months after instructs. Then, the next throwing program is when the arm strength felt like it was there.

Cole: How does the arm feel right now?

Stafford: It feels great.

Cole: How does it feel compared to the last year you were on the mound at Texas?

Stafford: I think it's pretty similar. I made some mechanical adjustments––having shoulder surgery, there were a couple tweaks that I needed to make in my delivery to take the stress off my shoulder. If anything, I think it feels better.

Cole: What were some of those things you did mechanically?

Stafford: Just trying to keep everything in my legs. I think, in the past, I had a tendency to get ahead of myself and drift and put a lot of stress on the shoulder. And so I'm just trying to be as fluid and effortless as I can be.

Cole: Are you going to be pitching in games from the start of minor league camp?

Stafford: I will be.

Cole: How much are you looking forward to just facing a hitter in––even though it's spring training––a competitive environment again?

Stafford: I can't wait, man. I have my first live BP tomorrow. So I'm absolutely thrilled for that. I can't wait. It has been a long time since a hitter was in the box, so it's going to be a lot of fun.

Cole: When was the last time that you faced a hitter in the box?

Stafford: In a game that actually mattered, it was Omaha. That was in 2011 against North Carolina.

Cole: When you have such a long layoff, are there any nerves at all? Or is it just straight excitement?

Stafford: I mean, there's always nerves involved. I think a lot of it is that you get antsy. You feel like you're ready to be out there, and they're telling you to settle down, wait, and just stick to the process. That's just what I've done. That's what I'm continuing to do. Whatever they say goes. I'm just here to do my best to keep healthy.

Cole: You arrived in Surprise on January 21. In that month before a lot of people start showing up, what's the average day for you like out here?

Stafford: It's pretty laid back. I think we were stretching at like––stretch would change from 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning. It was whatever (rehab pitching coordinator) Keith Comstock says. We would come in, get loose, go out for stretch, go through the throwing program, some PFPs (pitcher fielding practice), conditioning, workouts, eat lunch, and then you're out of here.

Cole: Do you guys have some sort of ceremony for when someone finally graduates from the rehab crew?

Stafford: For me, I haven't even looked at the red shirt hanging in my locker. I haven't even put it back on. I don't want anything to do with it. I'm just trying to stay in the blue right now.

Cole: Obviously the red shirt is reserved for the injured pitches currently in the rehab program, while everyone else wears the blue. Have you worn that red shirt since instructs?

Stafford: Absolutely not (laughs).

Cole: When you were healthy at Texas, you had the fastball/curveball/cut-slider combination with the occasional changeup mixed in. Is your repertoire the same coming into this year?

Stafford: The changeup has been something I've been working on a lot lately. Just talking with the guys in the front office and all the pitching coaches––you see how guys come up through the minor leagues. The younger guys who are having success in the major leagues are the guys that have that fastball-changeup command. That's been a big focus of mine, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable with it right now.

Cole: How did you feel your changeup ended up when you were at Texas? I know you didn't throw it in games all that often.

Stafford: Yeah, I was mostly fastball/curveball/cutter. But in pro ball, these hitters––whether you're throwing 95 or whatever it is––if they're sitting on fastball, they're going to hit the fastball. So it's nice to have something to complement that fastball like the changeup does.

Cole: And you've still got the cutter now?

Stafford: Still got the cutter, yep.

Cole: Coming off the surgery, are you going to be restricted innings-wise during spring training or the regular season this year? Have they spoken to you about that?

Stafford: Yeah. I'll be piggybacking my starts through the All-Star break. I guess I'll kind of reevaluate from there and see what they want to do. They're the boss, and I'm just here to stay healthy.

Cole: It would appear that you're up between Single-A Hickory or High-A Myrtle Beach in spring training depending on how things shake out.

Stafford: I think it just depends on my performance. That's kind of the way they made it sound.

Cole: Thinking ahead to this full season back on the mound, have you started to think of anything you'd like to accomplish or improve upon? I know you did mention the changeup already.

Stafford: Command in the zone. I want to throw strikes early and not get behind guys. Walks kill. Nobody likes them. They slow the game down, so my mentality is going to be to attack guys.

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