[Conor Doherty contributed to this article]
On paper, Degano seems to have what it takes. With a big 6-foot-4 frame and a powerful arm that can get strikeouts, the left-handed pitcher is an intriguing prospect. The catch, however, is his Tommy John surgery in 2013 when he was a junior at Indiana State, causing him to miss most of that year and all of 2014.
After 15 impressive starts with the Sycamores in his 2015 return, the Yankees took him in the 2nd round of the draft. Signing him at a $650,000 bonus – below the $1.07 million slot – and currently having him pitch at Advanced Rookie affiliate Pulaski at the age of 23, the Yankees seem to be cautiously optimistic about Degano’s potential.
In an attempt to ease him into professional-level competition after drafting him 57th overall, the Yankees assigned Degano to the Gulf Coast League in 2015. His numbers were not spectacular, but after a move to Staten Island he seemed to regain his confidence. In the 10.2 innings Degano pitched there, including two starts and two relief appearances, he had a 2.53 ERA and struck out 14 batters.
“I have great confidence right now,” Degano said. “I think [last year] was a good introduction to what professional baseball’s all about, putting in the hours and getting used to the competition.”
Putting in a full offseason with the organization this year, Degano feels that he has improved in multiple areas of his game, and is making sure he is ready for the upcoming season.
“I just did a regular throwing program and everything,” Degano said of his offseason. “[I] did some weighted ball drills to get my arm in shape and worked on a couple of my pitches to be ready for Spring Training.”
Spring training itself felt almost like a fresh start for Degano.
“It was productive,” he said. “I just tried to work out some kinks during it. I tried to reset and come here and do everything I could to succeed.”
His offseason to-do list was expansive. With his fastball already sitting in the low-90’s, and even sometimes getting up to 94, Degano said he did some work on his curveball and changeup. To ensure his body could keep up with the kind of power he wants to throw with, Degano worked to enhance his strength and conditioning.
“I feel a lot stronger,” he said. “I put on some weight over the offseason and strengthened up areas that I felt I needed to improve.”
Pulaski pitching coach Butch Henry got a chance to see Degano pitch at Staten Island and is helping him with his current development.
“As are all the pitchers, we’re working on fastball command [with Degano],” Henry said. “He’s been working on some mechanical changes and sometimes that takes a bit of time to master and get comfortable with and allow him to feel good about. We’re still looking for that comfort zone for him.
“His breaking ball [worked well in Spring Training]. We’re looking at a totally different breaking ball than he had in Staten Island last year. He’s got good depth, it’s quicker, it’s got a better break to it, so that’s been a big positive for him this year.”
Perhaps more importantly, Degano understands what he needs to do mentally. Learning to keep his composure and being able to know when and what pitch to throw were key points in his offseason preparation.
“Learning which pitches to throw in counts and being able to work the count with different pitches when I need to,” Degano said on what he’s improved on the most.
“I think that my mental game definitely has improved, they help us out with that at spring training. Just being able to reset my mind when I need to, I think that’s one thing you need to know at this level.”
“Jeff is an outstanding young man,” Henry added. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s got a very good arm on his body, and he’s going to be just fine.”
Degano also has a clean bill of health and has had little issue with injuries since his Tommy John surgery.
“Everything was well [last year]. I had a little back spasm but other than that it went well.”
When PinstripesPlus spoke to Degano last September after his 2015 campaign had ended, he was eager to train for the offseason and improve for the 2016 season. Not much has changed since then, and Degano seems unfazed that he wasn't promoted to low-A Charleston right out of Spring Training camp and instead went to work on his entire game in Extended Spring Training first before landing with Pulaski.
“I just follow the process. Wherever they feel I need to go, I’ll go. I’m very excited [for the season]. Ready to play in front of some fans,” Degano concluded with a smile.