Left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen is still working his way back from serious shoulder injuries that put a halt to his development. He is returning from getting his torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule surgically repaired in October of 2013.
Hultzen was considered a top-of-the-rotation prospect when he was selected by Seattle with its first-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. In a year loaded with top-shelf prospects, only Gerrit Cole, chosen by the Pirates, was selected ahead of Hultzen. The Mariners projected Hultzen and right-hander Felix Hernandez to form a knockout one-two starting-pitching tandem for years to come.
After he attended St. Albans High School in Washington, D.C., the Arizona D-backs selected Hultzen in the 2008 Draft, but instead of signing, he became a star pitcher at the University of Virginia. He went 32-5 with a 2.08 ERA for the Cavaliers. He had 395 strikeouts in 320 innings from 2009-11.
I saw Hultzen pitch in the 2011 Arizona Fall League, just after his selection by Seattle. While I was impressed with his repertoire, his velocity and his mechanics, I was blown away by his mature mound demeanor. Nothing fazed him. He finished the autumn with a record of 1-0, an ERA of 1.40, a WHIP of 1.09 and 18 strikeouts against five walks in 19 1/3 innings. He yielded three earned runs. It was a remarkable performance for a pitcher just out of college. I felt I was watching a perennial All-Star in the making.
Of course there is always concern when a pitcher returns from shoulder surgery. In his case, Hultzen has come back with a fastball that sits in the low 90s, a couple ticks below his past velocity. He also throws a wicked changeup that misses bats and can be considered a "go-to" out pitch. Hultzen uses a slider that mixes well with his other pitches. Rust from not pitching for over a year and the fatigue of getting his arm back in shape could take a toll on his repertoire.
Hultzen didn't have the smoothest mechanics when he signed out of Virginia. From what I observed before his surgery, he used a full windup, but didn't plant his foot directly toward home plate. He threw across his body. His release point was inconsistent pitch to pitch. His footwork has improved, but his arm action remains crossfire. When he doesn't finish his pitches properly and shortens his approach to the plate, his pitches tend to flatten.
Hultzen can deceive a hitter by going from his good fastball to his above-average changeup at any point in the count. Before his surgery, his slider was an effective pitch, as well. Hultzen trusts his stuff and isn't afraid to challenge hitters. While his release point may change, his arm speed remains consistent from fastball to slider to changeup.
Hultzen takes charge on the mound. He doesn't get rattled and can get himself out of a jam. His poise and approach to hitters is a real plus.
Inconsistent mechanics have caused Hultzen to throw more pitches than necessary. He works so hard on the mound and is so focused that he may spend his energy too soon. His stamina and durability over the length of a game may be lingering issues.
I find this interesting
Hultzen came back very strong at the start of this season. Pitching for Double-A Jackson following his long injury layoff, he started three games and threw to a very credible 3.38 ERA in eight innings. Then he was shut down with arm fatigue. The Mariners value his upside and are taking no chances with his recently repaired shoulder.
Everything depends upon how he rebounds from surgery. If his velocity returns and he can throw fastballs and breaking pitches pain-free, he has enough talent to claim a future rotation spot.
Hultzen in a word
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.