Temper big league expectations for Hultzen in 2015

 It seems like a lot more than three-plus years ago that the Seattle Mariners made University of Virginia standout Danny Hultzen the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft.

Hultzen appeared to be on a fast track to the majors after tearing through Double-A for the first half of 2012 but struggled with his command after making the jump to Triple-A. The left-hander started 2013 strong in four Triple-A starts, but was shut down in late April after experiencing shoulder discomfort.

He would reappear again in late June to make a pair of starts, but the issue came back, and Hultzen was shut down again.

The discomfort proved to be more of a problem than originally thought: Hultzen would have surgery to repair a damaged labrum, a partially torn rotator cuff, and a torn anterior capsule on October 1 of that year.

One full year of rehab and a relatively normal offseason later, and the former top prospect has completed his first bullpen season at big league Spring Training and is on his way to picking up where he left off in 2013.

After the session, Hultzen said he felt, “completely normal” and, “back to where [he] was before.”

For the Mariners, this is tremendous news. Hultzen impressed in an instructional league outing at the end of 2014 and the prognosis moving forward had finally taken a positive turn.

Essentially, 2015 becomes a blank slate for the left-hander. The expectations are minimal — not in a negative context — and Hultzen will be handled one day at a time.

Manager Lloyd McLendon and GM Jack Zduriencik spoke about Hultzen on Monday and made sentiments along the lines of this things will be taken slowly as the 25-year old works through the processes. Exactly the type of comments expected to be made regarding a player who missed an entire year of development.

There was one comment from McLendon that partially stood out:

“I don’t put any limitations on any player, but we’re probably building for 2016, more than anything, with him.”

It’s easy to fixate on the 2016 part of the statement and ask questions. No, the Mariners are not writing off the 2015 season for Hultzen. They will consider this to be a developmental year the same they would for any other prospect. His progress will be assessed throughout the spring, and management will make a decision on what’s best for his development moving forward.

There’s only a minute possibility that Hultzen breaks camp with the big league club. It’s not a forgone conclusion that he is in the minors for Opening Day, but it makes the most sense at this point. The club may even decide to hold the youngster back for extended Spring Training before assigning him to a minor league squad.

[pullquote]Prior to undergoing surgery, Hultzen sat in the mid-to-low 90’s with his fastball alongside a changeup, his best pitch. He also utilized a developing slider and the occasional curveball.[/pullquote]

The idea that the team is looking forward to 2016 should alleviate any thoughts that Hultzen will be utilized as a reliever in the M’s bullpen, at least in the short-term. Given the depth Seattle currently has in the pen, there’s no reason to force an unnecessary conversion.

There’s still the possibility the club doesn’t begin the year with a second left-hander alongside Charlie Furbush in the bullpen. Should the Mariners go with two lefties, and McLendon has noted that it would be his preference, there are multiple options to be considered.

It has to be mentioned that prior to not pitching in 2014, the left-hander threw only 35 and 2/3 innings in 2013. Asking Hultzen to throw upwards of 150-to-160 innings in 2015 is likely impractical. Through parts of four years in the organization, he has yet to pitch a total of 200 innings.

The goal for 2015 is obviously keeping Hultzen healthy, but more than that, it’s probably to have his shoulder hold up from April through September. Expect to see plenty of shorter outings — two-to-four inning stints or 40-to-50 pitch counts — to help rebuild the lost arm strength and durability.

The coaching staff has adjusted his mechanics slightly so that he has more of a straighter step to his delivery. Hultzen admitted that while he was dealing with shoulder pain he altered his delivery to try and find some relief and is working to become comfortable with the adjustment

One of the keys to success will be allowing Hultzen to get into a regular routine. He’s put in the hours to rehabilitate the shoulder and has fought some of the hardest mental battles of his baseball life. Being able to get into a groove and retain the normalcy he has had the last several months could go a long way towards maintaining steady progress in the coming months.

When it comes to the type of surgery Hultzen had, names like Mark Prior and Johan Santana come to mind and paint a very discouraging picture. The probability of a prospect, particularly a pitcher, turning out is already low. Let alone one who is coming off major surgery to their throwing shoulder. But the path to success, and beating the perceived odds, begins in February 2015.

Perhaps part of McLendon’s mention of 2016 is to relieve some of the perceived pressure felt by Hultzen. He’s well aware that he’s the No. 2 overall pick that hasn’t turned out yet while Jose Fernandez and Sonny Gray — later picks in the same draft class — have had recent major league success.

With the Mariners poised for a potential playoff run, the scope is unlikely to fall too closely on Hultzen. Instead top young arms Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Roenis Elias will likely be under the radar even more so than in the past.

Hultzen has breathing room to work with in 2015, and just might be a pleasant surprise come 2016.

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