Want to know how good Danny Hultzen is feeling these days after missing most of the past two seasons with an ailing left shoulder that eventually required major surgery?
Let’s talk college hoops. Ask Hultzen, a Virginia alum, how far his beloved Cavaliers can go this season.
“I think they can win it,” he declared. “When Justin Anderson is back, I think they have a good shot. They can beat Kentucky, for sure.”
For sure? No. 1, unbeaten Kentucky? OK, there’s some confidence for you... and Hultzen is nearly as upbeat about his own recovery from surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff.
“Yeah, it feels completely normal,” he said. “I feel like I’m back. I have no idea what a game will be like. I haven’t been in a full-game situation in a long time.
“But as far as how my arm feels, and being able to let it go, I’m definitely back to where I was before.”
How nice would that be? Not immediately perhaps, but as, say, an ace in the hole down the road?
Hultzen, now 25, was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and had reached Triple-A Tacoma by 2013 before his shoulder broke down. His minor-league record was 15-8 with a 2.66 ERA in 38 starts.
Cue the caution from club officials.
“He feels really good about himself,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said, “but the realistic part of this is he’s missed an entire year. He’s going to have to pitch in the minor leagues. That’s just how it is.”
Hultzen closed his rehab work last season with an eye-popping 25-pitch outing in the Instructional League. That sent him into the winter with a surge of relief and renewed confidence.
“I got a little bit emotional afterward,” he admitted. “It had been such a long process. I got to a point where I was feeling pretty normal, and that was pretty cool.
“I had surgery on Oct. 1, 2013, and my last day here was Oct. 1, 2014. It was exactly one year. It was a good goodbye on the one-year anniversary of my surgery.”
Hultzen said the Mariners haven’t yet talked to him about pitch counts or an innings limit for the upcoming season. But it’s coming. He worked just 352/3 innings in 2013 and none a year ago.
“We need to take it slow with him, obviously,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I don’t put any limitations on any player, but we’re probably building for 2016, more than anything, with him.
“We just need to take it slow and build his innings up and get him ready to go out and be competitive.”
Hultzen said he hasn’t thought much about what comes next. For now, just getting back on the mound, pain-free, is enough.
“I don’t like to think too far into the future,” he said. “I’m just focused on being healthy. I’m just really, really happy this whole process has gone well.”
There were low points, certainly. The biggest one came roughly a year ago — right here in spring training — roughly five months after surgery.
“It was my first day at 60 feet,” Hultzen recalled. “I was just playing catch, and I was trying my hardest just to get it there in the air. I was like, ‘Geez, this is 60 feet…’ ”
He now covers the distance with a free-and-easy motion in which he is again stepping straighter toward the plate, as he did in college. Gone is the cross-fire delivery he adopted in an effort to relieve shoulder pain.
Hultzen said the switch came after he and Gary Wheelock, the organization’s rehab pitching coordinator, studied film of Hultzen’s time at Virginia and Double-A Jackson.
“I think it was just one of those things where I was trying to take a little bit of stress off my arm," Hultzen said. “It made my arm feel a little bit better to try to throw like that. Obviously, that didn’t work.
“The stepping straight thing, it’s not a huge change, but I think it’s going to help out a lot.”
Catcher John Hicks teamed Sunday with Hultzen for a bullpen workout. The two were teammates at Virginia, so who better to judge Hulten’s recovery?
“He looked, pretty much, like the old guy,” Hicks said. “I caught him a lot in college and a little bit here in years past. His velocity was back. It was coming out really good.
“He had the same sink, the same run on the ball that he always had.”
Hultzen’s biggest concerns these days are tightening his breaking ball and finding a consistent release point for his slider — i.e., pretty much the sort of stuff that every pitcher works on in spring training.
“It felt good to just be amongst the guys,” Hultzen said. “I remember last year being able to do the drills but no throwing. Then just watching the bullpens. It was really cool (Sunday) to just be part of everything.”