DUNEDIN, Fla. — Max Pentecost has been slipping on his catcher’s glove, putting on a mask, chest protector and shin pads to catch on the side in spring training.
On Monday, the Toronto Blue Jays prospect will throw a baseball back to a pitcher for the first time this spring.
"I’ve been here for about a month so I’ve been strictly doing weight-room stuff, trying to get as strong as I can in my scapula and get as much stability in my shoulder as I can before I start throwing," the 22-year-old Pentecost said at the Blue Jays training facility Friday morning.
It’s the first very small step towards returning to the routine of a minor-leaguer’s life, something he has had little opportunity to enjoy since the Blue Jays selected him with the 11th overall pick of the 2014 MLB Draft; something he had no opportunity at all to do last year when he missed the entire minor league season.
The Georgia native was projected as the franchise’s catcher of the future when he was selected out of Kennesaw State University. Three shoulder surgeries seemed to have threatened those projections. At the very least, they’ve put Pentecost well behind schedule.
Yet, Pentecost maintains hope that the third of these procedures will put him back on track.
"Last winter, they looked and found a tear that they hadn’t known about," he said. "It’s a really rare one, one you don’t go looking for, in a different part of the shoulder. It wasn’t a major one, probably was there all along. So I had a different operation, a subacromial-decompression surgery, same thing that Curt Schilling had. It was the easiest of all the surgeries, a lot less pain and a quicker recovery than the rotator cuff [surgeries]. Just three little arthroscopic incisions, maybe a half-hour or 45-minute procedure.”
Pentecost said that the tear might have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been for a Power Point presentation at a medical conference.
"Our team doctor [Steven Mirabello] saw this presentation from Dr. [Craig] Morgan about subacromial decompression," Pentecost said. "If Dr. Mirabello wasn’t at that seminar, we might still be sitting here scratching our heads. Dr. Morgan ended being the one who did [the third surgery]."
If it wasn’t for this latest surgery, Pentecost might have had to scratch his head with his left hand. As it is, given his experience, his optimism is cautious.
"So far so good, knock on wood," he said and then got up to knock on the nearest available bat. "[After the prior surgeries] I’d get a twinge just making an awkward move around the house, nothing that would seem stressful at all," Pentecost said. "I’d feel a twinge in the front of my shoulder reaching in and getting a gallon of milk out of a refrigerator. For some reason that always killed my shoulder, but now it feels fine."
It’s not just his work in the kitchen that leads him to believe that he’ll be able to play his way into the organization’s plans.
"I’ve been here for about a month so I’ve been strictly doing weight-room stuff, trying to get as strong as I can in my [scapula] and get as much stability in my shoulder as I can before I start throwing. And I haven’t been able to swing a bat over that time … just trying to avoid anything that might aggravate it or cause some [other injury] to my shoulder. I’ve been doing leg work, lower-body work. I’m probably in some of the best shape I’ve ever been in. And I’ve been pain free. I’m where I wanted to be back in December after the surgery.”
Pentecost figures he’ll be able to do more than therapeutic tossing by the time the minor league season is a couple of weeks old. There has been speculation that Pentecost, who batted .324 in 25 games between the Gulf Coast League and Vancouver in 2014, might be tapped to convert to third base or to first, and that certainly looks like an option to get him at-bats this spring and early summer. Pentecost maintains that any switch or repositioning will be temporary. "I still see myself as a catcher and that’s where I want to play," he said.
That the Blue Jays are committed to Russell Martin behind the plate for the foreseeable future doesn’t prompt Pentecost to look hard at playing another position. "I’ve talked to Russell a few times," Pentecost said. "It’s great for a young player to be able to pick the brain of an all-star."
Before he was drafted, Pentecost had issues not with his shoulder but his right elbow. Again, it wasn’t an everyday injury.
"It was a fracture of the bone at the very tip of my elbow, something that I probably hurt when I was playing football as a kid [and] something that I had probably been playing with a long time," he says. "When I had some pain and they found it, we decided just to rest it. When I had pain again the next year, we decided to rest it longer. But then year after when I was heading off to college, we decided to put some screws in there. And it’s never bothered me since."
Again, Pentecost grabbed a bat and rapped on it.