DUNEDIN, Fla. – At the minor-league facility 5.6 kilometres northeast of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the young man who would have brought the Toronto Blue Jays a new team president is steadily making progress.
Jeff Hoffman is approaching his 20th bullpen session since Tommy John surgery last May 14 and his one year anniversary is rapidly approaching. He’s marked the date on a calendar, and knows exactly how many days remain in the countdown.
Right around the end, the 22-year-old will return to game action, resuming his accelerated path to the big-leagues.
If, as expected, he regains the form that led some to project him as the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 draft, he’s going to make a lot people very happy the Blue Jays didn’t send him to the Baltimore Orioles as part of a compensation package for executive Dan Duquette.
“It’s flattering that they wanted me,” Hoffman says after another day of workouts at a minicamp for the organization’s top prospects. “I’m glad I’m still here.”
To be sure it’s already been a rather extraordinary year for the imposing yet welcoming native of Cohoes, N.Y. A star for East Carolina University, the six-foot-four, 185-pound right-hander left scouts drooling over the mid-to-high 90’s fastball he commanded well, a changeup that for many pitchers would pass as a heater, plus two solid breaking balls, a slurve and a slider.
Front of the rotation was written all over him.
Then his elbow popped, he underwent ligament-replacement surgery, his stock slipped and the Blue Jays used the ninth overall pick to grab him. After signing for the slot at his draft spot, $3,080,800, Hoffman continued the procedure’s monotonous rehab at the club’s Bobby Mattick Training Center, and then in December, his name suddenly popped up in the rumour mill.
The Orioles wanted Hoffman, catcher Max Pentecost, third baseman Mitch Nay and more to let Duquette out of his contract to replace Paul Beeston. The Blue Jays balked at such a steep and unprecedented price for a president, cutting off talks in January.
“Guys were making jokes in there, ‘Hey, see you later,’ and other good stuff,” says Hoffman. “It was definitely a different feeling, especially in college, you can’t get traded or anything like that. But that was out of my control. If it was to happen, what can I do about it?
“It didn’t happen, and I just went along with my rehab.”
That rehab, on its own, is challenging enough, especially given the circumstances surrounding his injury.
Already in the conversation to be the top pick in the 2014 draft, Hoffman was warming up for the seventh inning of an April 17 game against Middle Tennessee State when he felt a twinge in his elbow. He remained on the mound and finished with 16 strikeouts over eight one-hit innings, and eventually ended up on an operating table.
“Mentally, the toughest part is getting through this rehab,” says Hoffman. “It’s long, it’s repetitive, you’re coming in to do the same thing every day. Once I learned how to cope with it, I realized this is going to make me better in the long run. It’s much better to happen now than when I’m 26 and I have to stop a big-league career.
“Sometimes I come in and have a little grumpiness to me, I’ll be like, ‘This again?’ It’s the same exact thing, coming in, doing shoulder exercises, go straight into the whirlpool, get your elbow warmed up.”
Now, though, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Hoffman started throwing in January and is approaching 20 bullpen sessions. He’s diligently working to build his arm strength back up, refining his pitches and mechanics, honing his location, spinning breaking balls and regaining velocity.
Golfing with Drew Hutchison has given Hoffman occasion to compare checkpoints with someone who’s been through it before.
Step by agonizingly slow step, things are returning to normal.
“When I’m at my best I can throw any of my three off-speed pitches – changeup, slurve or slider – in the zone, get it out of the zone when I need to,” says Hoffman. “I’m able to locate a fastball with a lot of velocity on it, I’m pitching down at the knees and getting that sink at the end of my pitches.
“Everything is power down in the zone, making guys swing early, getting outs in three pitches or less and controlling the game.”
The changeup is a key pitch for him, generally running 88-91 with sink and dip at the end in contrast to a fastball that gets to 97-98.
“When my changeup is in the zone I’m really tough to hit,” Hoffman says matter of factly. “I have a good amount of feel when I’m on the mound. If I need to slow a changeup down and get it down to 84, 85, I can do that. If I need to speed it up and get it to 88-90, I can do that, too.
“Same thing with the breaking balls. If I have to throw it 73, 75 just to get it in the zone, I’ll do that. But I can also spin a breaking ball in there at 82, 83.”
The Blue Jays, as a matter of philosophy, err on the side of caution with their pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, but that isn’t stopping Hoffman from thinking big, too. In one breath he talks about reaching double-A New Hampshire or triple-A Buffalo or maybe even the majors this year, while in the next he acknowledges his timeline may not accelerate until 2016.
“I’d love to help the guys get to the playoffs,” Hoffman says of the Blue Jays. “But that’s not under my control. I’m going to take this one day at a time and try to stay healthy for the full year and then next year get to work.”
May 14, his one-year date post-surgery, is the next big signpost coming for Hoffman. Asked what he’s most looking forward to, he immediately replies, “putting on a uniform again.”
“I haven’t had the chance to put on a uniform since April,” he continues, “so getting to strap it up, button up, put the hat on again, and get out there to be with the guys is going to be a great feeling.”
The Blue Jays did the right thing in making sure that uniform will be one of theirs.