The Chicago Cubs recently made an intriguing move signing lefty pitcher Danny Hultzen to a modest incentive-based deal. Hultzen, a former second overall draft pick, joins a list of notable Theo Epstein reclamation projects. That list includes names like Jake Arrieta, Drew Smyly, Jacob Turner, and Daniel Bard. After a promising collegiate career, Hultzen has been derailed mightily by ongoing injuries. However, at just 28 years-old, the lanky left-hander still has a remote chance to realize his once incredible potential.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) March 2, 2018
Coming out of the University of Virginia, Hultzen logged 32 wins in three years, along with a career 2.08 ERA and 390 strikeouts in 320 innings. Given his collegiate pedigree, the Mariners selected him second overall behind only Gerrit Cole, assuming he’d quickly move through the minor leagues. Hope in the organization centered around Hultzen eventually teaming up with Felix Hernandez to create one of the most fearsome 1-2 punches in the league.
Rather, Hultzen became one of the largest draft busts in recent memory. The Mariners passed on a plethora of talent to select Hultzen, and every year that passes, the selection looks worse and worse. Drafted behind Hultzen is a list of prospects that are currently flourishing: Trevor Bauer (#3 Overall), Anthony Rendon (#6 Overall), Francisco Lindor (#8 Overall), Javy Baez (#9 Overall), the late Jose Fernandez (#14 Overall), Sonny Gray (#18 Overall), and Michael Fulmer (#44 Overall).
Though the pick was a total miss, you cannot really blame the Mariners for making the selection. Hultzen certainly checked all the boxes as a prospect coming out of Virginia. Standing at 6’3” 210 lbs. he exhibited a long and lean frame that generally promotes durability. Draft-mates Cole and Bauer had more explosion to their stuff, but Hultzen was very polished with a solid mix of pitches and elite control.
Baseball America rated the young lefty as the 21st best prospect in baseball during his first full season. Early returns on Hultzen in the Mariners minor league system were actually quite strong. His Double-A performance was dominant. In 75.1 innings, Hultzen sported a 1.19 ERA/2.79 FIP, along with 79 strikeouts and a WHIP less than 1.00. Halfway through the season, Hultzen earned a promotion to Triple-A, but results there were disappointing. He racked up the strikeouts, but walks were a huge issue. All things considered, Hultzen had a nice first year overall, leaving Mariners brass excited about his future.
Entering the 2013 season, Hultzen was rated the 29th best prospect by Baseball America. Hultzen’s name did not appear on the list again after 2013. He seemed well on his way to a big-league promotion, as he was beginning to settle in at Triple-A. In 30.2 innings, he racked up a 2.05 ERA/2.56 FIP and 34 strikeouts. He lowered his walk rate to the lowest of his minor league career and was keeping men off base at a dominant rate.
April 2013: Here is where everything began to fall apart for the Mariners top prospect. The first sign of a problem was when Hultzen could not get loose before a start. A couple days later doctors diagnosed him with a minor strain to his rotator cuff, as well as shoulder tendinitis. The Mariners chose to take the cautious approach leaving Hultzen on the shelf for two months.
July 2013: Hultzen’s first start back was in his normal dominant fashion, but only a few days later he again experienced issues getting loose. Hultzen would remain on the DL for another two-month stint with similar shoulder symptoms.
September 2013: Similar to Hultzen’s initial return in July, he dominated in his first appearance back. But just a few weeks later shoulder discomfort would return. This time the news from doctors was the realization of a nightmare scenario for Hultzen and the Mariners. The diagnoses included a partially torn rotator cuff, damaged labrum, and damaged capsule. Hultzen would require surgery and would be away from the game for the foreseeable future.
May 2015: After more than a year and a half off the mound, Hutlzen made his return to Double-A, again in strong fashion. Hultzen’s early results were definitely encouraging, though extremely deliberate in regularity.
July 2015: In 3 appearances on the year, Hultzen only logged eight total innings, but pitched well in that timeframe. However, the all-to-familiar shoulder fatigue quickly returned, and Hultzen’s season was over.
March 2016: The Mariners were hopeful a full eight months of rest and recovery would do wonders for Hultzen’s comeback. But just a few days into Spring Training shoulder issues persisted. Hultzen would try a comeback with the Mariners Rookie League squad, but his arm again would not respond.
July 2016: Hultzen, through a series of frustrating rehabilitation and failed comebacks, finally decided to retire from baseball. This period ended an unfortunate list of setbacks for a once-promising young prospect.
Danny Hultzen officially returned to professional baseball, after missing all of 2017, for what will likely be his last chance at a comeback. The question Cubs fans have to be asking though, is what are they getting in Danny Hultzen?
First of all, any optimism that Hultzen eventually turns into a contributor for the Cubs should be tempered. Yes, Hultzen is only 28 years-old, but he essentially underwent the worst injury a pitcher can have and has not been able to return in any consistent length of time since his surgery nearly five years ago.
Most pitchers who experience this type of injury struggle to regain their previous level of performance. A torn rotator cuff is the injury that derailed the careers of pitchers like Brandon Webb, Johan Santana, and Mark Mulder.
As a reclamation project, Danny Hultzen would be far and away the biggest resurgence any Epstein signing has experienced. Arrieta’s ascension to prominence as a Cub was a result of optimized mechanics, which are controllable. As far as Hultzen is concerned, any positive outcome would be attributed to an improved bill of health, which no front office or coaching staff can really contribute to.
The one positive with Hultzen though is that when he was actually on the mound he was extremely successful. When he’s right, Hultzen features a low to mid 90s fastball with good life. He is able to work both sides of the plate, and mixes in both a plus slider and a plus changeup. Given his three-quarters arm slot, he has good deception and is extremely tough on lefties.
For now, the goal for Danny Hultzen as a Cub is simply availability. I expect any progress to come very slowly, but as long as we do not hear the words “shutdown” or “rehab”, Hultzen would be trending in the right direction. Hultzen was supposed to be the next great arm in the American League when the Mariners drafted him in 2011. However, seven years later and Hultzen’s name remains a footnote to a draft that produced elite Major League talent.
The road to recovery for Hultzen has been riddled with frustration and plain bad luck. However, the persistence he has shown over the past several years is certainly admirable. The odds are still heavily stacked against Hultzen moving forward, but all fans should find it easy to root for the former prospect still looking to achieve his Major League debut. Let’s hope this debut comes in a Cubs uniform.