Injured ECU pitcher awaits MLB draft

The New York TimesJune 2, 2014 

Jeff Hoffman will watch the MLB draft Thursday from his home in Latham, N.Y., and for a while, he will not be happy. Hoffman, a junior right-hander at East Carolina, began the season hoping to be selected first overall.

“The competitor in me makes it hard for me to see, maybe, a bunch of guys get picked ahead of me – guys that I know aren’t better than me, some guys out of high school that don’t really understand the game of baseball yet,” Hoffman said last week. “It’s going to be tough if I fall a little further. But everything happens for a reason, and whatever team takes the so-called risk and drafts me is going to get the best player in the draft.”

Hoffman, a 6-foot-4 starter, was not drafted out of high school, but he developed quickly at East Carolina, where he added muscle to his frame and speed to his fastball, which has touched 98 mph. He thrived in two summers pitching for Hyannis in the Cape Cod League, where the baseballs have lower seams and the hitters use wooden bats, mimicking the professional game.

At the start of this season, Hoffman was widely projected to go in the top four, like Justin Verlander (second overall in 2004) and Stephen Strasburg (first overall in 2009), other lanky college right-handers with hard fastballs and sharp curveballs. As Hoffman rolled along in the early season, with a 2.94 ERA and more strikeouts than innings, his pitching coach, Dan Roszel, said Hoffman seemed very likely to go first.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Verlander or Strasburg when they see him in live action,” said Roszel, who mentored Chris Sale at Florida Gulf Coast. “Watching Jeff and the way he’s handled everything, it makes me believe he can be a big-league No. 1.”

As he was warming up for the seventh inning of a mid-April start against Middle Tennessee State, Hoffman said, something seemed different in his elbow.

“It felt like something kind of jumped,” he said. “But I never had any issues before, and I didn’t really think much about it. I didn’t think, I just tore my UCL.”

But that is what happened, and in mid-May, Dr. James Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on Hoffman to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament. The same injury has sidelined Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore and many others this season, but in some ways, it is so common that it almost helps Hoffman’s cause.

Mock drafts conducted by Baseball America, ESPN.com and MLB.com still project Hoffman to go among the top 20 selections. One high-ranking amateur scout, who was not authorized to talk about prospects, said his team had just been discussing Hoffman’s draft stock.

“He probably slides a little,” the scout said, “but not too far.”

There is precedent for spending a first-round pick on a pitcher with an elbow injury. The Washington Nationals used the 16th pick in 2012 on a high school pitcher, Lucas Giolito, who had reconstructive elbow surgery almost immediately after signing. He has since dominated the low minors and is considered the team’s top prospect.

Brady Aiken, a high school left-hander from San Diego, has been cited by some reports as the probable top pick, with N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon close behind. No matter where Hoffman falls – perhaps to Toronto, which picks ninth and 11th – he plans to reach the majors soon.

“In the short term, my goal was to be the No. 1 overall pick, because I feel I’m the best player in the draft,” Hoffman said. “That’s kind of changed a little bit, but my long-term goal of making an impact on a big-league team within two years – that’s not changed at all.”

Hoffman said he is eager to start playing catch in four months, and he understands that the surgery generally requires a year of recovery. These days, it is almost a rite of passage for a pitcher, and the team that drafts Hoffman will at least know he has a stable ligament.

“My attitude is, it’s done and over with,” he said. “With pitchers these days, I hate to say it, but it’s bound to happen, especially when guys are throwing at high velocity for a long period of time. It’s just too much on the human body. They’re going to have to get repaired sooner or later.”

The repairs came sooner for Hoffman, but chances are he will not have to wait too long to hear his name Thursday.

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