Duke

Duke pitcher Michael Matuella one of the MLB Draft’s biggest mysteries

Duke's hard-throwing ace, Michael Matuella, projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the June draft, pitches during a scrimmage at Jack Combs Field on the Duke campus,  Feb. 6, 2015.
Duke's hard-throwing ace, Michael Matuella, projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the June draft, pitches during a scrimmage at Jack Combs Field on the Duke campus, Feb. 6, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

When pitcher Michael Matuella arrived at Duke in 2012, he was a bit of a mystery. Three years later, that’s still true as analysts struggle with predicting his destination in the 2015 major league draft, which starts Monday.

It didn’t take long for the new Duke coaching staff to realize it had a potential diamond in the rough with Matuella, who arrived as an undrafted, skinny 6-foot-6 project with a fastball that topped out in the mid-80s. But after watching him throw one long toss session, the Blue Devils coaches assured him that he was capable of much more.

And he was.

Quickly, Matuella’s fastball jumped into the mid-90s, even flashing 97 mph. He didn’t lose any velocity when he switched from a four-seam grip to a two-seam grip with more sinking action, and his curveball that drops with a 12-to-6 o’clock motion is another effective swing-and-miss pitch. Those tools, combined with his frame, had him in the conversation last winter to become the No. 1 overall pick.

An all-too-often occurrence – injury – derailed that dream. This year, it was Tommy John surgery on a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right throwing elbow.

The injury, which will keep him sidelined for about a year, limited Matuella to just 25 innings. In his three years at Duke, he was never healthy long enough to throw more than 60 innings in any season, with recurring back problems limiting him his sophomore year. (By comparison, former N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon’s lowest total was 982/3 innings.)

“This draft class was right there for Michael Matuella to lead,” Baseball America editor John Manuel said. “If Michael had just had a year where he took the ball 14 times, (started) once every week of the regular season, he would have made $6.5 million. I make it sound like that’s easy – I know it’s not easy – but the fact was that he couldn’t do that, and he has never done that.”

It’s the risk-reward combination of enormous, top-of-the-rotation upside with a significant injury history and an extremely limited track record that have draft prognosticators stumped. The expectation is for Matuella to most likely go late in the first round, most likely to a team with multiple high picks that can afford to take a chance on pure upside (the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies fit that bill). But a fall into the second round wouldn’t be a shock, either.

Matuella, in a conference call Friday with reporters, didn’t sound concerned.

“The draft is something you can’t really control,” Matuella said. “It’s frustrating having the injury and not being able to prove to everyone what I can do. … I know when it’s all said and done I’ll come back as a better pitcher. I’m just looking forward to that stage of my life.

“I can’t concern myself with what certain teams are thinking. That’s out of my control.”

Aaron Fitt, an editor for d1baseball.com, said the team that drafts Matuella will bank on his potential.

“People probably like the fact that he didn’t pitch 400 innings in college, but on the other hand, you’d like to see a guy prove he can stay healthy,” Fitt said. “And he hasn’t done that, ever. It’s a double-edge sword. It’s a pure upside play, really.”

It’s not the arm surgery that has scouts spooked – Tommy John surgery is common among young top pitchers – it’s Matuella’s back. He was diagnosed with spondylolysis, a manageable condition that involves a defect in the connection between vertebrae. There is disagreement among baseball people as to how serious of a concern his back is, but it’s notable enough that analysts don’t expect him to be treated as favorably as other pitchers who have recently been drafted after Tommy John surgery: Jeff Hoffman, out of East Carolina, still went No. 9 overall last year to the Toronto Blue Jays, and UNLV’s Erick Fedde went 18th to the Washington Nationals. Hoffman already is back and throwing 99 mph in the Jays’ system.

“Even if you put the back pain aside, the scouting industry really needs to have a comfort level with anybody, even if they’re healthy. It’s such a crapshoot,” MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo said. “You add in elbow surgery, which most people now feel comfortable that a guy is going to come back from, with the fact of, ‘well, who is he?’ He has never thrown more than 60 innings. He didn’t pitch in the Cape or for USA Baseball or anything like that. There have not been enough looks at who he is regularly to feel that that is who he can be once he’s healthy. That’s probably, more than anything, what is keeping his draft stock down.

“You roll the dice and draft Michael Matuella, you’re hoping that he’s the guy who showed up in glimpses last year,” Mayo added. “That’s a large caveat when you’re talking about a first-round pick.”

Those glimpses, though, were tantalizing to scouts last year. Many would go see Rodon, who went No. 3 overall last year to the Chicago White Sox, Hoffman and Matuella and come away thinking Matuella was every bit as good.

“No one else in this draft class when they were healthy was as good as Michael Matuella when he was healthy,” Manuel said. “His situation for me is very complicated, and I think it is for the teams.”

Matuella understands a top 10 pick no longer is likely and said Friday he doesn’t rule out returning to Duke for his senior season should the draft not pan out the way he wants.

“That’s definitely an option I’m evaluating,” he said. “I’m hoping a good opportunity presents itself. I really haven’t come up with a certain (draft round) cutoff. I’ll evaluate it case by case and see if there’s a good opportunity for me.”

For now, rehab is his focus.

“I was doing rehab the day after surgery, mostly stretches, isometrics, squeezes, stuff like that,” he said. “I’m adding in new stuff each week, about an hour and a half each day. Then my actual workouts focusing on legs and core take about an hour.”

He won’t throw for at least two months, however, and hopes to return to game action next spring.

“I’m not going to rush back,” he said. “I’m not going to push the envelope and risk re-tearing it. … I do anticipate it being (next) spring.”

Matuella said he has been talking with two of his Duke teammates, pitchers James Marvel and Trent Swart, who had Tommy John surgery last year and sat out the 2015 season.

“I’ve been kind of picking their brains, seeing what was normal for them,” Matuella said. “I bounce things off them and have them give me advice.”

He has also drawn some consolation in knowing that other pitchers have traveled the same route. He cited Hoffman as an example.

“Seeing how he’s bounced back, he’s been up to 99 (mph), which is pretty impressive,” Matuella said. “It’s promising to see guys with injuries coming back so well.”

Kip Coons contributed to this report.

Keeley: 919-829-4556;

Twitter: @laurakeeley

MLB draft

What: First and second rounds.

TV: 7 p.m., Monday, MLB Network

Follow online: MLB.com

Tuesday: Rounds 3-10, starting at 1 p.m.

Wednesday: Rounds 11-40, starting at noon.

Locals among Baseball America’s top 200 prospects

23: Michael Matuella, RHP, Duke

106: Skye Bolt, OF, UNC

157: Logan Ratledge, INF, N.C. State

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