Trio of young Bucs is on the mend
Former top picks are trying to get past health issues
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Sean Burnett has had a frustrating couple of years.
A first-round selection by Pittsburgh in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, the 24-year-old southpaw reached the Majors at age 22 and impressed a large group of all the right people.
And then, things went wrong.
In 2004, Burnett had Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, which in and of itself would have knocked him out of action for at least the next season. Then, while rehabbing the elbow, out went his left shoulder. Another surgery left Burnett frustrated and confused.
In 2006, he returned to the mound, albeit at Triple-A, to test both his mental and physical progress.
"Some days, my shoulder would feel great and my elbow would bother me, and some days my elbow would feel great and my shoulder would bother me," he said. "I maybe had two or three starts where they both felt good. It was a tough year."
And it showed. Burnett posted an 8-11 record and 5.16 ERA in 25 starts for Indianapolis in 2006, leaving some to ponder the fate of the young southpaw who appeared in the 2002 Major League Baseball Futures Game. After a reflective offseason, Burnett believes this Spring Training he's finally back to his old self. His only problem is convincing everyone else.
"[Watching my teammates advance] was a tough part, because you kind of sit back and get passed by everybody else, and you fall back," Burnett said at his locker Monday. "That's the part about surgery that everybody hates: It gives another guy an opportunity.
"Some of the guys here took advantage of that opportunity, and now I've got to fight back and prove [myself]."
For what it's worth, he's not alone.
Two other Pirates pitchers have recently battled the same trepidation, and they, too, are trying to prove themselves worthy of another shot.
After never being seriously injured in his life, 2001 first-round pick John Van Benschoten needed surgeries to repair labrums in both of his shoulders within a three-month period at the end of 2004 and the start or 2005. For a while, it was difficult to dress himself, impossible to shower and a fairytale to even think of taking the mound.
"It was a shock," he said. "I traded a sling for a sling. It's definitely been a long road."
It became a disturbing trend for Pirates first-rounders when Bryan Bullington, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, had labrum surgery in October of 2005, laying him up for all of the following season.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, these three players also have another thing in common: They're now all physically -- and mentally -- healed for the first time in years.
It's great timing that has allowed each to participate in the full workouts again, which includes throwing bullpen sessions every other day. The results have been pleasantly surprising for the coaching staff this Spring Training.
"If some of these things continue to play themselves out in a positive manner, you step back and look at your pitching staff and say to yourself, 'Wait a minute, there may be more depth in this organization from a pitching standpoint than we even realized ourselves coming into the spring,'" manager Jim Tracy said. "That's a great thing, and that's what you hope happens and plays itself out."
It poses an interesting conundrum, as Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm have laid a fairly definitive claim to four of the five starting pitching roles, and Tony Armas Jr., who reported to camp Tuesday, is the popular choice to fill the fifth spot. Tracy made it quite clear, though, that it's very early and anything can happen.
Each of the three previously-injured pitchers have received favorable feedback from their bullpen sessions, but the real test will come when exhibition games start, when Bullington will see live action for the first time since his injury, and Van Benschoten and Burnett will continue to rebuild the foundation that saw both of them up with the Pirates in 2004.
Of the three, Burnett has the best chance at cracking the roster at this point, while Bullington and Van Benschoten will likely be sent to Indianapolis or Double-A Altoona for some extra work.
While hurt, Van Benschoten said, "You second-guess yourself and your health every day. You look at your shoulder and you're like, 'What are you going to do for me today?'"
Finally, he reported, he's been able to take the mound without worry.
"Now, I just go," he said.
Tracy said he's reserving judgment on them -- or any of his players, for that matter -- until he sees more of each during workouts and preseason games, but added he's encouraged by the trio's mental aptitude.
"If these guys are bouncing back...all of a sudden, there's some serious strength in numbers here," said Tracy. "We didn't have that a year ago."
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.