“He’s not in a rush,” Willis said. “You see a mind-set of a guy who is focused on executing each pitch. For a young guy to step into his first camp and be able to have that type of composure and not get sped up, that’s pretty rare.”
A little seasoning
But polish, maturity and a big league carriage have their limitations. The Mariners aren’t saying so publicly — because speculation over a top prospect’s chances of making the opening day roster is one of the most cherished rites of spring — but privately, they acknowledge Hultzen needs at least a little seasoning in the minors. His only professional experience was a total of 18 innings in the developmental Arizona Fall League last October.
The last pitcher to make the big leagues without minor league experience was Cincinnati’s Mike Leake, an Arizona State product, who made the Reds’ roster in 2010. But after a fast start, Leake suffered from shoulder soreness, necessitating a stay on the disabled list in August 2010, and after a shaky start in 2011, he was sent to the minors for two weeks. Prior to Leake, the last straight-to-the-majors pitcher was Jim Abbott of the California Angels in 1989.
“Sometimes when a young kid has to take a step back, mentally, their confidence takes a bit of a blow,” Willis said, citing the Leake example as a cautionary tale. “It’s a fine line to walk, because when a guy is ready you want them in the majors — but you want them there to stay.”
Of course, three years ago, the same things could be said about a true freshman becoming the No. 1 starter for a successful program such as Virginia’s. It was virtually unheard of. But Hultzen not only survived that role intact, he went 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA — part of a 32-5, 2.08 career with the Cavaliers — and won the ACC’s freshman of the year award.
O’Connor said he has no idea what the Mariners’ plans are, but he’s certain that Hultzen would be just fine in the big leagues. In fact, he’s got $100,000 that says the kid is going to be great.