It was January, one month before he would report to his first spring training camp with the Seattle Mariners, and before he could look forward, Hultzen, a Bethesda native and St. Albans product, needed to take one last look back. The way he figured it, his sudden windfall — a five-year, $8.5 million guaranteed contract with the Mariners, as the second overall pick of the June 2011 draft — would not have been possible without the efforts of O’Connor and the many others in Charlottesville who influenced his life.
“They made me who I am today,” Hultzen said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without the University of Virginia, so I just wanted give them a token of my admiration. All of the money I’ve run into, they deserve a lot of it.”
For his part, O’Connor admits to being “shocked” at the dollar figure that Hultzen dropped on him that day, but not by the selfless act itself. As it happens, Hultzen made the donation before he bought anything of significance for himself — he still hasn’t bought anything for himself more expensive than some new clothes.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he would do this for the [baseball] program before he did anything for himself, because that’s Danny,” said O’Connor, who expects to use Hultzen’s donation on improvements to the baseball stadium. “But the fact he made such a commitment, and did it just five months after signing his contract, really speaks to who he is, and how fond he is of his time at the University of Virginia.”
‘It’s a little surreal’
Having done right by his alma mater, Hultzen, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound left-hander, headed west to the desert, to begin the long process of trying to do right by his new employers. He walked into a spring training clubhouse populated by the likes of “King” Felix Hernandez, the 2010 American League Cy Young winner, and Ichiro Suzuki, the two-time AL batting champ, and took a moment to wrap his mind around that.
“It’s a little surreal,” Hultzen said. “You just take a second — ‘Wow, that’s Felix Hernandez.’ And then it clicks: You’re in the same locker room as them, doing the same things as those guys.”
If there is one impression Hultzen has made upon the Mariners in the short time since camp opened, it is that he looks as if he belongs. The Mariners drafted him in the first place largely because of his polish and because they believed him to be closer to major league-ready than anyone else of comparable talent in the draft.
“You watch this kid, and he already looks like he knows what he’s doing out there,” said Mariners Manager Eric Wedge, after watching Hultzen face live batters. “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he’d been around a few years.”
Carl Willis, the Mariners’ pitching coach, took note of Hultzen’s first mound session against live batters — the way he would throw a few pitches, step off the mound to gather himself, then climb the mound again and fire away. It was the kind of thing a 10-year veteran might do.
“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.