PEORIA, Ariz. -- As the rest of his Mariners teammates opened their Cactus League season on Thursday, Danny Hultzen had a different agenda.
There is no season to prepare for this year for Hultzen, the second overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft and a guy the Mariners once hoped could be an integral part of their pitching rotation by now.
Instead, the club's premier left-handed pitching prospect is rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery in his throwing shoulder after a frustrating 2013 season of stops and starts was finally scrapped in September.
So now, Hultzen heads to the practice field three days a week, looking not to blow fastballs past opposing hitters and snap off impressive curves, but to play catch with a trainer from 45 feet away.
The former Virginia All-American and Gold Spikes College Player of the Year could feel sorry for himself. Surely this isn't the way Hultzen expected his third season in pro ball to play out after being ranked as the 18th-best prospect in baseball just a year ago by MLB.com.
But Hultzen prefers taking the positive path, so he talks of progress rather than pain. He speaks of milestones reached rather than opportunities missed. And he takes small pleasures where he can find them, as in being able to put on a uniform four and a half months after the surgery and taking part in pitcher's fielding drills with his teammates on the practice fields of Peoria.
Sure, Hultzen has to underhand the ball over to first base after fielding bunts or gloving ground balls back to the mound. But he's out there at least, a part of the game to which he's trying to return.
"I had the sling on for six weeks, which was a pain, but I'm feeling really good lately, and I'm glad I can kind of be a baseball player again and go out there and do PFPs, and play catch and all that instead of just sitting on the sidelines," Hultzen said. "My heart was actually racing a little bit the first time we went out there. Most of the time it's just kind of another day, but it was exciting for me, for sure."
For now, Hultzen's days are spent primarily in the training room doing rehab exercises and working out. But he's in a throwing program that will eventually stretch him out to long toss at 180 feet, then pitching from the flat ground before taking the mound for bullpen sessions.
The whole aim is to get Hultzen ready by next Spring Training, when he can start competing again. For now, the victories are of a different sort.
"There are little milestones every once in a while," Hultzen said. "The first day we did towel drills and my arm stayed on there, so that was a milestone. Then, we started playing catch with a tennis ball and I threw one and made it there. So that was a milestone. Then playing catch actually with a baseball and glove, that was another one. There are many more to come."
When Hultzen was healthy enough to get on a mound last year, he didn't disappoint, going 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA in six starts with Triple-A Tacoma. There is no doubt he'd be smack in the middle of the rotation plans this year for an organization that envisioned his arrival, along with Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, as three of the better pitching prospects in baseball.
But the shoulder problem kept cropping up and Hultzen kept trying to rest and then return before surgery finally was performed by Dr. James Andrews on Oct. 1 in Pensacola, Fla.
When Hultzen's teammates head out to start the season, he'll remain in Peoria for a full season of rehab work. Most pitchers who undergo rotator cuff surgeries say it takes 12 months to finally feel normal again and longer than that to rebuild the strength.
Hultzen again finds a best-case scenario in that his surgery fell at such a point that there was no way he could even think about pitching this season. Instead, he'll take this full year and then have four months more of offseason to get fully prepared for 2015.
"If it had been done earlier, it could have been a thought I could play this year," Hultzen said. "I know myself and I'd probably force myself to try to get through it and move things along too quickly, just to see if I could. Which is probably not the smartest thing to do. So the timing is actually good because there's absolutely no need to rush it."
That's Hultzen. Finding a silver lining. But the positive thinking can only mask reality for so long. And nobody understands how frustrating his situation is any more than the guy spending his days in rehab and looking at a long haul by himself in Arizona when his buddies are off touring the country and playing ball.
Is there really any good side to this whole situation?
"Oh, hell no," Hultzen said. "Absolutely not."
But Hultzen has no choice in these matters. So as teammates fine tune their craft in preparation for games in front of cheering crowds, Hultzen does what he can. He plays catch. And dreams of better days ahead.