Finally a ray of light for Ward Melville lefty Steven Matz
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Motivation came only from the glimpses of what he might become someday, should his body ever allow it.
Steven Matz subsisted on these morsels of hope. At Ward Melville, he was one of Long Island's top high school pitchers. Then Matz endured a bumpy rehab from Tommy John surgery. It effectively wiped out his first three professional seasons after the Mets drafted him 72nd overall in 2009.
But between what he called "flare-ups" of sharp pain in his left elbow, the 22-year-old lefty dazzled officials during his throwing sessions, leaving them to wonder if their investment would ever pay off.
"We would walk away thinking 'this is electric,' " said Paul DePodesta, the Mets' head of player development and scouting.
In 2013, that electricity translated into results. For the first time, Matz completed a full season, leading to a resurgence with Class A Savannah that reestablished his status as a prospect.
Said Matz: "There were those little spurts that would kind of give me light at the end of the tunnel, that maybe I still have it and it's just a matter of time."
The Mets agreed with that assessment earlier this offseason. Rather than risk losing Matz in the Rule 5 draft, the Mets shielded him from being chosen by putting him on the 40-man roster. When pitchers and catchers officially report to major-league camp on Saturday, Matz will be among them because he spent those lost years preparing for the time when his body might become more friend than foe.
"It's not like I was just not picking up a baseball and just doing band exercises for two years," Matz said.
The messy aftereffects of surgery in 2010 turned Matz into a rehab expert, mastering exercises that strengthened his shoulder and elbow and the smaller muscles in his left arm.
After complications cost him all of 2010 and 2011, Matz made his pro debut in 2012, nearly three years after he was drafted. It was short-lived. He posted a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings at rookie-level Kingsport, but shoulder tendinitis limited him to six starts.
As Mets officials debated what to do with Matz last winter, they worried that the strain of a full season might be too much. Still, they sent him to Savannah, figuring that at some point, they'd limit his innings by putting him in a tandem.
But Matz never needed it. By season's end, he had posted a 2.62 ERA, leading Savannah through a playoff run that culminated in a South Atlantic League championship.
He made 21 starts and logged 1061/3 innings, eclipsing the goal of 100 that he'd set for himself. "We were thrilled with just that alone," DePodesta said. "And then you put the results on top of it, and we were ecstatic about the year he had."
Players who miss extended periods of time often show noticeable differences in their performance over the season. But according to one talent evaluator, Matz showed no such variations, an encouraging sign.
"It felt awesome to go out there every sixth day and to compete," Matz said.
The road to the big leagues remains long for Matz, who likely will begin the year with Class A St. Lucie.
Though he has shown touch with his changeup, a pitch he sharpened as the season progressed, several scouts said he has yet to attain consistency. The development of his curveball -- clearly his third pitch -- might mean the difference between sticking as a starter or winding up as a reliever.
But scouts also agree that Matz's fastball gives him a steady foundation from which to build. The pitch sits at 92 to 94 mph, plenty of velocity for a lefthander. And the late movement on the pitch sets Matz apart.
"If something's going to get him to the major leagues, it's going to be the effectiveness of his fastball," said one rival scout, who believes Matz could reach the big leagues as a starter in two or three years.
Of course, health remains key for Matz, a forgotten prospect no more.
"He definitely has a chance," said another rival evaluator. "[His] stuff is good enough. He's definitely back on the radar."