TAMPA, Fla. -- Two years ago in spring training, the buzz surrounding Manny Banuelos was inescapable, both inside and outside the Yankees' organization.
With a mid-90s fastball, a darting curveball and a changeup that had opposing scouts talking, the then-19-year-old lefthander posted a 2.13 ERA in 122/3 spring training innings in 2011.
Banuelos walked eight batters but struck out 14, and his overall performance inspired the team to -- borrowing a phrase that general manager Brian Cashman often uses in discussing young talent -- "dream big."
Banuelos wasn't fast-tracked to the big leagues -- he started 2011 with Double-A Trenton before earning a promotion to Triple-A Scranton / Wilkes-Barre -- but the expectation was that he could pitch for the Yankees at some point in 2012.
How long ago it all seems.
Banuelos last started a game May 18 of last season for Scranton and isn't likely to pitch for anyone this season. He's recovering from Tommy John surgery in October.
"It's so hard for me," Banuelos said. "I just want to be fine, be stronger and pitching like before. I don't mind taking a year, but I just want it to be good [when he returns].''
Progress, which almost always occurs after Tommy John surgery, will come slowly, though. Banuelos, who turns 22 March 13, started playing catch two weeks ago and attends physical therapy three times a week.
"I'm not sure where he goes as far as how much pitching he'll be able to do this year," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "I don't anticipate a whole lot."
Reflecting on last season, Banuelos said he never expected to wind up sidelined for so long. After he experienced elbow soreness, the Yankees sat him, prescribing mostly rest.
"I felt that pain but I did some rehab stuff and got [better]," he said. "I didn't think it would be bad like that [where] I'd need surgery."
But every time he dialed it up in his throwing program, the elbow hurt. In October, the diagnosis no pitcher wants to hear came down: Tommy John surgery.
So as pitchers and catchers report at Steinbrenner Field this week, Banuelos, who again was invited to camp last season, will not be with them. Instead, his recovery from surgery will continue at the minor-league complex across the street.
Banuelos is among the young pitchers whom managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has mentioned as being critical to his goal of getting the payroll to $189 million by 2014.
Banuelos won't be able to contribute to that process this season but said he expects to do so eventually. He has no doubt that when he does come back, he'll be every bit as good as before.
"I feel like that," he said. "The same or better. But not worse."