This is it for Mike Pelfrey, the oft-injured Minnesota Twins right-hander who many Twins fans probably have forgotten is on the team.
He pitched in only five games last season before shutting down because of injuries to his shoulder, elbow and groin. He’s 31, in the final year of a two-year, $11 million contract and his future in baseball is staring him down.
Pelfrey will report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., next month with a battle on his hands. He’s probably a long shot to make the Twins’ starting rotation and the team has fortified its bullpen during the offseason. There’s a new manager (Paul Molitor) and pitching coach (Neil Allen).
“It’s a little different,” said Pelfrey, a former Wichita State All-American who lives here during the offseason. “But, like I’ve said, I can’t blame anybody. This game is about staying healthy and performing and I haven’t done that. So here I am at 31, going into spring training for the first time in a while having to try to earn a job. And I get it. I’m going to be ready.”
The Twins are everybody’s pick to finish last in the improving American League Central, which last season produced two playoff teams and the AL’s World Series representative, the Kansas City Royals. Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox have beefed up for 2015 and should contend with the Royals and Detroit.
The Twins also have gotten better, adding free-agent right-hander Ervin Santana to the rotation and plugging Torii Hunter into the outfield. Santana likely takes the No. 2 spot behind Phil Hughes with Ricky Nolasco and Kyle Gibson likely to join them.
That leaves the No. 5 spot open, and it’s one Pelfrey covets. There has been some talk about moving him to the bullpen – a la Kansas City’s Wade Davis – but that’s not where Pelfrey sees himself for now. He’s a starter – all but four of his 187 appearances as a big leaguer have been as a starter.
“I know there will be other guys competing for that spot,” said Pelfrey, who had Tommy John surgery in 2012. “I feel like I’ve prepared myself to go out there and be that guy.”
Pelfrey sounds confident now, but his faith in himself was rattled by the injuries that have made pitching much harder than it used to be.
He was the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft, taken by the New York Mets. He spent only a short time in the minor leagues before getting the call to New York and from 2008-11 he made 131 starts. With the Mets in 2010, he was 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA. At 26, it looked like Pelfrey was coming into his own.
Instead, he was coming into a rash of injuries, which all came crashing down at once, it seemed, last year.
“I had five starts and they weren’t good,” Pelfrey said. “My velocity was going down and I had numbness in my fingers, so I had no idea where the ball was going. I went on a rehab assignment to the minors and I was throwing 86 mph with no idea where it was going.”
The Twins’ Triple-A pitching coach, Marty Mason, watched Pelfrey throw a pitch to the backstop while throwing a bullpen and had a message for the right-hander.
“He called me over and said, ‘You know, you’re not a spring chicken anymore,’” Pelfrey said. “He told me I was throwing 86 and that might be all I’ve got. I said ‘No, no, no, not yet.’”
But Pelfrey wondered if Mason might be right.
“That‘s when I knew I had to get looked at,” Pelfrey said. “I was trying to pitch, trying to come back, but it wasn’t good.”
Injuries had taken more than just a physical toll on Pelfrey. He was starting to doubt himself.
“I enjoy playing, but there comes a point in time when you don’t want to keep rehabbing,” Pelfrey said. “I talked to my wife last year about it and it was if I can’t stay healthy or I don’t go out there and perform, I might be done. It’s miserable. I want to play and I want to be successful doing it.”
Pelfrey is encouraged by how he’s been feeling during the offseason. He plays catch with some former Shocker teammates and is throwing with more ease than he has in a while. Of course, he knocks on wood before expressing too much optimism.
“You play this game to pitch, to compete,” he said. “The money is great, I obviously can’t complain about that. But I want to play and I want to enjoy it. For a while now, it’s been like going to work every day and having a bad day.
“It’s not about the money for me. I don’t need to keep playing. But I love playing and competing and it still gets my adrenalin going. I feel like I’ve taken money from the Twins the last couple of years without being able to prove who I am. I don’t think the fans in Minnesota or the front office have seen who I am other than little glimpses.”
Pelfrey is determined to show them. He’ll battle Tommy Millone, Alex Meyer and Trevor May for the fifth spot in the Twins’ rotation this spring. He just wants to go into battle at his best.
“In my mind, if I’m healthy, I’m one of the top five starters on the team,” Pelfrey said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”