Back in 2009, things were going pretty well for right-handed reliever Matt Daley. He was in his first big league season with the Colorado Rockies, made their postseason roster, pitched in the NLDS and looked like he was on his way to a long Major League career.
Fast forward four years, and he’s going through the lower levels of the minors all over again, recovering from surgery on a torn labrum and follow-up procedure that cost him all of 2012. Finally back, he’s maintained a good attitude about having to climb the rungs of the baseball ladder one more time.
“It’s different,” Daley said. “I was telling these guys that I just came from Tampa, and the last time I was in High-A was 2006. Most of these guys were still in high school then or some of them probably in middle school. So it’s definitely a different feel, but it’s kind of cool to go back to that and see the energy that these kids have. It’s been fun for me, actually.”
On December 13, 2011, Daley signed with the New York Yankees. The understanding was that all of last year would be spent rehabbing, and he’d get every opportunity to make a team in 2013. But while it was comforting to know that he would have the chance to find a spot somewhere when he was healthy, Daley made it clear that there were no promises made.
“If I was back at the end of last year, that would be a plus for then, but if not, 2013 was probably going to be the year to get it going and pitch again,” Daley said.
“After becoming a minor league free agent after being with the Rockies for eight years, to have interest right away was a huge relief. I didn’t want to go the whole offseason and get into February and spring training and not know where I was going to be. So when the Yankees were the most interested, I just wanted to jump on that opportunity.”
And that he has, although perhaps not at the pace he might have liked. Daley attended spring training with the Yankees with the hopes to make an Opening Day roster, but was instead assigned to extended spring. He joined High-A Tampa late last month and, after four scoreless outings, was promoted to Double-A Trenton. He made his Thunder debut on Thursday night, spinning a scoreless frame bookended by two strikeouts. After enduring a tough 2012, Daley was just happy to be on any mound, no less the one at Arm & Hammer Park.
“Last year was not fun at all,” he said. “It was very tough, mentally more than anything. Physically, I kind of expected to not feel that good. But mentally, it was just tough having competed the last eight years of my life to just sit there and watch other people. It was not fun at all, but this year has been a lot better, and I’m excited to prove what I have to them.”
Daley says what he has about 90-95 percent of what he used to, with the final five or ten percent not too far off from returning.
“The command is there, the health is there, but now it’s just building up the velocity,” he said.
“I’ve been sitting 86-88, where before I was 88-91. So I’m getting very close to where I was. I’m just trying to build that arm strength back to where it was. Going to big league camp and getting in a few games, it was good to get the adrenaline going and face some good hitters. I sat in the meeting with Larry (Rothschild) and Joe (Girardi) and they just said, ‘We know what you are when you were healthy, and we just want you to get back to that. So that’s why we’re going to send you down now and build up the arm strength that you need.’ And it’s coming along. Going step-by-step is going to help me a lot. So getting here and facing better competition again is going to be good.”
Daley is built up to where he can pitch on back-to-back days if necessary (unlikely in Trenton) and had thrown as many as 40 pitches with Tampa. He’ll be coming out of the Thunder bullpen for now…and, if he has his way, any bullpen for the rest of his career.
“I started ten games in Double-A and hated every second of it,” he said through a chuckle. “I love being in the bullpen, so I’ll definitely be a bullpen guy. If I can get called up at some point this year, I’ll probably be a middle relief guy; come into the game in the sixth or seventh and get some righties out. But if I need to, I can go longer than that.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com