After Eight-Year Climb, Danny Hultzen Is Finally A Major Leaguer
SAN DIEGO — Danny Hultzen long dreamed he would be here. He just wasn’t sure it would ever actually happen.
Not after two shoulder surgeries that cost him the 2014 and 2017 seasons. Certainly not after the days he couldn’t lift his left arm after playing catch at 90 feet.
And yet, here Hultzen is: in a major league clubhouse in front of a locker with his name on it, a member of the Cubs’ bullpen.
After a painful, occasionally tortuous eight-year climb, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft is finally a major leaguer.
"I can’t even put it into words,” the 29-year-old lefthander said. "You always have belief that you can be here, but the question is whether or not you will be here. I always had confidence I could do it someday. Whether or not it would happen was another question. Being here makes all those years of work and struggle and disappointment totally worth it.”
Hultzen took over as Virginia’s No. 1 starter as a freshman and held the spot all three years for the Cavaliers. He led Virginia to its first two College World Series appearances, earned All-America honors every season and finished as the program’s all-time leader in wins (32) and strikeouts (395).
Hultzen was big, lefthanded, had a fastball that touched 96 mph and fit the bill of a potential front-of-the-rotation stalwart.
But nothing went according to plan.
Hultzen walked as many batters in his first pro season in 2012 as he did in three years combined at Virginia. He was shut down twice with shoulder issues in 2013 and eventually had rotator cuff surgery, which caused him to miss all of 2014. He made five starts combined in 2015-16 before having a second shoulder surgery.
The Mariners let him walk as a minor league free agent after 2016, and he remained unsigned through all of 2017 as he rehabbed from his second surgery. He used the time to go back to Virginia and complete his degree.
Through it all, Hultzen never thought of quitting. No matter how much his arm hurt, he was determined to keep giving it a shot.
"I always had the belief,” he said. "I wouldn’t have even tried if I didn’t believe in myself. Whether it comes true or not is another question.
"I could live without making it if I knew I did everything in my power to do my best to get back. If it didn’t happen it would have been a disappointment, but I could have lived with that.”
The Cubs signed Hultzen to a minor league deal before the 2018 season, a flyer on a one-time promising prospect at little risk to the club. He spent most of the next two years pitching out of the bullpen at Triple-A Iowa.
Hultzen twice went on the injured list this year, but he posted a 0.68 ERA in 13 relief appearances when he was healthy.
On Sept. 6, Iowa manager Marty Pevey called Hultzen into his office and gave him the news: he was going to the majors.
"I was kind of in shock. Tears started to well up,” Hultzen said. "The tears really started come when I got on the phone with my dad. That was hard. I couldn’t even speak, telling him.
"I just told him that I had good news and I was going up and there were some tears between the two of us and then just kind of silence after that. Just kind of trying to soak in six years of rehab and all that struggle, it made me really think about all the people who had helped me get to that point. Going through that for so long, I definitely couldn’t have done it alone.”
Hultzen caught a flight from Des Moines to Chicago and drove from there to Milwaukee, where the Cubs were playing the Brewers.
Two days after receiving the news, he was sitting in the Cubs bullpen when he got the call to warm up. As the bullpen gate opened in the bottom of the seventh, he was so amped up he almost tuned out his surroundings too much.
"I was pumped up, I was excited and I open the bullpen door and I take like one or two hard steps and start jogging in there and everyone is standing for God Bless America,” he said, laughing. "So I had to stop and catch myself.”
With two on and no out, Hultzen didn’t panic. He struck out the next three batters, punctuated by a 94 mph fastball on the inside corner to get Cory Spangenberg swinging.
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"It’s pretty amazing,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Arm surgery is one thing, but shoulder is even worse….I watched him throw the other night closely and it didn’t look like his shoulder was impacted, which is really amazing. The arm looked loose and free and it worked and there was no hindrance.”
Afterward, sitting in the clubhouse postgame, Hultzen found himself crying for the second time that week.
"That flood of emotions just kind of hit me right then and there because there was so much buildup, so much anticipation,” he said. "Then, when it finally did happen and I got through it, I remember just sitting in the locker room just putting my hands in my face. Nobody saw it.”
Hultzen is surrounded in the Cubs’ clubhouse by former top picks and touted prospects. Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward each ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball coming up the minors. Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Albert Almora, Cole Hamels, Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner were all first-round draft choices.
Heyward has a simple message he gives to all players trying to live up to prospect hype.
"Trust your (stuff),” Heyward said. "Don’t listen to anyone else. Trust you.”
Hultzen trusted he’d get here, and now he is. Maddon said the club is mindful of Hultzen’s injury history and likely will not pitch him on back-to-back days, but Hultzen has a role down the stretch for a contending team.
It’s not quite Hultzen or anyone else envisioned when was drafted second overall, but after eight years of pain and surgeries and setbacks, it’s extremely gratifying, nonetheless.
"I couldn’t be happier with how I’m feeling,” Hultzen said. "There’s been so many ups and downs with how my shoulder feels…and now I’m throwing in games and feeling good the next day. I couldn’t be happier.”