Joe Palumbo’s Rise Is Anything But Ordinary

Image credit: Joe Palumbo (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

SURPRISE, Ariz – Texas Rangers left-hander Joe Palumbo is a study in perseverance.

After going largely overlooked out of high school and then requiring Tommy John surgery just as he was coming into his own in the Rangers organization, the pitcher, 24, now finds himself on the verge of a breakthrough.

It couldn’t come at a better time for the Rangers, who are in a rebuild after back-to-back losing seasons. As part of that process, Texas is assembling a young pitching core that could make up the bulk of the club’s big-league rotation as early as the 2021 season.

Palumbo hopes to be part of that future, which would cap a remarkable rise for the native of Long Island’s South Shore.

Palumbo was ineligible to play during his senior year in high school in West Islip, New York, after transferring to a private school, so he pitched in a men’s league and hoped for the best in the 2013 MLB Draft.

Despite a fastball that clocked consistently above 90 miles per hour, he wasn’t taken until the 30th round, the 910th player selected that year. He pocketed just $32,000 when he signed with the Rangers.

Typically, players who slip that far in the draft out of high school will go the college route to improve their position. That wasn’t the plan for Palumbo.

“I really wasn’t the biggest school-goer,” Palumbo said with a laugh in the Rangers clubhouse at Surprise Stadium.

He was anxious to get his pro career started and signed with the Rangers at 18.

“I had the shot of becoming a professional baseball player,” he said. “It was what I wanted to do, and I worked for it my whole life. So I took the opportunity and have made the most of it.”

Palumbo is the No. 8 prospect in a Rangers system that includes six young arms in its top 10, and he showed signs of the potential he flashed before blowing out his throwing elbow in 2017.  

He is in familiar surroundings. Palumbo learned his way through his first two seasons as a pro with the Rangers affiliate in the rookie-level Arizona League.

“I was really nervous on the flight out here,” he remembered. “I had never even been on a plane by myself. I’m not the biggest fan of flying, so you can imagine me on that plane.

“It was pretty crazy, but just like anything else, you warm up and get to know your teammates and as the days went along it got easier.”

From the time he made his professional debut in 2013 through the end of 2015, Palumbo did little to impress.

However, he turned a corner in 2016 with the Class A Hickory Crawdads in the South Atlantic League.

In 33 games he threw 96.1 innings, striking out 122 with a 2.24 ERA and 36 walks while compiling a 7-5 record. Opponents batted just .202 against him.

Then Palumbo made three dominating starts in the Carolina League to start 2017, striking out 22 in 13.2 innings while compiling a .066 ERA.

But just as he had become viewed as a prized prospect in the Rangers system, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm, leading to season-ending Tommy John surgery.

“It was tragic. I don’t think anyone was expecting it,” he said. “My arm wasn’t really hurting me before I blew it.”

Recovery is a long, straight forward process that far too many professional pitchers have been through. It can’t be rushed.

“At the beginning, it sucks,” Palumbo said. “You’re in a brace for six weeks. It’s a slow process. There’s no speeding up Tommy John. You just have to rehab.”

After the long recovery, Palumbo returned to form as the 2018 season unfolded. He relied heavily on fastballs and his velocity touched 95 miles per hour. He mixed in more curveballs later in the season as he spread 11 starts over three different minor league levels. He totaled 45.1 innings, striking out 59 and walking 10.

In his first two games in spring, Palumbo has gone just 1 2/3 innings, struck out two and walked three with a 10.80 ERA. But given his history, Palumbo doesn’t discourage easily.

“It’s great to be back,” he said. “My arm feels great, and I’m ready to go and just happy to be back pitching in games.”

So far, Rangers manager Chris Woodward is excited by what he’s seen from Palumbo, who is likely to start the season in Double-A ball.

“His first outings didn’t go as he wanted, but he did compete and I did see that,” Woodward said. “I did see that fire and the intent behind the pitches. I’m really intrigued by him, because we’ve got some really good arms coming up. He’s one of them, and he’s got a pretty bright future.”

When Palumbo can break into the Rangers starting rotation remains to be seen. But that’s where his future lies rather than in a bullpen role, Woodward said.

“We are not going to mess around with the bullpen idea,” Woodward said. “He’s too valuable as a starter. He has good stuff, and I don’t want to burn him out too early in the bullpen.”

After coming this far, Palumbo isn’t picky about his role. His objective is simple.

“They give me the ball to pitch, I’ll go out and pitch,” he said.

Stephen Perez is a senior majoring in sports journalism at Arizona State University. This story is part of a partnership between Baseball America and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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