On April 25, Erick Fedde took the mound in Las Vegas for the top of the seventh inning against New Mexico, his UNLV ballclub holding an 8-1 lead against their Mountain West Conference rivals. The tall right-hander threw a pitch and felt a sudden pain in his elbow.
Fedde, as most 21-year-olds would, didn’t say anything immediately. But after allowing a single, a double and a walk, he was pulled from the game having thrown 119 pitches, at which point he informed his coach his elbow hurt.
Doctors performed a variety of manual tests on Fedde’s arm, checking for any telltale signs of major injury. They couldn’t find any. So they told the young pitcher to take two weeks off, then try to start throwing again.
When that didn’t work, Fedde had an MRI taken of the elbow, the results of which confirmed his worst fear: His ulnar collateral ligament was torn, and he would need Tommy John surgery.
“It was definitely a shock,” Fedde said Friday during a conference call with Nationals beat reporters. “It hit me pretty hard. I was really upset about it. But I had a lot of people telling me it’s been a very common procedure lately, and the percentage of guys coming back have been so high that it’d be OK. I just need to work hard on rehab.”
Particularly worrisome to Fedde was the timing of his injury. He was projected to be a high-first-round pick in this summer’s draft. Now, with ligament replacement surgery scheduled two days before the event, he had no idea how much his stock would fall.
“I realized I was probably going to take a hit in how high I was going to go,” he said. “But I’m just ecstatic that the Nationals took me 18th. I’m just excited to be part of their organization.”
Indeed, the Nationals - an organization that has seen plenty of its own pitchers have Tommy John surgery and one that hasn’t been afraid in the past to draft players with injury concerns - took a chance and made Fedde the 18th overall pick in the country Thursday night.
He won’t throw his first pitch for them in an actual minor-league game until next summer at the earliest, but he’s learned in the last 24 hours that few major-league organizations know as much about this process than the Nationals, who two years ago drafted Lucas Giolito suspecting he had a torn ligament and now are watching the young right-hander burst through their farm system.
“I haven’t followed too closely a lot of the guys in the Nationals organization who have been through the surgery,” Fedde said. “But you’ve seen guys drafted in the past, I believe Giolito just recently. I’m just worried about getting healthy myself and going from there.”
The Nationals felt confident enough to draft Fedde not only because of his repertoire when healthy - a mid-90s fastball, an upper-80s slider and an improving changeup - but because of his background and character. They know this in part thanks to one person in particular who has known Fedde since he was a child: Bryce Harper.
Harper and Fedde grew up in the same Las Vegas neighborhood, played T-ball together, then played football and basketball together in middle school, then baseball in high school.
Now they’re both first-round draft picks by the same organization, with an opportunity be teammates again someday in the big leagues.
“It’s really cool, especially for my family and friends,” Fedde said. “We’re close with their family, and now to be a part of the same organization is pretty cool. Our families can share the experience now.”
And what kind of T-ball player was Harper?
“He was always head and shoulders above us, that’s for sure,” Fedde said. “He was always a big kid, and quite a competitor.”
Fedde isn’t as physically imposing as his former Las Vegas High School teammate, but he’s still growing into his 6-foot-4 frame. He currently weighs 180 pounds, but he hopes to use his 12-to-18 months of elbow rehab as an opportunity to bulk up other parts of his body and prepare himself for the grind of professional baseball.
“Definitely, I’m going to take full advantage of the year I have to recover and try to get in the best physical shape I can,” he said. “If the weight comes, it’s not a huge priority of mine. But I’m sure I’ll put on a little bit as time goes on.”
For now, Fedde can’t do much. His arm remains in a cast. He’s scheduled for a follow-up visit with Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon Neal El Attrache next week, after which he’ll begin the long, slow road back. He’ll eventually report to the Nationals’ spring training complex in Viera, Fla., building himself up to the point where he’s ready to pitch in games in approximately one year.
Before then, of course, Fedde needs to sign a contract with the Nationals. The two sides have until July 18 to work out a deal, and knowing Boras’ track record, negotiations are almost guaranteed to go down to the wire.
Fedde, though, sounded confident he’ll be on his way to Viera when the time comes, ready to become the latest young pitcher to return from Tommy John surgery.
“I’m not really too worried about the business process,” he said. “I know it will work itself out. I’m just worried about getting healthy and going from there.”