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Entering the 2016 Draft, Cal Quantrill couldn't bring himself to focus on where exactly he might be headed, only on the immediate task at hand -- get healthy.
The son of former Major League reliever Paul Quantrill, Cal jumped onto the radar in 2014 when he posted a 2.68 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 110 2/3 innings during his freshman season at Stanford. The right-hander made only three starts the next season, though, before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, an injury that required Tommy John surgery and knocked him out for the rest of his sophomore and entire junior campaigns.
Instead of showing off his skills with the Cardinal last spring, however, he threw regular bullpen sessions in front of Major League scouts who had gathered to see how his retooled arm was holding up and whether his stuff, which included two plus pitches in his fastball and changeup, was as good as advertised.
"I wouldn't recommend it," he said of his route to the Draft.
All the while, Quantrill tried not to look over at the scouts who had gathered.
"I went through every bullpen as if they weren't there," he said. "I'm just trying to hit my spots, show off what I'm working on that day and that's it. I'm not trying to hit a certain velocity or show off a certain pitch. It didn't change things if the Padres or the Yankees were going to see me. By doing that, it eliminated a lot of stress and kept me from being just a showcase pitcher. I just wanted to show where I was during different parts of my rehab, no matter when they saw me."
On those looks alone, the Padres came calling at No. 8 in the June Draft and signed him to an above-slot $3,963,045 bonus. Soon after, Quantrill got to work with perhaps the perfect man to help a previously injured pitcher climb the ranks -- San Diego Minor League pitching coordinator Mark Prior.
Prior was once the game's most-heralded young pitcher. A Golden Spikes winner at USC, the right-hander was taken second overall by the Cubs in 2001 and rocketed to the Majors the following season. He made the All-Star team and finished third in National League Cy Young voting in 2003, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 211 1/3 innings for a team that fell one game shy of the World Series. Various injuries limited him over the next three campaigns, and he never pitched in the Majors again following shoulder surgery in 2007, despite Minor League runs with the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Reds from 2010-13.
Quantrill immediately took to Prior, not just as a coach but as someone who spoke a similar language beyond just the art of pitching.
"A lot of it is how experienced he is," Quantrill said. "He's dealt with injuries, coming from success in college. There are a lot of parallels. When I'm talking to him, he knows what I'm saying. I can have these conversations with others, but it's always a little off if they haven't gone through it. He knows. He's a good mentor in that way. He knows it's more than just having a sub-3.00 ERA right now."
The feeling was mutual. Prior, who wrote for Sports Illustrated last year that he didn't blame overuse by former Cubs manager Dusty Baker for his injuries, could see himself in Quantrill. But this time around, he wanted to make sure the pitcher in question wasn't going to get ahead of himself.
"It goes to his competitiveness," Prior said. "That's an asset, but it can be a liability. From a personal standpoint, I guess I experienced both ends of that. For him, let's understand where we are in the process. The goal isn't to pitch well in July or August 2016. We've been building up to 2017, 2018 and beyond. That's not a conversation you can have with a lot of people. But we felt comfortable with him after the Draft and through the summer that we were always going to be focused on putting him in the right position for 2017. ... It helps a lot of guys to have that direction."
Prior admits he may be a cautionary tale for the Padres' No. 2 pitching prospect, suggesting a Major League debut in his first full season may not be in the cards. (Though it should be noted, Prior didn't have the medical history Quantrill had coming out of college.) Maybe that means a couple months in the lower full-season levels before making the jump to Double-A San Antonio, never mind San Diego. Time will tell, but Prior knows the Padres intend to give Quantrill time.
"Some of it is personal," Prior said. "I had similar conversations when I was coming back, although it wasn't the exact same scenario. Whether I always listened is a different story. The bottom line was I was competitive. Maybe that meant coming back too soon, too early. In this partnership we have now with Cal and the Padres, we don't view this as a short-term thing. It's not spelled out in exact terms. It's a conversation. What is his vision? We need to know his goals and all get on the same page. ... It's a relationship. What I can do for you? At the end of this, he has to execute in his performance and do something that warrants advancement."
Quantrill should be worth waiting for, if everything clicks. Having pitched 36 innings in the Arizona, Northwest and Midwest Leagues in what were essentially rehab outings last season, Quantrill earned raves for a fastball that sits in the low to mid-90s and a changeup that earned a 60 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale from MLB.com, which also ranks him as No. 97 prospect in baseball. He showed a slider at times and plans to introduce a curveball as he exits the rehab process. The only knock against him was rough command, attributed to the long layoff from March 2015 to his pro debut on June 30, 2016 in the AZL.
"His stuff was fine," Prior said. "I hadn't seen him as a freshman, but I heard his stuff was better now than it was before the surgery. He commanded the fastball, and I thought he was doing a good job of that for someone who'd missed so much time. The changeup was plus immediately. It's amazing the feel he has for it. We eliminated the breaking ball until he could get in the swing of things with his routine, but that got better as we expanded the workload. His slider in instructs looked good once he threw it for a while. For us, it's about understanding the process of getting back. You could see the excitement he did have to pitch, but we wanted to keep in mind where he was coming back from the surgery."
If anything, Quantrill said he needed the competition to know exactly where he stood, mentally and physically, even if the results were mixed with a 5.11 ERA and 46 strikeouts in his 37 innings.
"Some people think the first time you get on a mound is when you're back," he said. "For me, it was the first time I went up against actual hitters, guys who are trying to do damage against me, trying to hit .350 and all that. That was when I could think, 'Let's go 100 percent here.' I never thought about my elbow after that, and I hope to never think about it again."
That line of thinking will be helped this spring. Quantrill, who has spent a good chunk of his offseason back at Stanford completing his engineering degree, expects to report to Padres camp in Peoria, Arizona this Sunday. When he arrives, Prior said he can expect to be treated like a regular pitching prospect, rather than one who requires kid gloves.
"He comes in like any other guy entering their first Spring Training," Prior said. "We're getting him ready for a full season like anyone else. There is going to be a balancing of some things, and there are the obvious observations we're going to make of him in just a Spring Training setting rather a season, like [pitcher fielding practice] and other fundamentals. It'll be a little bit of knowing where he's at. But once he gets in games, it'll be easier to see.
"He knows once we go, we go for the long haul. It's our job to get him through healthy. We want as much out of start 22 or 23 as we do start one or two. Come August, we want to say first that he's healthy and, second, that he posted every fifth or sixth day to see what it's like to go through a full season of this."
That suits with Quantrill just fine. With Prior at his side, he's focused on taking those next steps toward achieving the dreams his mentor once did of a promising career at the top of a Major League rotation. That'll take further development of his four pitches, finding the next level of command that Prior believes is in there and showing he can work deep into games again.
"Last year, I was just proving that I'm a pitcher, proving that my arm works again," he said. "This year, I'm trying to prove that I can get to the Major Leagues as quickly as possible. I don't make the decisions, I know that. There are a lot of smart people in this organization who do. But I'm gonna try to force their hand."