This season was not supposed to be Jeremiah Estrada's coming out party. The 20-year old was supposed to break camp with the Emeralds to start the 2018 season, but that plan was delayed by a small twinge.
"Just a UCL sprain that happened on the very last day of Extended Spring Training," Estrada recalls. "They announced the rosters and I was supposed to come up, but on the last batter I faced I felt a little discomfort."
It was a setback, one unknown to the otherwise healthy Estrada at the time.
"I've never had an arm injury," he said. "Sometimes as a pitcher you feel a little bit of soreness on a pitch, but on the next pitch it's fine. After a couple of pitches with this I knew it wasn't right and I took myself out."
It is just another step in the development of a young pitcher, one that knows a small hiccup won't hinder what he, and the Cubs, hope will be a long career.
Estrada signed for $1 million out of Palm Desert High School after being selected in the sixth round of the 2017 MLB Draft, after former Emeralds Keegan Thompson, Erich Uelmen, and Nelson Velazquez. Unlike those other pitchers, signing Estrada wasn't a guarantee.
The right-hander had a strong commitment to college baseball power UCLA and "the best pitching coach in the country" in John Savage, according to Estrada, so a start to his pro career was a tough decision to come to.
"It was a very hard decision," Estrada said. "Me and my dad talked about what we were going to do a lot. We wanted to go to UCLA not just for Savage, but also for the degree."
"You go to UCLA to play baseball, but more importantly you go there to get a degree, so knowing that if something happens in my career I can still go back to school is huge for me."
So far, that plan seems to be working in Estrada's favor. In the short time that he has been in the Cubs' farm system, Estrada has shown the promise that made him such a highly coveted prospect. In his first inning of work since spraining his UCL, Estrada fired an immaculate inning, striking out the side against the Hillsboro Hops on only nine pitches (June 16).
The Cubs have always been cautious with their high school pitching prospects, especially those coming off injury. But Ems pitching coach Armando Gabino likes what he has seen out of Estrada so far.
"Goal number one is to stay healthy," Gabino said of Estrada. "And he needs to understand how important it is to stick with a routine. Work ethic, to me, is everything. When you have a work ethic, you know mentally what you need to do and how you need to do it."
"With Estrada, he is still growing mental and physically. I have seen him since we drafted him, and I truly believe that while the process may be slow, because he hasn't pitched in awhile, I think he will handle the season very well.
Estrada's first outing came out of the bullpen as he piggy-backed off a start by Yunior Perez, something he had never done before in his pitching career.
I've never been a bullpen guy," Estrada said with a laugh. "Obviously here I will have to experience that. I talked with the guys in the bullpen to figure out when they start to warm up and how long they throw before going in. It's definitely different."
He also was able to throw in front of his parents for the first time as a professional, a memory he won't soon forget.
"I didn't know where they were at (in the stands) and I didn't know when they would show up. I just came out there to pitch," Estrada said. "Having my dad there, he's the one person whose opinion I care about and how I did in an outing."
"It was very emotional talking to them after the game after everything that happened last year, because I had never been injured."
Estrada and his dad have been nearly inseparable since he first started pitching. The only coach that he knew was his dad, so after his outing he had a special gift for Father's Day.
"The last strikeout I threw, I saved the ball and gave it to him."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.