The Draft process is typically out of a player's hands, and in 2014, Erick Fedde was feeling particularly helpless.
The right-hander was coming off an impressive junior season at UNLV, where he went 8-2 with a 1.76 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings. But after missing a start, an MRI revealed Fedde had suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow, and in May, the injury required the famed Tommy John surgery that typically knocks out pitchers for 12 to 18 months. Just in time for the 2014 Draft, in which Fedde had been considered a first-round talent before going under the knife. Previously ranked in the teens, the then-21-year-old fell to No. 33 in MLB.com's final Draft rankings.
Given how much sports rehab has progressed over the past couple decades, Tommy John surgery isn't as scary a phrase as it once was, and that's especially true for the Nationals. Washington oversaw Tommy John success stories in Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg and looks to be well on its way to another one in top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, who they took 16th overall in 2012 despite noted issues with his UCL on Draft Day. So when the Nats' first-round pick came up at No. 18 overall in 2014, they weren't frightened by the medicals and took the player with the highest potential they saw left on the board -- a relieved Fedde.
"I was really thankful they took me," said the former Running Rebel, who grew up with Nats All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper in Las Vegas. "It was nice to know they've had success with Tommy John guys before and that they still trusted me to perform at a high level. Even though I just had the surgery, I had a calming feeling knowing I was going to the Nationals. I didn't feel as much pressure anymore."
The Nationals showed their belief in Fedde by inking him to a $2.5 million signing bonus in July 2014 and immediately set to work using essentially what has become their Tommy John rehab handbook, which included sending their latest prized prospect to the warmer climes of Florida.
"It's been a situation where we went back into our history, saw what worked, what didn't," said Nationals pitching coordinator Paul Menhart. "Spin Williams, our former pitching coordinator, and Mark Grater, our rehab coordinator, and the rest of the group came up with a plan that's worked well so far. I don't want to give away any secrets, but we've followed that protocol with Erick."
That system had Fedde back on a mound to make his professional debut with Class A Short Season Auburn on June 21, 2015, about 13 months after the initial surgery. That's within the normal range for Tommy John recovery, but it seems especially speedy when you consider that the surgery also included work on his flexor tendon, which could have extended the rehab time.
Though he was happy to be pitching again, Fedde found himself frustrated by the methodical route he was taking to full form. He walked three and needed 67 pitches to get through three innings in that career opener with the Doubledays.
"It's kind of hard to explain," he said. "There were days when I'd feel like everything was clicking like normal. Then there were others when I was just kind of chucking at home plate. With feel and command, sometimes pitches would be there, and sometimes not at all. I just couldn't worry about it, even though I'd panic a little. Just had to grind through it.
"Probably, the first couple weeks of pitching in live situations was the toughest because your arm feels terrible. It's getting over that mental block of knowing it's fixed, even though there's a lot of pain. The hardest part is trusting the process and knowing there are going to be some issues. You just have to keep throwing to get back to where you were."
Per the Nationals' plan, Fedde didn't last longer than five innings in his eight starts with Auburn or in his six starts that followed after a promotion to Class A Hagerstown on Aug. 11. He finished with a 3.38 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP, 59 strikeouts and 16 walks in 64 innings. Those solid numbers aside, both Fedde and the Nationals were most pleased with the fact that the right-hander hadn't missed a start in his first two-and-a-half months as a pro. Come instructs, the focus turned away from maintaining health and building a future Major Leaguer, starting with work on sharpening Fedde's command and tightening his slider.
"He's definitely a potential big league starter," Menhart said. "There's quite a few things Erick does well, and one of them is competitiveness. He strides for perfection, and you can tell it bothers him when he's not perfect. I would never try to change that. He's an extremely coachable kid in that way."
Not limited this offseason, Fedde has started to get fastball-only bullpen work in, like the rest of the Nationals pitchers, ahead of his first fully healthy Spring Training. The Nationals remain tight-lipped about where they plan to send MLB.com's No. 78 overall prospect, but Menhart says the plan is to get him 25 starts like any other pitcher in the organization.
Fedde, who turns 23 on Feb. 25, has his sights set a little higher.
"I just want to have a good season where the future looks bright by the end of it," he said. "The goal is to make the big leagues, and I want to make it as tough as I can on them to not call me up."