John Lott | March 18, 2015
At the lowest ebb of his final collegiate season, Jeff Hoffman began to get a good feeling about the Toronto Blue Jays.
Tommy John surgery had just aborted Hoffman’s 2014 season at East Carolina University. He knew the injury would be costly in another way too. From a projected top-three pick in the June draft, and a signing bonus in the US$6-million to US$8-million range, he knew his stock would fall. He just didn’t know how far.
While he was pitching, scouts flocked to Greenville, N.C., to watch. After his elbow gave out, only one team paid him a personal visit.
“I was sitting there in the East Carolina team room with my brace and my sling still on, and in came Mr. Anthopoulos,” Hoffman recalls. “Based on the relationship we built there, I felt like Toronto was a really good spot for me to land.”
Neither Hoffman nor Mr. Anthopoulos — that would be Alex, the Jays’ general manager — had any idea where the 6-foot-4 right-hander with the mid-90s fastball might land in the draft. Toronto picked ninth; even with his injury, Hoffman might be gone by then.
But when his name was still on the board after the first eight picks, the Jays eagerly snapped him up.
They had combed his medical files. They had discussed his makeup and work ethic, along with area scout Chuck Kline’s rave reviews. Anthopoulos had liked the vibe when he talked to Hoffman in Greenville. And the Jays knew from extensive experience that Tommy John surgery generally means success delayed, not denied.
“The upside,” Anthopoulos says simply, “was worth the risk.”
The Jays also considered the alternatives. In their view, Hoffman — injured or not — was the best player left on the board.
“I guess you can look at it two ways,” the GM says. “Ideally, you don’t take a player that’s just had Tommy John. On the other hand, if he doesn’t have it, we can’t even discuss him as a potential prospect for us.”
They signed Hoffman for just under US$3.1-million, Major League Baseball’s recommended “slot” money for the ninth overall pick. On July 3, he reported to their rehab facility in Dunedin, Fla. Except for a brief time away for Thanksgiving and Christmas, he has been there ever since.
“We wanted to have our trainers and staff around him and we want to monitor the process every step of the way,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s really important to us. And we’re going to take him slow regardless. We don’t let anybody come back [from Tommy John surgery] before 12 months, even if they’re feeling great at 10 or 11.”
Hoffman says he’s feeling great now, roughly 10 months after surgery. He is throwing hard again.
“My effort now is 90-95%,” he says with a smile. “I’m getting really close.”
In a couple of months, barring any setbacks, he may remain in Dunedin to pitch for the Jays’ high-level Class A team. He has not thrown a professional pitch, but already, for what it’s worth, Baseball America ranks him as Toronto’s third-best prospect, behind Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez and ahead of Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro.
After a glowing review of Hoffman in its 2015 prospect handbook, BA added this coda: “Few starters in the minors can match his upside.”
Asked which current big-leaguer Hoffman brings to mind, several scouts have mentioned the same name: Justin Verlander.
Growing up in Latham, N.Y., just outside of Albany, Hoffman became immersed in sports at an early age — he says the TV was tuned to ESPN 24-7 — and eventually became a good-luck charm of sorts for his father’s favourite team.
“He’s a huge sports fan and a huge Red Sox fan,” Hoffman said of his father, also named Jeff. “He taught me so much about the game. He was my coach until I was 16 years old. He took me to Red Sox games, Yankees games whenever he could. Seeing those big-league stadiums and those packed houses at Fenway, that’s when I knew what I wanted to do for a living.”
The elder Jeff had suffered through a lifetime of Red Sox futility. “Then I came along and they started winning,” the younger Jeff says with a smile.
So did the 2014 draft create an intra-divisional rivalry in the Hoffman household?
“He’s been a diehard Red Sox fan for so long, I can’t expect him to just change,” Jeff says. “Just know that when I’m on the mound against the Red Sox, he’ll be pulling for the Blue Jays.”
Scouts ignored Hoffman in high school, when his fastball was stuck in the mid-80s. But as he grew in stature and strength, his velocity climbed as well.
His stock soared in his third year at ECU. But on April 17, he felt something tug in his elbow as he warmed up for the seventh inning. He finished the eighth with 16 strikeouts. Also finished was his season.
Scouts predicted he would fall to the bottom of the first round, possibly into the second. But with his lithe physique, long arms, smooth delivery, big velocity and four-pitch arsenal, Hoffman remained an elite prospect.
On draft day, he wasn’t particular about who picked him.
“I would’ve been happy with anybody,” he says.
Hoffman’s drop in the draft probably cost him upwards of US$2-million. But after his surgery, he says, that wasn’t what bothered him most.
“I was in such a low spot after I got hurt,” he says. “It was a really tough thing for me to end the season after my 10th start at ECU and have to watch my guys go to war every weekend without me.”
The Anthopoulos visit gave him a boost, and a comfort level when Toronto drafted him. Then it was off to Dunedin for a long, tedious and solitary rehab program.
His spirits rose in February when the Jays’ top prospects arrived for a mini-camp and he was able to join the crowd, doing defensive drills and throwing bullpen sessions with a host of coaches — including, on occasion, big-league pitching coach Pete Walker — watching and offering advice. He says he’s starting to feel like a “normal” baseball player again.
“I couldn’t have landed with a better organization,” he says. “I’m just thankful they took the chance on me — or the so-called chance. I don’t like to call it a chance because they know what kind of pitcher I am when I’m healthy. Obviously, they saw that, and they wanted to get me here.”
Hoffman does not doubt that he will soon be that kind of pitcher again. His surgery, he believes, will be a blip on the radar of a fruitful career.
“I missed about half of a pro season, which I don’t think is that big of a deal,” he says. “I’ve come a long way since surgery. It’s pretty exciting.”