CLEARWATER, Fla. - The three scariest words in sports are probably, "We signed Bynum." But a close runner-up is "Dr. James Andrews." At least, that is, among major league baseball players, a group to whom Jeremy Horst still considers himself a member, even if much of the rest of the world has forgotten.
When you consider Andrews' reputation, Horst's anonymity this spring makes some sense. The 28-year-old lefty visited the renowned elbow specialist last July after a monthlong stay on the disabled list failed to reduce the pain in his pitching arm. And because Andrews' name has such a close mental association with "12 to 18 months," it might surprise some people to learn that Horst not only threw off a mound Friday afternoon, but looked sharp doing so.
"My thoughts right now are just come in, handle the things I can control and pitch well," Horst said. "They'll make their decisions, or whatever, but my mentality is, I'm planning on pitching in Philly."
It is way too early in the spring to start making projections about the final couple of spots in the Phillies bullpen, so that is exactly what we are going to do. Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman are almost certainly on the squad. Brad Lincoln, a hard-throwing righty acquired from the Blue Jays for catcher Erik Kratz this offseason, is out of options and will have to work hard to lose himself a job. Beyond those four players, the competition for Opening Day roster spots will likely unfold with very few strings attached. Assuming veteran righthander Mike Adams starts the season on the disabled list, three jobs are up for grabs, one of them more temporary than the others (Adams, who had shoulder surgery last summer, has not ruled out a return by Opening Day).
The Phillies would love to see Ethan Martin seize one of those jobs. The 24-year-old righthander will be stretched out, so that starting is an option, but a more realistic place for him is the bullpen, where he struck out 11, walked four, and allowed three earned runs in seven innings last season (this, after command struggles led to a 6.55 ERA in eight starts). Along with Martin, 26-year-old righty Justin De Fratus will get a long look. De Fratus posted a 3.86 ERA while averaging 8.1 strikeouts, 4.8 walks and 0.6 home runs per nine innings in 58 appearances last season. Also in that group is Phillippe Aumont, the hard-throwing 25-year-old who opened last season with the big-league club but was sent to the minors after walking 13 and striking out 18 in 19 1/3 innings over 22 appearances.
Then there is Horst. Acquired from the Reds in exchange for Wilson Valdez before the 2012 season, Horst went on to become one of the bullpen's bright spots, appearing in 32 games with a 1.15 ERA, 11.5 K/9, 4.0 BB/9 and 0.3 HR/9. Heading into last spring training, the Phillies essentially considered him a part of their bullpen. There was no job to be won. This year, all of that is different.
Horst spent most of the first 3 months of 2013 struggling to find the command that had been a staple of his game the previous year. He walked 12 batters while striking out 21 in 123 plate appearances. One year after he held lefties to a .170/.250/.191 line, he allowed them to hit .286/.391/.429. Righties posted a .359/.414/.547 line. The result was a 6.23 ERA. Through it all, he felt tightness in his elbow, a quarter-sized spot he never could seem to loosen.
"As a pitcher, it's one of those pains that you hope will just go away," Horst said.
It never did. Not as he tried to battle through it in April and May. Not after he returned from the disabled list in early July. Eventually, he visited Andrews for another opinion.
"You're never going to feel 100 percent," Horst said. "But it's just one of those things that stuck around for weeks, and it finally wasn't doing any good to keep pitching."
The official diagnosis was flexor mass tendinitis with a UCL sprain. In layman's terms, the condition was similar to tennis elbow. Horst received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection and began a series of rehab exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles that might take some of the strain off his elbow, specifically, in his shoulder.
He faced some hitters in the instructional league in Florida in September, then shut it down for the fall. On Dec. 2, he began throwing inside a tennis club near his offseason home in frigid Green Bay, Wis. Thus far, the elbow feels a lot closer to 2012 than 2013.
"I'm pumped," Horst said yesterday as he strolled toward the player parking lot outside Bright House Field. "Last year was, in all honestly, a miserable season for me. Sitting behind, watching your teammates on TV, knowing that you can't do anything, watching the innings go by, it's tough. It's hard to do. Not competing, not doing anything to get that competitive feeling in your body, it was tough."
It's early, but Horst should be one of those players you stick around to watch when he enters a Grapefruit League game.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy