READING -- Someone tweeted last year at J.P. Crawford, the Phillies' top prospect, wondering whether Crawford's high school teammate and close friend Shane Watson was still in the organization.
Watson, a pitcher, was the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2012. He came out of Southern California’s Lakewood High School with a sharp curveball, a powerful fastball, and a right arm loaded with potential. But the start of his professional career was filled with obstacles and setbacks. He had two shoulder surgeries and even a cancer scare that ended up being a diabetes diagnosis.
Watson once had so much promise but now had a bleak future, prompting that fan to ask if he was even with the Phillies.
“I was like ‘Oh, great,’ ” Watson said. “It’s just been tough.”
Watson finally arrived at double A last month to start his seventh season since being drafted. He fought his way to Reading and has pushed himself back into relevancy. His fastball is zipping in the mid-90s, just as it did before shoulder surgeries kept him off the mound for 23 months.
Watson, who will turn 24 in August, will start Saturday for the third time this season. The results of his first two starts - eight earned runs in 9 1/3 innings - have not been ideal. But his velocity and health are the main concerns. Watson might transition to the bullpen, where his fastball and curveball would be a nice fit. It also might provide his quickest route to the majors. Regardless of his role, Watson has certainly returned to the team’s radar.
“I don’t really try to think about that too much,” Watson said. “If you think about that, you’re going to try to do too much. I’m going to do my best and try to force their hand on certain things.”
The Phillies compared Watson’s curveball and mound presence to Brett Myers' when they drafted Watson with the 40th pick, a compensatory selection at the end of the 2012 first round. He started his pro career that summer, but pitched just seven innings in the Gulf Coast League. Watson kept getting sick and lost 35 pounds. Something was wrong. Watson’s worst fear was that he had cancer.
“They thought I was dying,” he said.
Watson was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, as he was born with a deficient pancreas that does not produce insulin. Watson has to inject himself with insulin each time he eats carbohydrates.
“It’s totally manageable,” Watson said. “It’s not like you can’t play or anything. I’ve had it for five years. I try to not eat as many carbs on game days, and then I stay away from Gatorade while I’m pitching.”
With his condition under control, Watson returned to the mound in 2013. He suffered a shoulder injury halfway through the season and returned to California for a Bankart repair surgery, an arthroscopic procedure to repair a detached labrum. Watson tried to rehabilitate his shoulder for six months, but it did not feel any better. He then had a second surgery. Watson said his arm has been “amazing since.”
“It takes a little bit of intestinal fortitude and mental strength to keep grinding,” said his father, Scott Watson. “He never complained about anything that gets tough. Never complained once about diabetes. It’s inspirational to me as a father, and so many decades older than him, to see a guy going through this stuff and keep pushing and grinding like he does."
Watson missed the entire 2014 season as he rehabbed for 11 months at the team’s facility in Clearwater, Fla. He joined single-A Lakewood in July 2015, nearly two years to the day of his final start before that first surgery. Watson is now finally at double A.
Watson said he never had doubts. His older brother, Scott, pitched in independent ball and told Watson to not be soft and keep going. Shane Watson said if his hard work after surgery didn’t yield results, then it just was not meant to be.
His father began to wonder what his son’s future would be. An athlete, Scott Watson said, would never doubt himself. But a dad is always concerned. Watson now finds himself just two levels from reaching the majors. A destination that once seemed so unlikely is now in reach.
“In a normal situation, it would be a dream come true,” Scott Watson said. “But with the stuff that he’s been through and had to overcome, it would be amazing.”