Sues keeps big league dreams alive
Pirates Draft pick overcomes injuries, returns to baseball
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Sues has one of those stories where you have to understand what he has come through in order to truly appreciate where he's now at.
He finds himself participating in his first Major League Spring Training and, on Sunday, he made his first appearance. It was impressive one, nonetheless, with Sues pitching a perfect eighth inning.
What's remarkable, though, is that it comes less than two years after the right-hander almost gave up the sport entirely.
A fifth-round Draft pick by the Pirates in 2005, Sues appeared in just eight games during his first three years as a professional player. Right shoulder problems in '05 kept him out all year. He then spent 2006 recovering from rotator cuff surgery in his pitching arm.
While in rehab, Sues set his sights on the 2007 season. He took the mound in late May that year for his first professional start, one that he'd now rather forget. Sues lasted just 3 1/3 innings and allowed three home runs and nine earned runs in all.
He'd make seven more starts at the low Class A level, logging 31 1/3 innings and allowing nine homers and 25 earned runs. Those eight starts would be all he would get, however, as soreness in that surgically repaired shoulder shut him down.
He didn't feel like the same pitcher and he really didn't want to endure rehab again. It was at that point that Sues contemplated packing up his career for good.
"Things weren't going my way," Sues recollected on Sunday. "Things weren't working out. I was contemplating whether or not I wanted to continue on. I was very emotional and upset with the way things were going and was kind of ready to be done with it."
Knowing that Sues wasn't thinking rationally amid the frustration, his family encouraged him to give pitching another chance. They asked him to be level-headed about any career decisions and to show up at Minor League camp in early 2008. They wanted him to give baseball one more try.
So he did.
"And that's when my arm fully healed and I was able to recoup," Sues said, looking back. "Through hard work and perseverance I was able to keep on progressing and I ended up here."
Sues responded to his family's challenge by putting up Minor League numbers that earned him the organization's Minor League Player of the Year award last year. He had been moved from the rotation into the bullpen in order to try and further protect his arm and thrived. He finally felt like the pitcher he had been.
His first 13 appearances last year came at the high Single-A level, where Sues posted a 2.11 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. He was promoted to Double-A in May. There, Sues made 24 appearances with the Curve and finished the season 3-1 with a 3.77 ERA. He struck out 55 and walked 20.
Yes, the numbers were obviously impressive. But there was no bigger accomplishment for Sues than to get through the season healthy. It was the first time he had done so since his final season at Vanderbilt.
"I was taking it one day at a time," he said. "I was just taking it as far as it could go and taking it as it came. I enjoyed playing and it turned out to be the whole season. I looked back after everything was said and done and I was pretty proud about that."
Though things can still change, Sues will likely start the season back at Double-A. The reasoning behind that, according to Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark, is that he'll be able to work on some further mechanical adjustments in a level he's already comfortable with.
Sues' stay in Double-A, however, has the potential to be quite short. And if he can continue what he began last season, a September call-up is certainly not out of the question for the 25-year-old righty either.
"I think he's a guy that, depending on how he responds, could move pretty quickly," Stark said.
Sues' biggest focus now is maintaining consistency. Sues admitted that there was a process of relearning his mechanics after missing so much time from injury. His focus had also been so heavily focused on staying healthy that he hadn't been able to give due time to the nuances of his delivery and motion. Until now.
That consistency has been much of his focus so far this spring, and manager John Russell, who got a chance to see Sues pitch in the Arizona Fall League last year, has already noted improvements.
"He's made progress here with a couple things with his delivery," Russell said. "He's got a nice arm. He has some power in that arm and he's got some off-speed to go with it. Now it's just consistency."
Sues should also be helped in '09 by the fact that he's now finally gotten over the fear of an arm injury reoccurring. And not to mention, his love for the game has come back.
"I don't take anything for granted now," Sues said. "I know that it could end tomorrow. But confident-wise, I want to go out and play."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.