Friday, January 30, 2004

Claussen's future draws closer

LHP eager to prove he's ready for big leagues after Tommy John surgery

By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The time is measured with precision.

Such specifics don't escape Brandon Claussen's memory.

"It's been 18 months and four days," the Reds pitcher said Wednesday, gripping a cup of soda and sporting a South Florida winter tan.

Claussen looks forward and sees the promise of his inaugural spring training with the Reds.

Look back 18 months and others will notice the effort and good fortune it required to get here after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery in June 2002.

"I've had the surgery kind of hanging over my head," Claussen said. "Now I'm ready to go."

The 24-year-old, whom the Reds acquired from the Yankees in July for All-Star third baseman Aaron Boone, is considered an integral part of the team's future.

But if everything goes well enough this spring, the former 34th-round draft choice could also become part of its pitching present.

Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 17 and hold their first workout Feb. 19 in Sarasota, Fla.

"Over the long run we have considerable expectations about what Brandon may be able to bring to the organization," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien said. "But coming off the Tommy John surgery and the recovery that is necessary, we feel the most appropriate position for us to take related to Brandon is to keep an open mind.

"We want to allow him to go out in the spring and perform without any particular expectation upon him."

Claussen was coming off a remarkable 2001 minor-league season when his elbow gave out.

He went 14-4 with a 2.31 ERA and a minor-league leading 220 strikeouts between Single-A and Double-A in 2001.

The statistics earned him distinction from Baseball America as the Yankees' third-best prospect and fifth-best left-handed pitcher in the minors overall.

"Here was an individual that had three above-average pitches with above-average command who was left-handed and knows how to pitch," O'Brien said. "That is a very impressive inventory of pitching skills to bring to the table."

But by the following June 25, Claussen was on an operating table as a ligament from his right hamstring was removed and transplanted into his left elbow.

The common belief is that it takes a pitcher 12-18 months to recover fully from the Tommy John surgery.

Claussen began throwing off the mound six months later in time for spring training.

"I really felt like I was ready to go when everybody else was," said Claussen, whose fastball topped out at 94 mph before surgery and 92 mph afterward. "It was just research and doctors. They didn't want me to rush anything."

Last year still proved a memorable triumph.

He opened the season at Single-A Tampa before moving to Triple-A Columbus, going a combined 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 90 2/3 innings.

On June 28 at Shea Stadium, Claussen made his major league debut with the Yankees and allowed one earned run over 6 1/3 innings for the win.

"Honestly, it reminded me of tee ball," he said. "You wake up excited to go to school that day. The quicker you get your day started the quicker it will get over so you can go out and play."

The Yankees traded him, another minor league pitcher and $1 million to the Reds for Boone on July 31.

"To be honest, it was an honor," Claussen said. "I felt like (the Reds) really see potential in me and were willing to take a shot."

Said Tim Naehring, Reds director of player development: "He's a big-time prospect. The work ethic is there. His stuff is there. He has great mound presence and understands how important the intangible are."

Reds officials saw Claussen throw three times at Triple-A Louisville following the trade, and then decided to shut him down for the season in mid-August.

Claussen will soon start backing off his offseason weight program and focus more on agility and conditioning drills. He also plans to start throwing off the mound again next week.

"Coming off surgery and the past experiences I've had, I honestly try to take it one day at a time," Claussen said. "I've been blessed. So if I start this season in A ball, then it's A ball. If it's in the big leagues, it's in the big leagues."


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