Growing up in Sumner and playing for University of Washington, Nick Hagadone adored the Mariners. Now he's trying to fulfill his childhood dream and pitch for them.
PEORIA, Ariz. — As he talked, Nick Hagadone crossed his arms with his massive right hand cradling his left elbow slightly, perhaps out of habit.
It was then that the scars became visible. The inside of his left elbow doesn’t look like one of a normal person.
A series of large purplish scars — the products of multiple surgeries to piece the elbow together — remain as reminders of what he’s been through to throw a baseball at a speed also not typical of the average person.
But the hope for Hagadone and the Mariners is that his oft-surgically repaired elbow is healthy enough to showcase his immense talent and lead him back to the big leagues with the team he grew up adoring as a child in Sumner.
“I’m just excited to be healthy again,” he said. “Recovery-wise, I feel great and healthy. I’m looking forward to this spring.”
Hagadone is in Mariners’ camp as a non-roster invitee on a minor league contract. After sitting out all of 2016 and much of 2015 with the elbow issues, undergoing two surgeries for the same injury and contemplating retirement, he’s trying to pitch his way back. That his chance is with the Mariners is somewhat fitting.
“I was a huge fan growing up,” he said.
Hagadone threw a bullpen session at Safeco Field in late January with a few Mariners’ scouts and a handful of people from the baseball operations department watching. It was his first showcase session of his comeback.
“I may have gotten some other offers, but to be honest, I always told myself that if the Mariners ever offered me anything I was going to sign no matter what,” he said. “I didn’t consider any other offers. The Mariners were the first ones to call. They were the first team I threw for and I’ve been a fan since I was a kid so it was kind of a no brainer.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto, who was in Hong Kong at the time, read all of the reports on what the scouts and staff saw.
“He threw a fastball-only bullpen session,” Dipoto said. “He was operating in the low 90s in the bullpen, which is pretty firm without a hitter and any real adrenaline flow.”
When healthy, Hagadone had a fastball that could touch mid to upper 90s. Dipoto was more than familiar with Hagadone’s talent and potential from his days with the Indians and before that at University of Washington.
“It’s something you can easily identify — he’s got unbelievable downhill plane,” Dipoto said. “When you get a guy that’s 6-4 and he’s throwing straight downhill in the low 90s in a bullpen, who has a history of being a mid- to upper-90s arm, it’s just a matter of, ‘is he healthy?’ Because if he was healthy to give him an opportunity to come in and compete is a no brainer.”
Hagadone threw his first bullpen session of the spring on Wednesday afternoon, saying he” felt really good” during and the day after. The velocity and that downward style delivery were very apparent. Dipoto watched closely and came away impressed.
“He looked good,” Dipoto said. “He looked healthy. I thought the fastball was leaping out of his hand. Fastball plane, that’s Nick’s thing. He throws from an extremely high slot and creates velocity without seeing much of an arm swing. For a hitter, it’s disruptive because his arm is so abrupt into his arm slot and the velocity is so explosive.”
Hagadone also looked like a pitcher that hasn’t thrown in a game in two years, which is to be expected.
“He had a tough time gaining that release point with his breaking ball, once he did, it was just a straight downhill lawn dart,” Dipoto said. “It looked pretty hard to hit. He’s an uncomfortable at-bat even in the worst of times and when he’s throwing well, it’s really fun to watch.”
A year ago at this time, Hagadone was just over a week out of his second surgery to repair a fracture in his elbow and third of his career. His career path has featured some setbacks.
After earning first team All-Pac 10 honors with the Huskies as a junior, Hagadone was selected by the Red Sox with the 55th overall pick of the 2007 draft.
In 2008, he made three starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. He returned in 2009 and was traded to the Indians along with Justin Masterson in exchange for designated hitter Victor Martinez. Hagadone made his big league debut in 2011 and made 143 relief appearances with Cleveland.
In July of 2015, just as he was starting to pitch well and find some consistency, Hagadone felt a seething pain in his elbow during a rehab start with Class A Mahoning Valley for a strained back.
The initial thought was another torn UCL. But it was a different injury this time — an avulsion fracture to the medial epicondyle of his elbow.
“I broke the tip of the bone off on the inside of elbow,” he said. “I had a forearm injury in there, too. Basically, my elbow kind of exploded.”
Hagadone underwent went season-ending surgery to repair the elbow. It was an expected six-to-nine month recovery. With Hagadone scheduled to become arbitration eligible after the 2015 season, the Indians designated him for assignment when they acquired for Collin Cowgill in a trade from the Angels. He later signed a minor league deal with the Brewers. But he never threw a pitch for the organization. A day after Christmas, he was playing catch as part of his recovery program. During a throw in the session, a familiar pain returned to the inside of his elbow. He had re-injured it. The screw that been inserted into the bone had broken off and tests showed that the bone had never completely healed.
“I was hopeful that it wasn’t as bad when I did it again,” he said. “It hurt, but I didn’t have the same swelling or anything that I did before. I was hoping it was a minor injury, but rather than happening all at once, over time it had gotten worse.”
The Brewers voided the minor league contract a few weeks later and Hagadone was injured and without a team. Another surgery would be needed to repair the damage. He contemplated thoughts of walking away from a game that was giving him every reason to do so.
“After I got hurt the second time and before my second surgery, I thought about things a lot,” he said. “I was like: ‘Why keep going? It’s another year and I’m not going to play. Maybe I should just move on.’ I talked to some family members and people that I’m close with and just kind of reflected on it.”
It all pointed him back to baseball.
“I realized, this is where I want to be and this is what I love doing,” he said. “Once you stop, it’s over. And there’s no coming back, so why not give it another shot and see what happens.”
He underwent a second procedure to repair the broken bone in February of 2016 and decided to sit out the entire season to recover while staying at home in Auburn with his wife, Pesarakphorn, and their two children.
“My wife and I both grew up in Sumner, we both went to UW and both of our families are all right there,” he said. “It’s a good set up.”
Since he wasn’t with a team, Hagadone did his rehab and recovery work on his own. Any recovery is difficult, but on his own, it was a grueling grind.
Being away from the game and the baseball life was also a bit of a culture shock. To replace those hours, Hagadone finished his degree from Washington, completing his work for a Bachelor’s Degree in Integrated Social Sciences.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I didn’t know how it was going to be. It had been 10 years since I’d been in school. But it ended up being really good. It was interesting and it also kept my mind off baseball, which was the biggest thing.”
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Hagadone wouldn’t allow himself to watch games during the regular season. He knew it would be too hard.
“I tried to not think about it as much as possible just cause I knew it would drive me nuts,” he said.
But when his former team made it to the postseason. He couldn’t help but watch Cleveland’s run to the World Series.
“I watched all of their games in playoffs,” he said. “Having played with most of the guys the past five or six years, I was really rooting for them. It was fun for me to watch them be successful as they were.”
But Hagadone is healthy and done watching. He’s ready to get back on a mound in a game.
“I’m good to go now,” he said. “I’m a little over a year out and I’m at full strength. I’m on a regular schedule and looking forward to compete again.”
There is a spot open in the bullpen for a second left-hander and he hopes to win it over Ariel Miranda, James Pazos, Paul Fry, Zac Curtis and the slew of lefties in camp.
“No. 1 goal is to stay healthy, but for me that’s not good enough,” he said. “I want to go out and compete every day and really get back to being as good as I can be. That’s the most important thing to me — doing everything that I can, every single day to get better and just see where it goes from there. The more that I worry about the results or the external things is more of a distraction for me. Whatever I can do to get back to being as good as I can possibly be is what I’m focusing on.”
Here’s some video of Hagadone’s bullpen session.