A trio of former Fayetteville high school baseball stars departed town earlier this week to continue their respective journeys through the ranks of professional baseball.
Gavin Williams of Cape Fear and Austin Warren of Terry Sanford both have major league experience behind them and are seeking to continue advancing, Williams with Cleveland and Warren with the Los Angeles Angels.
D.J. Herz, also of Terry Sanford, is climbing through the Washington Nationals farm system after being traded from the Chicago Cubs.
Here’s a recap of what the trio did while spending part of their offseason practicing in Fayetteville.
Warren’s journey is by far the most complicated of the three, as he’s spent the last year rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery. The procedure is named after the former major league pitcher who was the first to undergo the operation performed on the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm.
But the complicated and sometimes mysterious side of the baseball business threw an almost literal curve at Warren Wednesday when he got word from the Angels that he’s been designated as a free agent.
This is deja vu for Warren as something similar happened to him last year. The Angels then turned around and claimed him on waivers for their minor league program. By May, he had returned to the major leagues.
Published reports Thursday afternoon said the Angels are hoping Warren will pass through waivers again without being claimed, which would set up a repeat of what the Angels did with him last year.
Warren has earned a solid reputation with Angels management for his commitment to his craft and the discipline he displays in working to improve himself. So they gave him the option of doing the rehab from his Tommy John surgery out west or in Fayetteville.
He chose to come back home. So the Angels shopped around for a local therapist and chose Casey Benander of Cape Fear Orthopedics.
The logic of allowing Warren to do his rehab work in Fayetteville made plenty of sense to Benander. Certainly there were plenty of top places in the Triangle where Warren could have gone, but that would have meant three hours on the road three times a week, not to mention the time spent in therapy.
So the Angels asked the Fayetteville Woodpeckers who handled their therapy and they pointed to Cape Fear Orthopedics. One day Benander got a message from a surgeon in her practice asking if she wanted to treat a Major League Baseball pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery.
She asked herself why someone like Warren could come to Fayetteville to do his rehab, then she realized that Fayetteville had one thing none of the experts in California or the Triangle could offer.
“What you can’t replicate is a community that’s vested in you,’’ she said. “Everybody wanted to help him get back to what he was doing. He’s giving Fayetteville a good name out there. Even if they didn’t know him, they wanted to see him succeed.’’
She also learned that while Warren is a professional athlete, he’s also a human being.
“He loves to hunt,’’ she said. “He loves to be with his family. He loves to do all the things you can’t do in California. I can’t imagine it having gone the same way in California for him.’’
Benander took Warren as far as she could in clinic sessions, then it was time to actually begin the arduous process of allowing him to throw the baseball again.
Terry Sanford baseball coach Sam Guy was more than happy to oblige and open the Bulldog facility to Warren, while also giving his players a chance to work out with a genuine major leaguer.
The big concern Benander had when Warren began throwing was re-establishing his mechanics.
“I told him we have the rest of his life to get him stronger,’’ she said. “We have right now to get his motion. We knocked that out perfectly.’’
The big challenge with rehabbing from Tommy John surgery is pain and soreness in the elbow. Benander said Warren never really got sore.
“Part of that is because he listens,’’ Benander said. “He does the things he’s supposed to do. We established his motion up front. So it was more just me being careful.’’
The only place Warren needed the slightest push Benander said was regaining trust in his arm. “It was just a reassurance that in fact what he was doing was OK and this was the next logical step,’’ she said.
Guy said it was consistently a challenge to keep Warren below the speeds the Angels wanted him to hit when rehabbing. “People that go through and have that surgery, they’ve had a year of working the stability muscles around everything,’’ he said.
Guy said Warren’s core, legs and rotator cuff were stronger, and the muscles, ligaments and tendons were all healed and stronger too.
“A lot of people do come back throwing harder,’’ Guy said. “I think once he’s 100 percent, I really think he’s going to be better than he was.’’
Warren’s rehab journey isn’t complete. Guy anticipates he’ll be able to throw simulated games by the end of May and will then likely get a rehab assignment with a minor league team. “He’ll join the club on the major league roster after he’s deemed completely healthy,’’ Guy said.
“His baseball days are not over.’’
Herz had been doing well in the Chicago Cubs minor league system when he was unexpectedly traded to the Washington Nationals last year.
He played with Harrisburg in the Eastern League and Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League. Last November he was added to the Nationals 40-man major league roster and is waiting assignment to a team for the 2024 season.
His chances of moving up from his previous AA minor league assignments look good as he was an Arizona Fall League Fall Star, going 1-0 with a 3.71 earned run average and 25 strikeouts.
Terry Sanford baseball coach Sam Guy was glad to allow Herz to work out at the high school field. His sessions were dramatically different from those Warren had as Herz wasn’t rehabbing from an injury.
Herz threw what are called bullpens. It’s not just a matter of warming up and getting loose. It involves working pitching situations in your head and doing specific things with different pitches.
The bullpens Herz threw started off slow, at about 70 percent speed. Guy used a new device Terry Sanford purchased called a Rapsodo, a baseball flight monitor that captures data and video on or off the field to analyze his pitches.
“It was very interesting to see how very detail-oriented the (baseball) organizations are with their pitches,’’ Guy said. “They want to see this specific pitch and this specific miles per hour.’’
Herz started slow, throwing under 80 mph, working mainly on his fastball and change up, Guy said. By the end of his workouts at Terry Sanford, his last pitch hit 92 mph.
“It was cool to see,’’ Guy said.
Williams does a lot of his offseason work in the Raleigh area where he lives and has friends at local high schools. But Cape Fear baseball coach Jarrod Britt said Williams always texts him to ask when he can come back to his alma mater to workout before heading out for spring training.
“Gavin was very gracious with his time,’’ Britt said. “He stayed out there with us.’’
Cape Fear senior catcher Luca Pascarella did most of the catching when Williams was working out. Pascarella will be playing baseball at Lenoir-Rhyne next season.
“Luca is a high-energy person anyway,’’ Britt said. “He completely understood the gravity of the situation. He was just excited to catch somebody with that kind of velocity, to see what it was like.’’
Williams is known for his fastball, which is around 95 mph but has reached as high as 101.
After catching a few, Britt asked Pascarella how his hand was doing. “He said the way he (Williams) throws it’s almost impossible to catch it the wrong way,’’ Britt said. “It gets to your glove so fast you don’t even have time to move.’’
Britt added that Williams wasn’t throwing at maximum velocity most of the workout, but near the end of his throws, he was getting close to the mid-90s.
“That last few pitches he threw you could hear them coming out of his hand,’’ Britt said. “He had a little bit on them.’’
When given a chance to talk to Williams, the players didn’t ask technical questions about baseball Britt said. They wanted to know what’s it like in a game and playing for a big league club, and specifics about some of his Guardians teammates.
Britt said Williams coming back shows he respects the people at Cape Fear, especially longtime assistant coach Chris Hall who remains a close friend.
“He understands the brevity of how important high school sports is for teaching sportsmanship and teamwork and all the stuff just outside of athletics,’’ Britt said.
Williams talked to the players about the process of being intentional, methodical and slow, paying attention to how you do things.
“You don’t just throw hard because you want to throw hard, you throw hard because you work hard to get there,’’ Britt said.