By Josh Sigler
Nolan Sanburn’s first full season as a professional baseball player has been delayed by a minor shoulder injury.
It doesn’t seem to have dampened his spirits in any way.
The Kokomo High School product was progressing well in his first spring training with the Oakland Athletics, stretching himself out into a starting pitcher’s role before aggravating the teres major, a small muscle that connects to the shoulder on the back side, on his throwing side.
The minor setback doesn’t have him concerned all that much, although it has made him a little antsy to get back on the hill and continue his rise through the ranks in the A’s organization.
“Fortunately, there’s no surgery needed for my shoulder, it just needs time to recover,” Sanburn said. “Things were really progressing well until I tweaked the muscle in my back. Until then, I’m just going to keep nursing this thing back to health and get back out there as soon as possible.”
The injury has taught the 21-year-old Sanburn an important lesson on the differences between pitching at the college and professional levels.
“I learned a lot in spring training about how to take care of my body every single day,” he said. “One thing that people don’t realize or understand is that if you don’t take care of your body right on a particular day, that can hurt you three or four days down the road. Every single day, the way you handle your business and take care of your body will help you get better for tomorrow and get ready for your next start.”
The last 12 months have been quite a journey for Sanburn. He was one of the top relief pitchers out of the bullpen for the University of Arkansas baseball squad, which went on to make an appearance in the College World Series.
Just a sophomore, most college prospects have to complete their junior seasons before being draft eligible. However, he was set to turn 21 on the day of the draft, making him eligible. The A’s took him in the second round, and he agreed to sign with the organization, a deal which included $710,000 bonus.
He began to make the transformation into a starter with the A’s short-season Single-A affiliate, the Vermont Lake Monsters, where he finished the season 0-1 in seven starts with a 3.86 ERA. He allowed 10 runs — eight earned — in 18 2/3 innings of work while striking out 19 and walking six and accumulating a miserly 1.55 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).
Pitching a full season for Arkansas as a reliever before heading to Single-A ball and working as future starter was an exhausting journey for Sanburn, but one he found to be well worth it.
“It was a long season. But it’s something that I enjoy,” he said. “I get a chance to go to work every day and do something that I love. It was taxing mentally and physically, as well, but at the same time, I learned a lot and I got better. That’s the key.”
His performance and natural tools as a pitcher have turned heads in the A’s organization so much so that he is currently ranked No. 10 on the A’s prospect watch top 20 list.
“It’s a nice gesture that the organization thinks highly of me, but at the same time, I don’t want to enjoy it all that much because how you perform on the field is the only thing that truly matters,” Sanburn said. “Until I go out and do my best, I’m not looking into that really all that much.”
On top of that, he’s excited to be making the switch from reliever to starter because that was his ultimate goal all along. He described what the workload has been like as he prepares his body for the rigors of more innings and a higher pitch count during a lengthy season.
“Once I get stretched out into a starter, I don’t want to ever go back,” Sanburn said. “I want to start until my career is over. To stretch me out, the first time I go out it’s 20 pitches, then it’s 35, then 50 and keep working you up as it goes. After a couple starts, you get into a routine on how you work out after the game. Everything you do is to try and prepare you for your next start.”
The shoulder ailment has delayed the start of his season, and therefore, where he will start the season is yet to be determined. Sanburn says he has no idea where he will start, but did say he figures to be headed to either of the A’s Single-A affiliates, or to Double-A with the Midland Rockhounds of the Texas League.
“And, really, it isn’t where you start, it’s where you finish in September,” he said. “I’m not really too concerned about where I start, but I would like to start as high as possible.”