CLEARWATER, Fla. — Tommy Hunter spent 12 seasons in the majors, logged nearly 900 innings, and played for six teams before he found himself last July in an operating room ready to undergo surgery after suffering the first arm injury of his career.
A season earlier, Hunter had pitched the most innings among Phillies relievers. But last season, he recorded just 16 outs and completed a two-year, $18 million contract.
Hunter said he wished the injury — to the flexor tendon in his right arm — had never happened. And the recovery, day after day of physical therapy this offseason, was brutal.
“There are a lot of things outside the baseball that it impacted,” said Hunter, who returned to the Phillies by signing a contract on the eve of spring training. “That part was different and difficult. But I have a good wife. She kept me on the right path.”
The Phillies begin spring training with an uncertain bullpen, and Hunter, if healthy, would present quite an upgrade. They brought six veteran relievers to camp on minor-league contracts, but Hunter was the lone reliever they signed this winter to a major-league deal. They need him to be healthy.
So the Phillies could find solace in the report Hunter received before he left that operating room last summer.
“My ligament was strong like an ox,” Hunter said. “Swear to God. He said it looked good.”
The Phillies would hope that means Hunter can be ready for opening day. He has completed bullpen sessions this winter and thrown long toss, but the Phillies are treading lightly in Clearwater.
Manager Joe Girardi said Hunter should throw off a mound in two weeks. Hunter said he’s optimistic he’ll be active when the season begins March 26 in Miami.
“I'll throw tomorrow if you want me to. As far as I know, I am,” Hunter said when asked if he’s on track for the season. “I can throw a baseball pretty well right now. We'll play it by ear. Everybody is different. Everybody heals at a different rate. Personally, I'm going to shoot for it.”
Hunter, when healthy, has proven to be a late-inning option. He carried a heavy load in 2018 and finished with a 3.80 ERA over 65 appearances. Perhaps he’ll carry some motivation into 2020 after his wasted 2019.
“Sometimes, you catch wind of the things that are said, feelings about how you’re getting paid and not being able to play,” Hunter said. “Everybody goes through that. Man, I wake up every day and I come to play. That’s one thing I do and I do well.
"I might not be able to communicate very well with anybody. I might say the wrong thing at the wrong time and make people mad. But, man, I’m going to come and play. I think this team can win. That’s why I wanted to come back.”
Hunter’s major-league deal practically guarantees him a spot as one of the eight relievers on opening day as long as he’s healthy. He waited until February to sign a contract and said he never considered a minor-league deal.
“I think I'm a major-league pitcher,” Hunter said. “So that's where I just set it at. I understand where everybody's coming from. I can totally get it. Just my mindset, I don't want to do that.”
Six weeks in Clearwater should decide if Hunter is a major-league pitcher when the season begins. The Phillies are desperate for healthy arms in their bullpen. They’ll need Hunter to be an ox.