Tim Stauffer is a good pitcher. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, and injuries have slowed him down while simultaneously reducing his true capabilities. He was a high school phenom, a college star, and a prospect worthy of countless articles and numerous projections. But a slow developing shoulder injury – a torn labrum in his pitching arm that developed over time – put his career in reverse. After shoulder surgery in May of 2008, Stauffer found himself back in the minor leagues trying to earn his way back to the major leagues. He was open, he was willing to take on any role, and that flexibility is part of why the Padres love him and why fans love him. Now, Stauffer continues his comeback with some strong bullpen showings in the early days of spring training and a probable opening day start on the horizon.
In 2003, Stauffer was selected 4th overall by the San Diego Padres. The former Richmond Spiders pitcher had already found a great deal of success in college and was a very sought-after pick in that draft. In 2002, Stauffer went 15-3 with a 1.54 ERA in 146 innings pitched for the Spiders. He was by far the team’s best pitcher. He followed that up by going 9-5 in 2003 with another sub-2.00 ERA of 1.97. Again, he was arguably the Spiders best pitcher.
Stauffer was required to go through a post-draft physical with the Padres and the physical found shoulder weakness. While many players would have kept quiet about any injury unknown to the team and quickly cashed their bonus check, Stauffer told the Padres about a shoulder injury he had. His bonus was reduced from $2.6 million to $750,000 as he was sent to High-A ball in Lake Elsinore.
Stauffer then tossed two minor league seasons before being called up by the Padres mid way through the 2005 season. He started 14 games and was underwhelming. He had a 5.33 ERA in 81 innings pitched. Stauffer was sent back to Triple-A the following season and he continued to struggle, posting another ERA over 5.00.
The next two seasons saw Stauffer’s struggles continue. He was allowing too many hits, getting himself into jams, and giving up tons of runs. In 2007, he pitched 7.2 innings for the Padres and earned himself an astronomical 21.13 ERA. Stauffer knew something was off, and the Padres could only hope it was not related to that shoulder that had plagued him coming out of the draft.
As shoulder soreness crept back into his life towards the end of the 2007 season and continued through the beginning of the 2008 season, Stauffer tried rehab. He tried to make his arm stronger, but it wasn’t working. In an interview with his home town newspaper, The Saratogian, Stauffer said, “It happened over time. It’s not something that happened with one pitch or one game. Rehab wasn’t doing it, so I decided to have it fixed and go from there.”
So that’s what he did. In May of 2008, Stauffer underwent right shoulder surgery, rehabbed, and came back in 2009. He started 2009 in Double-A to see just how effective he would be following the surgery. He proved he was more effective now. Stauffer went 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings with the San Antonio Missions. He was quickly promoted to Triple-A. There, Stauffer went 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings pitched. He was back and possibly better than he had ever been in his big league career.
Stauffer earned himself a call-up in 2009 and started 14 games for the Padres. With a rotation including Jake Peavy and Chris Young, Stauffer had to prove himself to stay on with the big league club. He went 4-7, but he had his lowest major league ERA of 3.58 in 73 innings pitched. Beyond that, Stauffer’s BB/9 and hits per 9 were coming down.
The 2010 season offered a continuation of success for Stauffer. However, it would be primarily from the bullpen. He pitched 82.2 innings and had a sparkling 1.85 ERA. That performance, coupled with a career-low BB/9 ration of just 2.6 earned Stauffer a starting spot again in 2011. With Mat Latos injured coming out of spring, Stauffer was slated to be the team’s 2011 opening day starter.
Stauffer did not waste the opportunity. In 2011, he went 9-12 with a 3.73 ERA in 185.2 innings pitched and 31 started. His BB/9 ration remained at 2.6. Stauffer pitches with low velocity, but crafty location. He hits his spots an gets batters to generally hit the ball weakly. He will never be an overpowering pitcher, but he’s clearly an effective pitcher.
Stauffer is expected to be the Padres opening day starter this year, his fourth year since surgery, and just his third year of starting since surgery. His comeback trail has been a long one. It’s not clear that the shoulder weakness Stauffer felt going out in the 2003 draft eventually led to the torn shoulder, but his shoulder had given him trouble off and on since then. His shoulder limited his ability to pitch at a high level. Now, with surgery in his past, his shoulder at 100%, and another season in which he is slotted to start, Stauffer gets to continue to prove why he is one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball.