On the cusp of stardom, Rays’ Brent Honeywell starts over, again

John Romano | Once Tampa Bay’s top pitching prospect, Brent Honeywell has had elbow surgeries in successive seasons. Healthy again, he hopes to be in the majors this summer.
With pitching coach Kyle Snyder keeping a close eye on him at Tropicana Field on Friday, Rays prospect Brent Honeywell continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2018 and a fractured arm in 2019.
With pitching coach Kyle Snyder keeping a close eye on him at Tropicana Field on Friday, Rays prospect Brent Honeywell continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2018 and a fractured arm in 2019. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 25, 2020|Updated Jan. 25, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The kid can’t miss, or so they said. It is simultaneously one of the greatest compliments, and most damning labels a budding ballplayer can hear.

It speaks to talents that are obvious but ignores perils that are everywhere. Can’t miss, you say? Try me, fate replies.

At this time two years ago, Baseball America’s top 15 prospects included a bevy of can’t-miss prospects. And, for the most part, the list was dead-on.

There were future rookies of the year in the National (Ronald Acuna) and American leagues (Shohei Ohtani). There were budding Toronto stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. There was a player who would receive 2019 MVP votes (Gleyber Torres) and another who got 2019 Cy Young votes (Walker Buehler).

And there was Brent Honeywell.

He was the reigning MVP of the Futures Game and the crown jewel in Tampa Bay’s system. He threw a mid-90s fastball along with an impressive array of change-ups, curveballs, sliders and even screwballs.

Related: Rays’ Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow think Astros players got off easy

Two years, and two surgeries later, he has yet to pitch in a big-league game. Or, really, any game since 2017.

The promise is still there, elbow scars be damned. Baseball America’s latest rankings have him at No. 80. It is the fifth consecutive year he has been listed among the top 100 prospects in the game.

“I’m tired of being on (the list), quite honestly,’’ Honeywell said Friday after a short workout at Tropicana Field.

He meant it as a joke but his smile looked forced. It is the gallows humor of someone forced to watch lesser players living his dream.

And so Honeywell, 24, shows up at Tropicana Field every Monday, Wednesday and Friday a month before spring training. He gets excited about the idea of advancing from 60-foot tosses to 75 next week. He talks about pitching in the majors this year, even though no one is committing to a timetable.

And he makes jokes about avoiding throwing next to Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell.

“I can’t throw next to them dudes down here,’’ he says. “I ain’t got the juice they’ve got, just yet.’’

Will the juice ever return?

The Rays and Honeywell say they are confident. He’s only been throwing a few weeks, but his motion looks unfettered and free. He’s got the right attitude. He’s got the drive. And he’s got an arm that was once capable of uncommon feats.

“It’s been very, very encouraging,’’ pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “I’ve watched the kid play catch the last three weeks and I’m not seeing any apprehension.’’

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The problem is there is not a lot of data to go on when it comes to this type of comeback. It began with Tommy John surgery on Honeywell’s elbow in 2018, which is a serious procedure but common enough.

Honeywell’s rehab had a few setbacks with nerve issues, but he finally seemed ready to take a step forward last summer. And that’s when the medial epicondyle bone in his right arm fractured while he was throwing a pitch in the bullpen.

That bone is supposed to support the ligament repaired in the Tommy John surgery, which raises concerns about the stability in his arm. You could worry that the ligament, nerves and bone have all had issues, or be encouraged that all have been repaired.

There have only been a handful of cases in recent years of major league players dealing with both ligament surgery and a subsequent broken bone. And the results, truthfully, are not heartening.

Nick Hagadone had Tommy John surgery in the minors in 2008, and recovered to pitch 143 games in relief for the Indians from 2011-15. He fractured the medial epicondyle in 2015. After 18 months of rehab, he returned to throw 33 innings in Triple-A but never again pitched in the majors.

Related: Rays have MLB-most 8 prospects in Baseball America Top 100

Jarrod Parker was one of Oakland’s top prospects, going 25-16 in 2012-13, before having Tommy John surgery for the second time in three years in 2013. His comeback was halted in 2015 when he fractured his elbow throwing a pitch in a rehab game. Ten months later, the bone fractured again during a spring training appearance. Parker retired not too long afterward.

If the odds have Honeywell worried, he doesn’t show it. Once upon a time, there were worries that he was a little too confident in his own abilities. Now, that self-assurance may come in handy.

“I’ve still got some things to prove and I know that,’’ Honeywell said. “Coming out of two years of surgery, there’s going to be some bumps in the road. I’m not looking ahead, I’m not searching for the bumps by any means. But like I always do I’m going to try to stay one step ahead of the bumps and try to get the biggest advantage I can into my throwing program, and try to win my throwing program and try to win my way here.

“The main thing is I can’t wait to touch the dirt. I can’t wait to touch the hill. I was close last time. I made one start off Tommy John, felt really good, looked well, and then stuff happened. It is what it is.’’

Spring is just around the corner, and Honeywell has a baseball in his hand again.

He may have lost two years, but he hasn’t lost his way. Don’t give up on this prospect, just yet.

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes.