Through no fault of his own, Stephen Fife was not the talk of spring training a year ago. People were talking about the Dodgers’ high-priced roster of superstars and how they would jell, the eight starting pitchers with guaranteed major-league contracts when camp broke, and the intrigue surrounding rookies Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Fife had no chance of starting the season in the major leagues due to the aforementioned surplus of starters. So he began the season Albuquerque, only to be summoned to Los Angeles three weeks later when injuries struck Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Zack Greinke. His return was hastened because Fife had a marvelous camp, his fastball suddenly sitting in the mid-90s after sporadically breaking 90 the year before.
Manager Don Mattingly said at the time that “this guy has come so far last spring to this spring — huge strides.”
On Tuesday, Fife’s name was among the first group of players optioned to the Dodgers’ minor-league camp. So what happened?
Fife said Tuesday that he was taking a different, less intense approach to spring training this year. The approach was born from wisdom, but also might have led to his premature demotion.
“I have no idea what (my) velocity is so far,” he said. “I’m throwing at a ‘competitive level’ but not a midseason level. Watching (Josh) Beckett, (Clayton) Kershaw, (Zack) Greinke, those guys — some days they take it easy.”
After struggling with bursitis in his right shoulder for much of 2013, Fife began his off-season spending four days a week with Dodgers physical therapist Steve Smith trying to correct the mechanical issues that led to his bursitis in the first place. He said the scapula bone in his right shoulder had actually migrated up his back.
It wasn’t until the second week of January that Fife said he was throwing pain-free.
“I didn’t have much of an off-season,” he said.
Maybe Fife could have touched 95 on the radar gun in camp. After a short off-season, he seemed content to save his best stuff for April and beyond.
There were other factors working against Fife. The Dodgers wanted to see more from Zach Lee, Seth Rosin and Jarret Martin, three younger pitchers getting their first look in the Dodgers’ major-league camp. Each is still an unproven talent against major-league hitters. Lee and Martin might be deserving of a call-up later this season (Rosin is a Rule 5 pick who must make the Opening Day roster or else go on waivers), but they also need more time against major-league hitters in camp to earn that opportunity.
Fife is a known quantity. He went 4-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) last season. The 27-year-old has one option year left on his contract. Fife could always pull a Justin Sellers and sneak back onto the roster before the end of camp, or pull a Stephen Fife and find his way back by the end of April.
That would require a spate of injuries to the team’s top starters, but we’ve seen that before. Keep an eye on Fife; he might be back.