De Fratus, 24, began his pro career as a starter but took a reliever's role in 2010 and hasn't looked back. Until this year, he appeared to be on the fast track to Philadelphia. In 2010, he had a 1.94 ERA and a 9.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate in work for advanced-A Clearwater and double-A Reading. Last year, at Reading and Lehigh Valley, success continued.
In January, he said, he felt pain after one throw during long toss. He didn't know what happened, but he kept throwing. He threw for about another week.
"Each and every year there's a new pain or little thing that's bothering you," he said. "You're never going to go through a season without feeling like crap at least at one point. I was just like, 'Whatever, it's just another one of those pains that's going to bother me for a couple days and then it will go away.' It just never did."
De Fratus said he felt like a muscle had been pulled too far in his elbow. When he threw, the pain stayed only at his elbow. At night, it spread throughout his arm. But he didn't think anything serious happened until his strength nose-dived. De Fratus, who normally chucks the ball between 150 and 200 feet during long-toss sessions, watched balls die about 90 feet away from him.
"At my age," he said, "you should be able to wake up in the morning and throw 90 feet."
After calling the Phillies, he visited a doctor, and an MRI revealed the UCL sprain. De Fratus rehabbed in Clearwater, Fla., and thought he was ready to pitch in late April. But after throwing in one game for the Threshers, pain returned to his elbow the next morning. This time, an MRI showed the strained forearm.
De Fratus did not return to the mound for bullpen sessions until mid-June, but he said that at that point he felt healthy, finally. In his first outing with Lehigh Valley, on July 18, he pitched a perfect inning with two strikeouts. Against Columbus on July 21, De Fratus still felt healthy, but his pitches drifted high across the strike zone, and in the top of the ninth he surrendered the winning home run.
IronPigs manager Ryne Sandberg said he remains cautious with De Fratus, but the reliever has flashed the mid-90s fastball and active slider that make him one of the organization's most touted prospects. Sandberg said he expects De Fratus to be able to throw two innings in each appearance later this season.
"He looked like he was back to where he needs to be as far as strength and everything," Sandberg said. "Now it's just a matter of giving him some time to build and to just continue down the path he's going, which is a good path."
Domonic Brown watch
Lehigh Valley outfielder Domonic Brown missed two games this week after landing awkwardly on his knee brace during a game July 22. Brown, who missed 30 games because of a right knee strain, returned to the lineup Wednesday.
Double-A Reading's Darin Ruf played left field three times during a four-game stretch July 20-23. During his four-year career, Ruf has almost always played first base, with the exception of 17 games in left field and three games at third base.
Ruf could move up quicker if he proves capable of holding down multiple positions. In his most recent games in the outfield, Ruf did not commit any errors.