On June 2, 2012, Jonathon Crawford, then a sophomore pitcher for the University of Florida, threw a nine-inning no-hitter in an NCAA tournament regional game, the first no-no in an NCAA playoff game in 21 years.
A year later, the Detroit Tigers selected Crawford with the No. 20 pick in the 2013 MLB amateur draft.
In the months leading up to his first full season of pro ball in 2014, Baseball America ranked Crawford as the Tigers’ sixth-best prospect, noting that the right-hander also possessed the best slider in Detroit’s system.
Fast forward three years: Crawford, now 24, has yet to pitch above A-ball. To the casual fan, ‘Jonathon Crawford’ is an anonymous name in a Reds’ system stocked with gifted young arms.
A year and a half’s worth of issues with his throwing shoulder derailed Crawford’s seemingly steady path through the minors. Now, more than a year removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum and address tendinitis in his right shoulder, Crawford is on the comeback trail, hoping to rejoin his former peers in the Reds’ deep arsenal of precocious hurlers.
The Reds still harbor high hopes for the player who arrived in Cincinnati alongside Eugenio Suarez from the Tigers in a December 2014 swap for Alfredo Simon.
“This is a really talented young man. He’s physically gifted. He’s intelligent. He’s a great worker,” says Jeff Graupe, the Reds’ director of player development.
The Reds are flush with controllable 26-and-under starters, a development that reflects the present and future strength of the organization. Many familiar names (Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Raisel Iglesias, Cody Reed, John Lamb, Robert Stephenson) have already debuted for the Reds. In addition to the aforementioned arms, the next wave of talent that has yet to pitch in the bigs lie in wait at Triple-A Louisville (Rookie Davis, Amir Garrett) and Double-A Pensacola (Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, Jackson Stephens, Nick Travieso).
Crawford, who will turn 25 on Nov. 1, would likely be in the mix at Double-A or Triple-A had his shoulder not failed him.
“Being in rehab and not being with the team, getting the feeling of someone passing you by, that kind of sucked,” says Crawford, when asked about the most trying part of his lengthy rehabilitation process.
Crawford’s career trajectory was altered forever when he felt pain in his shoulder during his final bullpen session before big league camp officially opened prior to the 2015 season. The next day, he went in for his physical—Crawford’s health records were signed off by the Reds medical staff prior to the Simon trade gaining approval—and was diagnosed with a torn labrum and tendinitis to boot, the first significant injury he had suffered as a pitcher. The Reds put him on a rehab schedule—torn labrums do not necessarily require surgery—which delayed Crawford’s debut with his new organization until June 29.
But after just 13.2 combined innings with the rookie-level Arizona League Reds and High-A Daytona Tortugas, Crawford suffered a setback, and rehab was no longer an option. On Aug. 4, 2015, Crawford went under the knife to mend his ailing shoulder.
Crawford’s shoulder troubles serve as further proof that the science around preventative care for pitchers may never catch up with the mysteries of the human body. After logging just 3.2 innings in 2011 as a freshman at Florida, Crawford registered 103.1 innings in 2012 between his time with the Gators and USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. A near-100 inning jump would seem to foretell impending arm difficulties, but Crawford went on to pitch 105.2 frames in 2013 (86.2 with Florida, 19.0 with the Connecticut Tigers, Detroit’s short-season Class A team). Crawford then tallied 123 innings in Low-A ball in 2014.
Then came the tendinitis and the surgery. Crawford officially returned to the mound on June 30 for the first of six appearances for the Arizona League Reds. When Crawford scattered two hits over five innings of shutout ball in his return to Daytona on Aug. 3, it marked the first time the 6-2, 205-pound Stuart, Florida, native accumulated at least five innings in a single appearance since he went seven innings in his final outing as a member of the Tigers’ organization on Aug. 30, 2014—a span of 704 days.
Crawford says he has his good days and bad days with his surgically repaired shoulder, but feels like he’ll be completely healthy before long. Graupe says the Reds simply want Crawford—who has thrown more innings this year than his official game log (28.1) indicates due to his extensive rehab—to finish the season in one piece before they decide if he can handle additional innings in the fall and calculate an innings limit for 2017.
Part of the reason why Crawford was drafted so high was his mid-90s fastball and his wipeout slider. As his shoulder recovers, Crawford says that he’s sitting at 88-92 mph with his heater, touching 95 mph on occasion. Crawford would prefer to stick as a starter (the Reds are on the same page), but in order to do that, he’ll need to continue developing a changeup that scouts remain skeptical of.
Crawford could become eligible for the Rule 5 draft this offseason if he is not placed on the 40-man roster by the Reds, but any team that picks Crawford in the Rule 5 draft would have to place Crawford on their active 25-man MLB roster for the entire 2017 season, otherwise he would return to the Reds. But don’t plan on Crawford going anywhere.
The Reds have thought highly of Crawford since his days at Florida; in fact, Graupe says Crawford would been in strong consideration for the Reds’ first selection (No. 27) in the 2013 draft had the Tigers not taken the righty with the 20th pick. And though Crawford’s been out of the spotlight for awhile, he says the Reds continue to support him, and that he doesn’t feel like a forgotten man.
“He’s on our radar, so I don’t want him to feel like he’s an afterthought at all,” says Graupe.