Spending months in extended Spring Training prior to a placement at Single-A Tampa isn't much to get excited about when your dream is to pitch in meaningful games in the Bronx. But for Dillon Tate, who had been fighting shoulder problems since Spring Training, it was one huge step. The 23-year-old pitcher was itching to get his name back into the mix among those inching their way closer to Yankee Stadium.
Acquired from Texas last season in a trade-deadline deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Rangers, Tate spent much of the time since then staring at a stalled progress report. The right-hander was drafted fourth overall in the 2015 MLB Draft, and he had modest success in six appearances at two of the Rangers' Class-A affiliates. But then in 2016, Tate struggled at full season Single-A. In 17 games, he posted a 5.12 ERA and opposing hitters were batting .310 off of him.
Despite those numbers, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was willing to take a flier on Tate, calling the then-22-year-old starter "a lottery ticket." Immersed in a rare rebuilding cycle, Cashman believed that if Tate could stay healthy -- and if he was willing to work a bit on his delivery -- the Yankees might have found a diamond in the rough.
Tate reported to Low-A Charleston after the trade, and he pitched fine in seven appearances out of the bullpen. In Spring Training, after an offseason of reflecting and reviewing his past outings, Tate wanted to work on getting back into the starting rotation -- no small task. Pitching coaches told him that his delivery was too long -- the stroke of his arm wasn't smooth. Plus, he had somehow lost his fastball. The pitch that once touched the upper 90s on the radar gun now was sitting in the low 90s, and Tate hesitated to throw it, favoring his off-speed pitches instead.
"He came in and his stroke was a little long, and he was pushing off his backside a little bit," says Tim Norton, Tate's pitching coach with the Tampa Yankees. "That was making it tough for him to get the ball out in front and finish his pitches. He would get real soft and just rely on his off-speed, and you forgot about that 95 that he has sitting there."
The issues weren't lost on Tate, who admits to having been frustrated by his situation in 2016.
"Last year I was healthy, but my delivery still needed a lot of work and adjustments," he says. "So it was tough pitching in the games and expecting to see results, and I couldn't understand why I wasn't seeing results. I just battled with that for the whole year."
He anticipated going through a similar battle in 2017, hopefully taking some necessary steps, but then fate dealt him a slight blow.
"Fast forward one year, I'm starting out the same way, but this time my season ends up being stopped because of an injury, and with that injury I had time to look back at myself and build myself back up, and that's made all the difference."
The word on the street was that he had a "balky shoulder." Tate still doesn't even know what that means. Truth is, the young pitcher was dealing with strained teres minor, an injury he sustained early in spring while doing "dry work" -- holding onto a towel and going through the delivery motion prior to actually tossing a ball.
"It was like part of my shoulder was being stretched a little bit too much, and I felt it throughout the workout," Tate says. "I knew right then and there that I had messed it up."
The Yankees shut Tate down to start rehabbing the shoulder -- a process that meant he wouldn't find his way into a game until June 20. No doubt, being away was hard. But Tate looks at his injury, and the work he was forced to do because of it, as a game-changer.
"It's the toughest thing to do, to be on the sidelines when all you want to do is be out there playing," he says. "But that time also helped me realize the things that I need to do for my arm in order to be healthy and be able to go out there and succeed.
"Being hurt isn't fun, but I think it actually ended up helping me for the better. I had a chance to work on my delivery and iron some kinks out, fix some things that needed some attention. I think had I not gone to extended Spring Training, I'd be in a much worse spot than I am right now."
During his time on the shelf, he looked at his delivery and, with the help of Yankees pitching coaches and coordinators, pinpointed where he might be able to improve. His body was moving one way, and his hands were moving another. He had to get everything in sync. Plus, he needed to get a feel back for some of his pitches.
Of course, it's not like nothing was working. When he was on the mound, even if he was laboring, Tate had always found ways to get people out. His stuff was pure and good. But he knew that wasn't sustainable.
"I think that if you're honest with yourself, you know when something like a pitch or your motion is not good," Tate says. "So you want to work your best to fix it because you know it's not going to yield results. Or if it did yield results, it's probably not going to continue to yield results for a long time or against a better caliber player. So it's just being honest with myself, looking at what was going on and not being afraid of the work."
So he did the work, tinkering with his delivery to make it much more fluid than before. He battled every day in Tampa to get back to the game he loved and to have consistent success when he did. After what he had gone through, the hope was that success would mean even more.
"When you're away from the competition for a little bit and you have to work to get back to it, that makes you appreciate the game a little bit more," Norton says. "You don't take it for granted that you're getting to play and you're getting to pitch. In some ways, that frustration has helped him learn to pitch because he knows how much it means to be out there. So it's kind of a double-edged sword, but it's not easy. I think that experience will help him in the long run."
When Tate made his 2017 debut, starting for the High-A Tampa Yankees on June 20, it was a mixed bag of emotions. But mostly, Tate felt free.
"I was just happy to be out there and feeling healthy," he says. "Feeling like I have a better understanding of what I was doing with my delivery allowed me to go out there, continue what I had been working on in extended, and not really worry about anything. I could just go out there and play because I had been working on it so much that it started to become natural. It was fun to just go out there and compete and not have any thoughts."
He allowed a single in the top of the first, but managed to get out of the inning unscathed. Over 5.2 innings, Tate allowed three hits, no runs and struck out five, earning the win. He won his next start a week later, but in start No. 3, he turned a corner. Against the Clearwater Threshers -- who were two games behind the T-Yanks in the standings -- Tate pitched seven scoreless innings and struck out a career-high 11 batters.
"He was on fire," Norton said. "He had to work for a few starts in a row where he had to grind through it, but he found a way to get a few wins. Lately, though, he's been back to top form. He's learning to pitch back to his fastball and manage his way through a lineup. His slider has been terrific, and his change-up has been outstanding. I think everything is starting to click for him, and he's starting to learn how to use the three pitches that he has."
Through early August, Tate was undefeated at High-A Tampa, and he was pitching later and later into games. In his July 31 start, Tate threw 109 pitches in 7.2 innings without allowing a run. He also struck out nine batters, bringing his season total to 44 through eight starts -- more than half of his 2016 total of 70 in 24 games (including 16 starts).
"He's a tremendous worker, and he's a great kid," Norton says. "He asks a lot of questions. He wants to get better. He shows up to the field with a purpose each day."
On Aug. 8, Tate was promoted to Double-A Trenton. He took the loss in his first start with the Thunder, but he went six strong innings, impressing his new manager, Bobby Mitchell, who admits he had no idea what to expect from Tate.
"I never saw him before, and all I knew was what I read about him," Mitchell says. "But Dillon threw really well that first time. He mixes pitches well, and I was really impressed with his stuff and how he pitched. Looking forward, I think he's going to be a really good option for us."
Tate joined a Trenton team that was close to clinching a playoff berth, and he was excited to be a contributor. But he knew that with the increased level of competition, he would have to step his game up even more. There was one area of improvement he was focusing on in particular: fastball command.
"With the fastball, there's control and then there's command," Tate explains. "Control is being able to throw the ball over the plate. Everybody at this level can throw it over the plate. But command is the big thing -- throwing the ball exactly where you want to throw it, either over the plate or off the plate. Command is what starts to separate guys from the pack. There's a chunk of good pitchers in this league who have good fastball command and better command than I do. And that shows in their results when they go out there and they're able to get some easy outs or throw it by some guys when they need to in certain situations."
Tate says he needs to look no further than his own teammates for inspiration to get better. As of Aug. 16, the Thunder pitching staff was leading the Eastern League with a 2.89 ERA and had allowed the fewest hits and runs.
"Just looking at our relievers going up there, being aggressive and throwing up zeroes," he says. "You look at our starters going out there and being competitive and getting deep into the game even when they don't have their best stuff on a certain night. I think seeing that pushes me to be better and makes me want to compete at that better level."
Competing at the highest level -- the big league level -- is the goal. And for Tate, getting there might just be a matter of time. In extended Spring Training, he learned a lot about himself and the work he does. He embraced the grind to get back to the mound, and he continues to look for ways to improve. He's not apprehensive at all about the path he'll have to walk to get to the Bronx and what it will take to get there.
"I'm definitely looking forward to when it's my time," he says. "I'm not sure when that will be. Actually, I know when it's going to be -- it'll be when I'm ready. So I'm looking forward to when I am ready."
Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.