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In lefty-loaded West, Burnett's recovery is crucial

On-the-mend southpaw eager to play pivotal role in Halos' bullpen this year

ANAHEIM -- Prince Fielder has joined the Rangers, and Robinson Cano signed a $240 million contract with the Mariners, which means two of the game's premier left-handed power bats now reside in the American League West -- making Sean Burnett's return from injury a crucial process for the Angels.

"You have to look forward to that as a lefty reliever," the veteran southpaw said in a phone conversation. "Previously in my career, I was in the [National League] East, which had some pretty dominant left-hand hitters, too, in some ballparks where the ball flies, so I'm accustomed to facing all the better left-handed hitters in baseball."

Burnett's concerns only lie internally, because he's still trying to work his way back from Aug. 7 elbow surgery that won't allow him to throw off a mound until sometime around late February.

Burnett started to play catch at the beginning of the new year, a few weeks later than he normally would. He understands he'll be behind schedule when he joins the rest of the Halos' pitchers and catchers in Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 13. Burnett hopes to start long-tossing by that point, which should be followed promptly by bullpen sessions, and he is targeting a return by Opening Day.

"That's my goal," Burnett said. "When I sat down with Dr. [James] Andrews last August, I wanted to figure out something that would allow me to pitch this upcoming season. As of now, my goal is to be ready for Opening Day. Not necessarily ready for Spring Training when it starts, but to be ready in late March and get ready for the season in April."

Burnett -- signed to a two-year, $8 million contract with a 2015 club option in December 2012 -- was shut down for the season on July 31, his first year with the Angels ending after 13 appearances and infinite frustrations.

Two bone spurs were removed from Burnett's left elbow in October 2012, and he was limited to only seven Spring Training games because of a lower-back injury. Then Burnett's left arm -- the same one that made a combined 283 appearances with the Pirates and Nationals from 2009-12, with a 2.85 ERA and zero trips to the disabled list -- never got right.

Burnett went on the DL from April 28 to May 21 with forearm irritation, went back on the shelf a week later with what was initially deemed an elbow impingement, reported little-to-no progress by mid-June. He shut it down for a month, tried again and kept going through the same problem -- Burnett could throw the ball as hard as he wanted to while playing catch off flat ground, but experienced pain as soon as he stepped on a mound.

Numerous MRIs showed a healthy ligament. Finally, during a late-July trip to Rangers Ballpark, the Angels' medical staff tried one without the contrasting agent, and a small tear was found in Burnett's flexor tendon. His season was over before it really began.

"It was kind of like an embarrassment type of thing," Burnett said of not being there for his new teammates. "It was frustrating. The whole season was frustrating. It was frustrating in the beginning of Spring Training with the back issue, and then it just snowballed into the elbow thing. I was trying to fight through it, and it just wasn't getting better. And the fact that I was throwing the ball somewhat well was also making it really hard, because I wanted to go out there and keep on performing and help the team win. But physically, it was just taking a toll on me."

Dr. Andrews felt Burnett's biggest problem came from scar tissue that was pinning his ulnar nerve, so he reopened the scar from his Tommy John surgery of 2004 and cleaned it up. A month later, Burnett underwent stem-cell therapy. And ever since then, he's been rehabbing in his West Palm Beach, Fla., home, communicating with Dr. Andrews on a weekly basis and working towards the day when he can finally show the Halos why he was such a worthy investment.

Burnett will return to what's probably a deeper bullpen, with sidearmer Joe Smith sharing setup duties, fellow newcomer Fernando Salas competing for a spot and Dane De La Rosa coming off a breakthrough season. He'll return to what's definitely a better AL West, with imposing lefty bats that will require a strong season from the Angels' most accomplished lefty reliever.

"It was just frustrating," Burnett said of 2013, "and it was mentally just a grind. The whole year was a grind. But you keep pushing to that light at the end of the tunnel. And when you get back on the mound and you're pain-free and you get to get called in the game again, it's all worth it."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.
Read More: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Sean Burnett