Manny Banuelos was a prince in the world of minor league baseball. A 5-foot-10, left-handed pitching phenom unleashing lightning from his hand and creating a stir in every ballpark he visited, he loomed as an intimidating figure to opposing hitters.
Banuelos, signed out of his home country of Mexico by the New York Yankees in 2008 at age 17, rocketed through the minors. One year after signing, he played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game. Before the 2012 season, he was rated as one of the top 30 prospects in baseball by Baseball America. Yankees officials gushed about his poise and his potential.
Then Banuelos blew out the elbow on what had been considered a golden arm.
Two surgeries and two organizations later, Banuelos has been one of the leaders in the Salt Lake Bees pitching staff this season. Now 26, he claims he's close to returning to his old form.
"Pre-surgery, he lived up to the hype," said Bees catcher Tony Sanchez, who played against Banuelos in Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. "A lefty with 92 to 95 on his fastball. He had a curveball with some good depth that he could throw for strikes, but his change-up was his out pitch. It was wicked. It was like a Bugs Bunny change-up — you just pulled the string. It had like a 10, 12 mile per hour difference from his fastball.
"I faced him — it had to be at least eight to 10 times. I don't remember getting a hit off of him. He was nasty. He still is nasty."
Following his first surgery (Tommy John surgery), Banuelo missed nearly two years. He went on the disabled list in May 2012, and he didn't pitch again until April 2014. "It was completely different, maybe because I was still scared, I don't know," Banuelos said, clutching his elbow. "It took me a long time. To be honest with you, this is the year where I feel almost 90 percent — like before the surgery. My mechanics, my arm, my arm speed is getting close — like before."
The first year back was "up and down" physically. The Yankees kept him on an innings limit in 2014, then traded him to the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2015 season, when Banuelos enjoyed a resurgence.
He felt strong, and fondly recalls hitting 97 miles per hour on a radar gun in spring training. After 16 starts in the minors, he made his big league debut with the Braves, making seven appearances and starting six games. But Banuelos felt pain his elbow again. Doctors found a bone spur in his pitching elbow, and he had another surgery at the end of the season.
"That was — in my mind it [was] too much for me," Banuelos said. "It was getting worse and worse. So then I went to Double-A to Mississippi Braves, pitched there and never pitched good, never felt good, but I tried. My arm was full of pain, but I never told them because I just came from the DL and I didn't want to be on the DL again. But my velocity was down."
Between Triple-A and Double-A, Banuelos was 0-5 with a 5.33 ERA in 2016, his first season back from his second surgery. The Braves released him in August.
After the Braves released Banuelos, the Angels — with a front office now led by former Yankees assistant general manager Billy Eppler — signed him within three days. Banuelos rehabbed in Tempe, Ariz., and came into this season pain-free, crediting the Angels training staff.
When Banuelos compares video of his recent starts to his early years in the Yankees farm system, he sees largely the same pitcher. He feels strong and is throwing his cutter again. He is 2-3 in eight appearances (six starts), with an ERA of 6.19 — a number somewhat distorted by one start this month in which he gave up 7 earned runs in less than two innings.
"My velocity is getting back," he said. "Last year, I never hit 92. Here I hit 93 and consistently 91, 92. I pitch, and the next day feel good — last year, never. Never felt good. I just pitched two days ago, and today I threw my bullpen [session] and my arm feels great."
Banuelos works with pitching coach Erik Bennet to improve his command and hopes to get an opportunity to help the major league club in Los Angeles, but his primary goal this season is to stay healthy and not miss any games with injury.
Bees manager Keith Johnson praised Banuelos' work ethic, and expressed confidence that Banuelos has the repertoire to enjoy success in the majors if he can continue making strides.
"I like his stuff," Johnson said. "Right now, starting off the season there's just a little bit of inconsistency in there with his delivery and getting deeper into games and putting guys away. But there is no question that he has the stuff to pitch in the big leagues and pitch at a high level up there. It's just a matter of him making sure that he gets the confidence in his stuff and puts sequences together the way that he knows he can do it, not worry about the hitters, not worry about anything else than what he's focused on. Then I think he'll be right back where he needs to be."