Coultas was making his way as a pitcher
Ryan Coultas was drafted as an infielder, but when his career came to a crossroads after the 2007 season, he was left with a choice – face free agency or try his hand at pitching. The shortstop-turned-pitcher gave it a go and the early returns were quite impressive. However, an elbow injury derailed his path and having failed to make it all the way back, Coultas chose retirement this week.
Ryan Coultas was a sixth round pick by the Mets in the 2004 Draft. He debuted in Brooklyn as a 22-year-old shortstop in Brooklyn, but in four seasons never made much of an impact with the bat. In 347 games, Coultas hit .243 with 10 home runs, 90 RBI and .625 OPS. With emerging talent around him, the then-shortstop faced a crucial decision – exit the system and roll the dice or try to reshape himself as a pitcher.
Coaches acknowledged Coultas’ very strong shortstop arm, which is why he had the chance to move to the mound. For Coultas’, it was a shot worth taking to resurrect his career.
“It was a decision I took very seriously while reflecting on my options and where I was with my career,” Coultas said shortly after making the switch. “I pitched a few innings in college … and I pitched a few innings in the Cape Cod League way back in 2002.”
The right-hander spent much of 2007 offseason essentially learning to pitch and by 2008 he was back in St. Lucie – this time in the bullpen. Surprisingly enough, Coultas didn’t pitch like an infielder who was out of place. He showed off a 91-94 MPH fastball and an impressive changeup that surpassed many established pitchers in the organization. That season, Coultas went 1-5 with a 4.17 ERA in 47 relief appearances with St. Lucie. But with 61 strikeouts in 69 innings, Coultas drew positives from coaches and coordinators.
The next season, the organization made the bold move of moving Coultas into the Double-A rotation. The early results were promising. He went 4-3 with a 2.78 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 11 starts (64 2/3 inn.) However, Coultas’ upward momentum hit the breaks in mid-June of that season when he went down with an elbow injury. Initially, it didn’t appear he would need surgery, but after a prolonged rehab it was determined he needed a procedure to repair a torn ligament.
“I was very optimistic when [it happened] because I was having some success on the mound,” he said. “My thought process was that it can’t be that bad because it’s not like my velocity significantly dropped off, or I can’t throw strikes. It was mainly discomfort and not necessarily results oriented.”
He appeared ready to rejoin Binghamton in mid-2010, but his rehab hit a frustrating wall.
“I was throwing off the mound, bullpens, everything then I hit a snag because everything wasn’t getting better. It was getting to a point where I was throwing off a mound but not feeling any improvement,” Coultas said.
Eventually, in the fall of 2009, Coultas underwent arthoscopic surgery to clean out his right elbow.
“I saw the Mets doctor and he gave me the rehab option, the surgery option, the do-nothing option and after talking to a lot of people, they told me that surgery was the way to go,” Coultas explained.
Surgery was the way to go, but after nearly 18 months of trying to return to the mound, it became evident that the same strength he had in 2009 simply wasn’t going to return. With that realization came the understanding of just how fragile pitching can be. Coultas is a slightly built guy and it can be argued that the transition to the mound and his natural velocity came back to bite him.
However, Coultas career shouldn’t be looked at as a cautionary tale, but rather an unfortunate ending to what was one of the better stories in the Mets farm system in recent years. He regularly received praise from other pitchers in the organization for the speed with which he adapted to the mound. Unfortunately, Coultas’ story ends with the notion as “what could have been.”