Back at full strength, Whitenack ready to let loose

Back at full strength, Whitenack ready to let loose
January 29, 2013, 10:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

Ten years ago, the Cubs were about to head to spring training for what would prove to be a magical 2003 season.

Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were the aces of the pitching staff then, combining for 32 wins and 511 strikeouts in 422.1 innings as they led the Cubs to an 88-74 record and a trip to the NLCS.

As everybody knows, the Cubs didn't win the World Series that year. They didn't even make it to the Fall Classic. The two pitchers have fallen from grace since then, too. Wood hung up his spikes last May while Prior is attempting a comeback for the umpteenth time.

Robert Whitenack was still in high school back then, unaware his path would become intertwined with the former Cubs aces.

Earlier this month, Whitenack was invited to the Cubs' rookie development program for some of the organization's top prospects.

Wood and Prior were brought in to help provide perspective to the young, confident ballplayers -- an example of how to rise above adversity and keep plucking along when the odds are against you.

Which is exactly what happened to Whitenack.

The Cubs' 2009 eighth-round draft pick was on the fast track to the big leagues in 2011 before bad luck struck. Whitenack started the year in High-A, but was promptly promoted to Double-A Tennessee after just four starts, where he continued his dominant season. In his first 11 starts of 2011, he had compiled a 7-0 record, 1.93 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with a 3.36 K/BB ratio.

In late May that year, Whitenack tore a ligament in his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery less than two weeks later.

The visit from Prior and Wood -- who are no strangers to arm surgery -- helped Whitenack understand the importance of staying upbeat.

"My question to both of them was how they stayed mentally positive through their injuries. They said 'trust in your ability and trust the doctors. Work hard every day and if you do that, you'll be back and good things are going to happen,'" Whitenack said.

"If you're down on yourself, you're going to have a tough time rehabbing and coming back from it. There's no place for all that negativity. I went through a major surgery. It's not going to feel good on days. You just have to stay positive and realize you're going to be back. Tommy John is not a career-ending thing anymore.

"It's hard to do. Every day, you just have to wake up and say 'I'm thankful for still being a Cub and having an opportunity.' You just have to work hard to get back."

This past November, the Cubs added Whitenack to the 40-man roster. A couple weeks later -- Dec. 7 to be exact -- marked the 18-month anniversary of his Tommy John surgery, which is typically seen as a target date in pitchers' return.

"I'm right in that timetable where it should be fully healed," Whitenack said. "Your body has to be ready and I feel like I'm getting very close."

That's good news, considering the 24-year-old right-hander reports to his first big-league spring training in just a couple weeks.

"I'm really interested to learn how these guys go about their business," Whitenack said of attending his first MLB camp. "I want to make sure that when I get up there, I'm doing the right thing, following what they're doing and learning."

Whitenack mentioned Jeff Samardzija and Scott Baker -- who is also currently on his way back from Tommy John surgery -- as two players he will keep a partciularly close eye on.

Through the arm injury, Whitenack has also grown close to Dallas Beeler, another Cubs pitching prospect who tore his ulnar collateral ligament two years before Whitenack.

"Whenever he's got a question for me, I want to be there for him," Beeler said at the Cubs Convention earlier this month. "With everyone who's had Tommy John [surgery], it's almost like a family."

When Whitenack went down with his arm injury in 2011, it was Beeler who was promoted to Tennesse to take his spot.

"I talk to Dallas a lot," Whitenack said. "He was the first one I talked to when I got to Arizona 10 days after surgery. He was telling me what to expect, stuff like that.

"It's nice being able to relate to a guy and seeing how successful he's been all last year and the year before that. It helps you realize that you'll get back to where you were. You just have to be patient and work hard and go from there."

At 6-foot-5, Whitenack stands tall and speaks with confidence in his slight East-Coast accent. He's just a kid from North Massapequa, N.Y. trying to get back to the path that made him arguably the Cubs' top pitching prospect just 21 months ago.

"Right now, I'm battling myself," he said. "I know where I was two years ago and that's my motivation. I want to get back to where I was, because I know if I do, then I'm going to be fine. I'm going to be one of those top pitching prospects again.

"Obviously, I want to be in the big leagues. That's my goal this year. I'm going into spring training to try to make the club. If it happens, great. If it doesn't, it's just going to make me work harder seeing what it's like up there.

"Whether it's this year, next year or the year after that, that's my goal and I'm going to work until I get there."