Pirates view rehabbing Contreras as low risk
Cuban expatriate joins Bucs in camp day after signing Minor League deal
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Neal Huntington strode to the most distant corner of the Pirates' clubhouse early Sunday morning and extended his hand to shake the big hand of the man sitting in front of a still-unmarked locker.
"Hi. Neal Huntington," the Pirates general manager introduced himself. "Nice to meet you. Just wanted to welcome you to the team."
Thus began the Pittsburgh tenure of Jose Contreras, the latest postseason-steeped veteran added to the Bucs' camp. The 41-year-old right-hander's actual participation will be deferred, as he is recovering from June 20 Tommy John surgery, the second operation on his elbow in 10 months.
But 10 years after the signing of the Cuban expatriate earned the Yankees the "Evil Empire" tag to which a court has just established their legal right, Contreras has signed a Minor League contract with the Pirates that included an invitation to Spring Training to continue his rehab.
"He's working his way back from injury, but our scouts have always loved the stuff they've seen in the past," Huntington said. "We felt this was a low-risk acquisition that can help this team at some point this summer."
Contreras said he has already thrown off a mound three times, and the Pirates had eyes on those sessions before deciding to offer him a contract.
A starter for seven years and two teams, including the 2005 World Series champion White Sox, before transitioning to the bullpen, Contreras has been explicitly told to recover at his own pace.
"We're talking about a guy that's gonna rehab throughout Spring Training, and he won't need the full month a starter needs to build up his arm," Huntington said. "We're gonna be patient with him and get him back as quickly as his body allows."
With bullpen catcher Heberto Andrade serving as his interpreter, Contreras said he "feels good, no pain" and thanked the Pirates for this shot at extending his career.
"I want to say 'Thank you' to the Pirates for the opportunity to be here," Contreras said. "They told me to not rush, to take my time and recover at my own rate. I'll keep rehabbing, and only time will tell where we go from there, but I want to make sure I'm ready."
Contreras returned to a Major League camp only three weeks after having concluded an even more compelling return to his native Cuba. Thanks to a recent change in that country's strict immigration laws, on Jan. 19 Contreras -- El Titan de Bronze, as Fidel Castro nicknamed him -- became the first of the many world-class athletes who fled Cuba to make a return visit.
That was a reassuring event for the pitcher, who had defected during a 2002 tournament in Mexico, and whose early big-league struggles were attributed to the burden of homesickness. Contreras went 15-7 with a 4.64 ERA in 27 starts with the Yankees before being dealt at the '04 Trade Deadline to Chicago, where he began to flourish.
"After 10 1/2 years, it was a really good feeling," he said of his January return to Cuba. "At the beginning, I always had hopes of going back to Cuba, but as time passed, I felt like it would not happen. When I saw the new law, it was amazing for me, and for other Cubans."
The relaxed Cuban guidelines allow defectors to make return visits eight years after their departures. The new law went into effect only this Jan. 14. Contreras wasted no time taking advantage of it and stayed until Feb. 2.
"It was exciting to be there with family, friends, people I'd played with," said the one-time hero of a Cuban national team that dominated international competition. "We shared a lot of good times. It's one thing to say you hope to get to do it, and another to actually be there and relive it. My friends told me so many things had changed, but when I got there, I didn't see it. Not too many things had changed.
"Unfortunately, I mainly went back there because my mom had health problems, but she is recovering little by little. It was hard when I got out the first time, and it was also hard coming back again after sharing all those good times."
Contreras has a career Major League record of 78-67 and has appeared in 292 games, but only a total of 34 the last two seasons, both with the Phillies. He needed exploratory elbow surgery in August 2011, and 10 months later, tore the tendon repaired by the Tommy John procedure.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.