PHOENIX -- When a baseball player is drafted by a major league organization, even if he is drafted high, it is never entirely clear what his time frame is for getting to the big leagues. Still, when the Los Angeles Dodgers took Scott Elbert with the 17th overall pick in the first round in 2004, the promising left-hander out of Seneca, Mo., had to think he would establish a major league foothold well before 2010.
So what was he doing here, pitching a single, shaky inning for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in their Arizona Fall League opener on Tuesday? What was he doing in a league usually reserved for baseball's top prospects, guys who are still trying to get to the majors?
To say Elbert's rise has hit a snag would be an understatement. The latest came in June, when he abruptly left the Dodgers' Triple-A Albuquerque affiliate without explanation and never came back, at least not to the Isotopes. He eventually returned to the organization, but when he did, he was sent to the team's spring-training complex in Glendale, Ariz., to get his arm back into shape. He now says he pushed too hard too quickly to do that, which led to tendinitis in his shoulder, which kept him off the playing field until he gave up a run on a hit and a walk while throwing 19 pitches on Tuesday against the Mesa Solar Sox.
After the game, Elbert was asked about the reason for his absence this summer, when he was gone for about a month. He didn't offer much in the way of clarification.
"It was just some personal issues I had to attend to," he said. "I can tell you right now, it had nothing to do with baseball. It was just a lot of personal stuff I had to take care of, and that's about it."
Elbert's career had fallen on hard times when he vanished in June. He had a 4.98 ERA in nine starts for the Isotopes, and he was averaging seven walks per nine innings. It had been six years since the Dodgers had drafted and signed him for $1.575 million. He had made one appearance for the Dodgers this season, May 29 in relief at Colorado. He walked more batters (three) than he retired (two) that day and was sent back to the minors the next, two days after he had been called up.
Elbert, now 25, has made 30 relief appearances in the majors, spread over the past three seasons, plus one in the postseason. But he appears to have hit a sort of reset button on his career. He credited Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and assistant GM Logan White, who heads the scouting department and was responsible for drafting and signing Elbert, with being supportive during his ordeal.
Although Elbert's first AFL appearance on Tuesday was a mixed bag when it came to the results, he said his shoulder felt strong.
"It was just nice to be back out there," he said. "We have been on a consistent schedule with [Dodgers trainer] Stan [Conte] and the minor league physical therapist, and I have been going in every day and trying to get it right."
Elbert said he is hoping to receive an invitation to big league spring training, which is automatic if he stays on the 40-man roster this winter. Although he was a starter at Albuquerque this year before his departure, all indications are that the Dodgers now view him as a reliever, and given the bullpen issues the team had this year, that could bode well for Elbert in his effort to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.
"To be honest, I would like to be a reliever," he said. "If that is going to be my job, then that is what I will prepare for. ... I don't ever think [starting] is out of the question, but I have always been known as a high pitch-count guy, and if I'm able to bring that down and go deeper into games, maybe I can be a starter again. Nothing is ever out of the question in this game."
Elbert says he recognizes he has a long way to go to reclaim his once-prominent place on the organizational radar.
"I look at the big picture," he said. "I look at life in general and where I want to be. My arm is starting to feel better. ... I obviously have to earn my stay here. I know where I stand. I have to fight and earn that respect back."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.