Elbert walked away from Triple-A Albuquerque in June of the just-completed season with what were described only as "personal problems." On Tuesday, he pitched in his first game since returning, in the season opener for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, giving manager Don Mattingly one inning while allowing a run.
"It was nice to get back in a game situation," said Elbert, 25.
Elbert chooses not to elaborate on what sent a former No. 1 draft pick to the verge of retirement.
"Just some personal issues," Elbert said.
Elbert tried to rush back in August, but he had to be shut down after developing shoulder tendinitis. He's feeling fine now, he said. According to Mattingly, Dodgers management has decided to use Elbert, who has been bounced between the rotation and the bullpen throughout his career, exclusively as a reliever.
"We're still trying to figure that out," Elbert said about his ultimate role. "I'd like to be a reliever, if that's my job. While I'm here, I'll pitch one inning every three days. Starting is not out of the question, but I've always been a high pitch-count guy. If I ever get it down, starting's always a possibility."
The possibilities seemed endless when Elbert was drafted as a Missouri high school phenom in the first round of 2004, but he soon went the route of Greg Miller, another well-paid high pick who underwent shoulder surgery and never fulfilled his vast potential.
Elbert reached the Major Leagues, at least, appearing with the Dodgers in each of the past three seasons and even impressing former manager Joe Torre enough to be placed on the Dodgers' roster for the 2009 NL Championship Series.
Elbert, who had been in the rotation in Albuquerque before his one-game promotion to the Dodgers earlier this season, made one start after returning to Albuquerque, allowing one run on four hits in five innings on June 3 before going home. In nine starts for the Isotopes this year, Elbert was 1-1 with a 4.98 ERA and 34 walks in 43 1/3 innings.
Elbert was the 17th overall selection in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, receiving a $1.575 million signing bonus. He came into Spring Training of 2007 ranked by Baseball America as the No. 3 prospect in the Dodgers organization, but injured his shoulder in camp -- by overthrowing in an attempt to impress the coaching staff, some say. Elbert tried to pitch through the discomfort, but underwent surgery June 5, 2007, to anchor a
Elbert made his big league debut in 2008, had four callups in 2009 and made one appearance in the NLCS. He came into Spring Training this year with a chance to be the Dodgers' fifth starter, but fell behind because of shoulder tendinitis and was sent down March 15.
Thereafter, Elbert apparently became overwhelmed. The birth of his second child, a demotion to the Minor Leagues after his only 2010 Major League appearance and whatever else might have been going on sent Elbert packing for six weeks of home contemplation. Texts and voicemails from teammates went unanswered. The club was vague about what was wrong and whether Elbert would ever be seen on a mound again.
"I was kind of in la-la land," Elbert said. "It had nothing to do with baseball. A lot of personal stuff to take care of. But things happened. And Logan [White, assistant general manager] really helped me. I met with Ned [Colletti, general manager], and he backed me 100 percent. I really believe this is the best thing that could have happened for my career.
"I had to look at the big picture and life in general. I've gone back to work, where I belong. I hope they invite me to big league camp and I pitch my butt off, and I make it a hard decision for them -- or an easy decision. Obviously, I've got to earn my stay again. I know where I stand. I've got to earn my respect back."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.