Rehab Guys: What Can We Expect?

A note on comments
What about Bud?

Over the last 18 months or so, some of the Yanks very best pitching prospects went down with major arm injuries. It was frustrating and almost laughable at how many quality arms went down with Tommy John surgery, but at the same time it’s a testament to the kind of pitching depth the organization has when they can lose that many guys still have arms like Hughes, Joba, IPK, Tyler Clippard and Ross Ohlendorf make contributions at the Major League level.

A popular comment amongst…uh, commentors is that “Player X [who went down with a major injury in 2007] will be ready to help the bullpen by midseason,” and you know what? That statement is completely wrong. Pitchers have to relearn their mechanics and find their control after such a long layoff, and that process can be painstaking at times. Guys who rely on command and control need even more time to get things back to once they were.

Just like Brian Cashman, I can’t predict the future, so the info presented here is basically just my best educated guess, if that makes sense. We’re all hoping these guys get healthy and dominate in 2008, but in reality we should hope that they just finish the year strong. Fun starts after the jump.

JB Cox, 23
I’m presenting these guys alphabetically, but it’s fitting that we start with the guy who’s injury may have impacted the big league club the most. If Cox hadn’t gone down with TJ, he assuredly would have made his ML debut at some point during the season, and probably would have made the playoff roster too. Maybe he comes into the 11th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS and tosses a scoreless frame instead of Luis Vizcaino, who predictably loaded the bases and gave up a walk-off hit to Travis Hafner. What if’s…they always go your way, huh?

Anywho, because he went down with TJ in late Spring Training, Cox should be able to take the mound in minor league games right out of camp basically. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the same JB Cox that dominated the Double-A Eastern League in 2006 however, it often takes a full year of game action before players return to their pre-surgery effectiveness. JB will start with a few closely monitored games in Extended Spring Training before shipping off to High-A Tampa across the street. The Yanks will look to move Cox quickly, but they’ll do so cautiously. It’s doubtful that he’ll see the Bronx in 2008, unless he comes back and is lights out. He’ll probably finish the year with Double-A Trenton, leaving him right back where he was after the ’06 campaign.

Chris Garcia, 22
Despite his enormous talent and matching stuff, Garcia’s only managed to throw 203 innings since being selected in the 2004 draft. He’s missed time due to an oblique strain, back problems, muscle pulls, and worst of all, Tommy John surgery. He blew out his elbow during the 2006 Hawaii Winter Baseball season, and went under the knife around Halloween of the same year. Garcia suffered a knee injury while rehabbing, and it was bad enough that it required arthroscopic surgery.

Garcia hadn’t even starting throwing as of Christmas, so he’s clearly behind schedule. The Yanks can afford to be patient with him because they’ve accumulated a good amount of pitching depth, but at some point Garcia has to actually stay on the mound. He’ll start the year continuing his rehab alongside Andrew Brackman in Tampa, and eventually he’ll graduate to Extended Spring Training games. Even though he’s entering his fourth full season in the system, Garcia has yet to play above Low-A, and the realistic goal for 2008 has to be get him to the point where he can start 2009 with High-A Tampa. Garcia will be eligible for the Rule V draft after the season, but he hasn’t done enough to warrant a 40-man spot, let alone a 25-man roster spot on another team.

Jesse Hoover, 26
The first guy on the list not coming back from TJ, Hoover’s return from multiple back and forearm issues actually began last year. He missed all of 2005 and 2006 after a dominant pro debut with Short Season Staten Island in 2004 (55.2 IP, 28 H, 11 ER, 26 BB, 90 K), but came back last year with Low-A Charleston and was pretty darn good considering the long layoff (41.1 IP, 37 H, 18 ER, 23 BB, 38 K). Hoover’s stuff didn’t diminish much, and he returned showing the same power arm that made him the first player ever drafted out of the Indiana Institute of Technology.

The Yanks handled his rehab carefully, and showed extreme caution with several serious back injuries that not only endangered his baseball career, but his long-term health as well. Hoover showed enough last year to warrant a bump up to High-A Tampa, and will begin the season at full strength for the first time three years. A midseason promotion to Trenton is his for the taking.

Mark Melancon, 23
Like Garcia, Melancon had his TJ surgery right around Halloween ’06. He was throwing full throttle during Instructional League, and for all intents and purposes is 100% ready to go for 2008. The Yanks invited him to spend Spring Training with the big league club, although there’s almost zero chance of him heading north with the ML team after camp. Melancon should start 2008 with High-A Tampa, where he’ll likely work the standard “2 innings every 3 days” routine the Yanks put their relief prospects through.

Everyone raves about Melancon’s makeup and work ethic, so it’s no surprise he attacked his rehab head-on and made such a strong recovery. Melancon won’t make it easy for the organization to keep him down in the bowels of the farm system for long, but the Yanks are smart enough to know not to push it with this prized arm. A September call-up isn’t completely out of the question, but Melancon would first have to show that he’s not fatigued come the season’s final month.

Tim Norton, 24
Norton is the poor soul with the most serious baseball injury on this list. After making only 5 starts with Low-A Charleston at the start of the year, Norton went down with major shoulder issues and required surgery to repair just about everything in his throwing shoulder. The rehab process is long and grueling for baseball players, and at this point Norton is just about ready to toss lightly, but nothing more.

Shoulder surgery is the closest thing there is to a Kiss of Death for pitchers, with a success rate that can best be described as “spotty.” I’d be surprised and disappointed if Norton just gave up and retired like former Giants’ stud Kurt Ainsworth, but if he was going to call it quits I think we’d have known about it already. The Tim Norton Comeback Trail will not be easy, and we shouldn’t look for more than a handful of Extended Spring and Rookie level innings from Norton in 2008.

Lance Pendleton, 24
The forgotten prospect, Pendleton started his comeback from Tommy John surgery last year, throwing 13.2 reasonably effective innings with the Rookie GCL Yanks (14 H, 7 ER, 6 BB, 16 K). Pendleton was the Yanks’ 4th round pick back in 2005 (taken one round after Brett Gardner and four before Austin Jackson) and received a $215,000 bonus despite being a better hitter than pitcher. The Yanks love his stuff and gambled on his arm, but like most Rice pitchers he went down with injury.

Pendleton is as ready as can be for 2008, and should start the year with Low-A Charleston. He’s got one of the livelier fastballs and more electric arms in the system, so the Yanks may look to move him up to High-A Tampa as soon as possible. Pendleton is a nice little sleeper, and could really surprise some people next year.

Humberto Sanchez, 24
Sanchez was closer to the majors than anyone on this list; you can basically repeat my whole first paragraph for JB Cox here for Humberto. He went down with TJ last Spring Training, and later had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, which set him back a bit. He worked hard during rehab, reportedly getting into better shape and even sticking to his rehab program while on his honeymoon in November. Currently working out down in Tampa, Sanchez is set to retake the mound in February.

For all his potential, Sanchez’s single season IP high is only 123, which came back in 2006. He’s on pace to return to game action in mid-May, where he’ll likely join High-A Tampa. He’s got over 200 innings under his belt at or above the Double-A level (200.2 IP to be exact), so the Yanks can move him faster than anyone else featured here. The Yanks have hinted at starting him out in a relief role at least to get him back in the groove, but they still ultimately view him as a starter.

No matter what the injury, it’s up to the player to show the commitment and put the work in to return to their previous form. That’s far easier said and done, but it’s what separates the greats from the rest.

A note on comments
What about Bud?
  • Steve S

    So you are still projecting Humberto as a starter. Do you think the Yankees are doing the same thing, or will they transition him for the bullpen? Perhaps a July call up and keep him on a Joba like setup for the rest of the year. Some of these kids have to be transitioned at this point. Especially if Cox and Melancon are that far away.

  • CB

    Nice summary Mike. I think you’re absolutely right that many people need to realign their expectations for these guys.

    Many people now somehow think that TJ surgery isn’t that big a deal. It is. The difference from before is only that an elbow ligament tear would have been the end of a career. Now there is a decent probability that the pitcher can continue. It’s a big hit, especially for a young player.

    I think too many people focus on velocity for guys coming back from TJ. Velocity often does return but its clear that command doesn’t, probably because the pitcher’s mechanics change. Look at a guy like Sean Henn – its easy to forget how much promise he had before TJ surgery. He has good velocity even now (especially for a left hander) but his command just never came back or developed. That may be the downfall of his career.

    A lot of people have urealistic expectations for Melancon in particular. Not only is he coming back from TJ, he has almost no pro experience – 8 innings in Staten Island.

    To expect him to contribute in 2008 is essentially saying he is good enough to jump directly from college ball to the major league level while at the same time recovering from elbow surgery. Either one would make him contributing in 2008 (other than a september call up) unlikely. Together they make it really improbable.

    Hope I’m wrong on Melancon. But I just think he’s got too much to overcome.

  • eric from morrisania

    I know the Yanks see Humberto as a starter… but what do you think? Where do you see him ending up?

  • The Scout

    I’d like to know whether Norton’s shoulder injury was rotator cuff or labrum. The latter is a very tricky repair — I’ve watched a member of my family go through surgery twice to fix it. Jared Wright is one of the few to rebound successfully from that to pitch again; Brad Ratke retired after trying to pitch through a torn labrum. I’ll be pulling for Norton.

    • Mike A.

      I remember reading something on BA’s site that it was both his labrum and rotator cuff, but I couldn’t find whatever article/post said that when I was writing this up.

      When I researching the rehab time frame for that type of shoulder surgery, I found it interesting that boxers were typically back in the ring after 5-6 months.

    • RollignWave

      Jaret Wright did come back.. but he was clearly only half the pitcher he was after the surgery.

  • Jeff

    I think Sanchez should be the fifth Starter for 09


    How crazy would that be?
    … if everyone steps up and Wang stays the same… that could be your homegrown fabulous five.

    • Geno

      More likely Horne

    • Travis G.

      there’s a guy named Hughes.

      • Travis G.

        oops, brain cramp.

    • RollignWave

      More likely they go after Santana or Sabathia if either makes it to FA

  • Tripp

    Is that true about Rice? Is that because of pitcher abuse? Not teaching proper mechanics?

    • Mike A.

      Oh yeah, it’s absolutely true. Pendelton, Joe Savery (Phillies ’07 first rounder), Jeff Niemann (Rays 03), Phil Humber (Mets 03), Wade Townsend (O’s 03, Rays 04), Cole St. Clair (forgot who took him and when last year), all recent Rice arms who went down with major arm injuries. The list goes on and on too.

      I’m not sure what the cause is, but current Rice coach Wayne Graham was the coach at San Jacinto JC way back when Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte pitched there, and Roger had shoulder surgery early in his career. Pettitte’s had on-and-off elbow troubles.

  • Bo

    You cant make wild and absurd statements like “I think Sanchez should be the fifth Starter for 09”

    The guy hasnt pitched in a full year and who knows what the rotation will look like in 08 let alone 09.

    Can he pitch 50 innings before we throw him into the rotation?

    I still think hes a bullpen guy going forward because of his strikeout stuff.

  • Bo

    Rice abuses their pitchers because they are more concerned with winning in college than player health and development.

    • Sean McNally

      And to be honest – that’s the head coach’s job.

      Having high draft picks and successful major leaguers as noted alums is a nice feather to put in your cap, but let’s be honest – the cap and the rest of the outfit get paid for by winning ball games in the Big 12 and ultimately in the College World Series.

      • Jamal G

        Yes but unlike other collegiate sports baseball is the one where keeping a pitcher healthy (especially if he’s a well regarded prospect) is part of the job. Am I saying that a pitcher’s “Joba Rules” should outweigh the importance of winning at the collegiate level? Hell no, but that should be taken into great consideration.

      • Mike A.

        Word up.

        I remember when Billy Beane was pissed at Fullerton coach George Horton for riding Jason Windsor in the 2003 CWS, right after the A’s drafted him. At the press conference after Fullerton won the title, someone asked Horton if he felt bad about using him so much right after the draft, and his reply was “I don’t work for the Oakland A’s.”

  • Spike

    Do other organizations have similar injury problems with their minor league pitchers? Damn, it seems like a ton of serious arm problems for Yank prospects.

    • Mike A.

      Every team has pitching prospects go down with arm injuries every year, but it seems like some of the Yanks top arms got hit last year. I’m not complaining about it or anything, it is what it is.

  • Rich

    Whether or not Sanchez ends up as a starter or a reliever (assuming he remains with the Yankees) could depend on Horne’s development and ultimate role.

  • Jeff

    Bo I wasn’t being that serious… the key word was crazy – as in just a crazy pipe dream. To be honest I’d rather see a 09 Rotation of Santana, Sabathia, Chamberlain, Wang, Hughes but not holding my breath.

    Interesting comments about Rice… you’d think with all the problems out of that school good HS pitchers would try to avoid going there to play. Obviously, scounts should be wise enough to put pitchers from Rice on the danger list.

  • troy

    I realize he is a bit further behind but Brackman???

  • Mike A.

    All of Brackman’s rehab info is in the “2008 Outlook” section of his Prospect Profile. I didn’t want to regurgitate the same old stuff over again.

    • Mike A.

      Blast, that was meant to be a reply to your comment, troy.

  • Ed

    Do the Yanks pick pitchers who fall in the draft because of arm concerns?

    • Mike A.

      Yes. Melancon and Brackman are examples 1 and 1A. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy, the Yanks have the money to cover up any holes.

      • dan

        They also traded for Sanchez knowing about his arm problems (although not the extent of them)

        • Mike A.

          Yep. Essentially it boils down to this: do you take a great pitching prospect with some elbow trouble, or a healthy, lesser prospect. The Yanks can afford to take the risk.

  • Realist

    I would love to see Sanchez progress enough to pitch in the pen…which is mostly what I have read about him since last year. I also agree with those that say it will depend on how/if Horne contributes there. His stuff is supposedly nasty and he could possibly be in the rotation down the line (’09) as he was projected to be a starter and the key to the Sheff deal.

    Melancon intriques me but imo he needs a full year in the minors unless he makes it impossible to keep him down there.

    Cox was a shame…I believe had he not needed the surgery he possibly would be penciled in a the right handed set up man , this spring?