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.