TwinsCentric was formed by Twins super-bloggers Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes. Together they publish at TwinsDaily.com and have authored books, e-books and magazines that provide independent and in-depth coverage of the Minnesota Twins from a fan's perspective. You can contact them at TwinsCentric@gmail.com.
Spring is an exciting time for baseball. Players are happy to be back in camp doing what they love. Coaches are pumped to reacquaint with returning team members and welcome new ones. Fans are giddy at the sound of gloves popping under the sun.
It’s easy for reporters on hand to get caught up in the flurry of good vibes. This year’s prime example is Mike Pelfrey, who wowed everyone present during his early workouts, less than 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery. Pelfrey spoke about how great he felt, assured people he’d be fully ready for the start of the season and drew rave reviews from coaches and trainers as he fired off the mound in bullpen sessions with his imposing 6’5” frame. The media reports glowed, and it's not hard to see why.
Yesterday, after he made his first Grapefruit League appearance, the tone changed just a little bit. Pelfrey got knocked around, coughing up three runs on five hits over 1 2/3 innings while clocking in at 87-89 MPH with his fastball. That’s a noticeable drop-off from his pre-surgery velocity, which averaged close to 93.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying this is a setback for Pelfrey. Results in a pitcher’s first spring training start are meaningless, and he’s likely to add ticks to his fastball in the coming weeks. But it serves as yet another reminder that he’s attempting a historically speedy return from one of the game’s most drastic arm surgeries, and despite all the optimism surrounding him, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.
For his part, Pelfrey downplayed the decreased fastball speed, pointing out that last year in spring training he was at 82-84 MPH in his first start and was touching the upper 90s by the end of camp.
Then again, many will recall seeing the exact same type of quotes from Joe Nathan when he showed up at spring training throwing in the mid 80s following his own Tommy John procedure. In that case, Nathan did indeed gradually ramp up his velocity, and he eventually returned close to his previous level of effectiveness, though it took him until a couple months into the season. And Nathan was a month further along in his rehab compared to Pelfrey.
As everyone knows, it’s not all about pitch speed. It’s about endurance. It’s about command. It’s about movement – especially for a guy like Pelf who generally relies on inducing weak contact rather than missing bats. These are all traditional obstacles for pitchers with reconstructed elbows, and ones that Pelfrey is looking to overcome in an extraordinarily short period of time.
I'm not saying he can't do it. But shaky outings like Tuesday's should be the expectation. If Pelfrey is actually able to pitch in the Twins' opening series, as seems to be the plan, it would be (as far as I could tell after researching a little) the shortest length of time between a pitcher's Tommy John surgery and his next MLB start. Ever.
To do that and also be effective right away? It wouldn't quite be an Adrian Peterson caliber feat, but it would be perhaps the greatest success story for a TJ rehabber since the surgery's inception.
To me, it's extremely impressive that Pelfrey is already out on the mound. The fact that he's even hitting the high 80s in game action right now is dazzling, all things considered. But no one should be surprised that he struggled in his exhibition debut, nor if he continues to do so as he attempts an unprecedented comeback.
Mike Pelfrey, or “the Big Pelf’ as he is called, towers at six feet, seven inches tall.
Because of his substantial stature, it is likely that when Pelfrey starts saying that he will be ready to pitch by April this year, there is nary a person around to tell him otherwise. Even the Minnesota Twins figure that Pelfrey, who had Tommy John surgery in May 2012, will be ready by the opener, less than a year after the procedure.
“If the season started tomorrow, I would have worked up to be ready at this point,” Pelfrey told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger. “Realistically, after 7 ½ months, I threw 90 pitches to hitters, so I could pitch [now]. They told me the other day, ‘No restrictions. You’re on the schedule with everybody else.’ That’s what I wanted.”
He has reportedly thrown 40 mound sessions since the surgery and has zero setbacks thus far. There is no question that he is doing everything possible to be ready by April 1. An interesting comparison to Pelfrey’s development will be to monitor how the Chicago Cubs prepare for former Twin Scott Baker’s return from the same injury.
When Baker was signed the past November, the Cubs raved about his progress. They were teeming with optimism that Baker would be a key component of the team’s success right away, mostly based on his rehabilitation.
“There are no certainties with rehabs, but we spent quite a lot of time on the medical (evaluation) and (looking into) his rehab,” said Chicago team president Theo Epstein. “It was described by our medical staff as an ideal Tommy John’s rehab, so far. Knock on wood. Everything has gone perfectly so far. He’s really attacked it in an ideal manner.”
Fast forward to yesterday and Chicago’s field staff communicated a different message. Manager Dale Sveum said that the team was planning on “babying” him through spring training and that Baker had an “above-average” chance of missing the start of the regular season.
What does Scott Baker’s timeline have to do with Mike Pelfrey?
Baker had his Tommy John surgery almost two week prior to Pelfrey. Like Pelfrey, Baker’s rehab was thought to be going exceptionally well. He was throwing off of flat ground by August 8 and was throwing from more than 120 feet in September. In November, following his signing, the Cubs officials expressed adulation of his progress.
During the time Baker began throwing again last August, Pelfrey was in Wichita where he played college ball. There, he helped coach an 18-year-old local team who was heading to a national tournament. Pelfrey took the opportunity to tell reporters that the medical staff and Mets’ organization had advised him to shoot for a May 2012 return based on the 12-month timeline post-surgery, but his own personal goal would be to be ready by opening day.
By the middle of August last year, reports emerged that Pelfrey would be throwing on flat ground “soon.” Already he was few weeks behind Baker’s timeline but it appeared to be slipping further off target. When the Twins signed him in December, Pelfrey told reporters that he was confident that he would be 100% by opening day.
"I'm on track for Jan. 15. So everything is going well," Pelfrey told ESPN.com’s Adam Rubin. " came back in seven months (from Tommy John surgery)…I'll definitely be ready when spring training rolls around."
True, Hudson came back quickly, but his actual recovery time was a bit longer than what Pelfrey relayed to the press. While he did return to pitch in the minors for a brief spell 10 months after his 2008 Tommy John surgery day, it wasn’t until 12 months after his surgery date that Hudson was throwing in the majors again – and even that was September work with the off-season ahead of him to rest. Essentially, Hudson jumped into the marathon near the end of the finish line whereas Pelfrey is expecting to run up to the starting line of the race and toss 180-plus innings.
Locally, fans will remember Joe Nathan’s slow return to form in 2011. Nathan received the gift of a new UCL in March 2010 and busted his butt to get back on the hill by the start of the 2011 season. Nathan said all the right things, just like Pelfrey: I don’t want to be babied, I feel great, etc. After a clean spring training, Nathan was brought to Minnesota in what turned out to be a premature decision. It took the Twins nearly two months of the season, three home runs, two blown saves and a 7.63 ERA, to realize that Nathan was not ready. He was sent to Rochester to break up some scar tissue and came back effective for the second-half of the season.
This week, Baker reportedly threw 40 pitches at 70 percent effort in response to the Cubs’ babying program. Meanwhile, early dispatches from Fort Myers suggest the new Twin one-upped the former Twin and has overtaken him in the race for the return. In his first bullpen session of the year, Pelfrey threw 50 pitches.
There are plenty of reasons why Pelfrey may actually come back quicker than expected. His size suggests that he can take pressure off his arm. His relatively low injury history may mean he is less injury prone in general. He may have X-Men DNA and heal freakishly fast like Adrian Peterson. This is to say, every individual repairs themselves differently and at different intervals. Still, research tells us that the time to return to form from Tommy John surgery is 12-to-18 months. Hard work and great genes may help Pelfrey target May – closer to the one-year anniversary of his new elbow – but anything earlier than that could be risking a setback (like Joe Nathan).
The Twins may be supportive to the public of Pelfrey’s return but, at the same time, gathering insurance quietly such as signing left-hander Rafael Perez, someone assistant GM Rob Antony believes can be stretched out into a starter, to a minor league contract. Perez -- along with Rich Harden and in-house candidates like Liam Hendriks, Cole DeVries and Sam Deduno -- may be the safety net the front office is preparing in the event Pelfrey is not ready by April.
At his age and his relatively low injury-risk in general, Mike Pelfrey is almost certain to rebound. Never say never but, if history has any indication, the likelihood of him pitching effectively in April appears low.
More at TwinsDaily.com:
Nick Nelson reveals our number one prospects in the Top Ten Twins prospect series.
Seth Stohs provides his roster projections for the 2013 season.
Any other thoughts or questions on the Twins minor leaguers?
For those who have not been to Ft. Myers for spring training, I wanted to post some notes on my observations from the minor league side of the Lee County facilities. To try to paint the picture, Hammond Stadium is the crown jewel of the area. Next to it is a regular sized field where pitchers do Pitchers Fielding Practice and they take batting practice. But as you walk out toward left field of that second field, down a sidewalk, you walk through a gate. Once past the gate, you are in the minor league facilities. There are three full-size fields and an infield-only field. There was a big bullpen area with 10 mounds to throw from. Beyond the mini-field is the minor league clubhouse and training facilities with weight room and batting cage. In the center of the facility is a tall, canopied deck where Twins personnel can sit and oversee the entire minor league facility. It is really a nice facility and a lot happens there.
The minor leaguers had to report on Thursday. On Friday, they took their physicals and all had to run a mile. The goal was to finish in 6:30, and most were right in that neighborhood. Those that finished well better than that included Shooter Hunt, Brad Tippett, Matt Tone, Tony Davis and the incredibly fast, lanky, athletic-looking Adrian Salcedo.
On Saturday, their first official workout took place and I was there for the entire thing. If I write about minor leaguers, it only makes sense for me to see each of them in person, even if just for one day.
When we got to the stadium on Saturday morning, we walked to the big league batting practice field and saw Jim Thome, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel taking batting practice. I watched for a minute before saying, "I am probably the only one in the world that would say, I can watch those guys all season, I'm going to minor league camp." And I did. I wish I would have waited long enough to notice that Joe Benson was hitting with that group.
When I got to the minor league side of the parking lot and walked through the gates, I saw a LOT of minor leaguers, probably close to 150. They were dispersing over the four fields. As I walked further, I was really, really glad that they were in uniforms with the players' names on them! Having written so much about most of those players, it was great to be able to see them in person. Of course, walking to the first field I passed, the mini-field, the first pitcher I noticed had the name of "Von Stessel" on his back. How is it possible that the first player I see, I do not know anything about. (I later found out that he is from Australia. He had played in the Phillies organization for a couple of years before leaving the game due to some family issues. He got himself back in shape and the Twins are giving him a second chance.)
In the early sessions, there was a lot of pitcher work. They broke into AAA, AA, Hi-A, Low-A, etc., and went to stations at the various fields. On the mini-field, they worked with infielders on pick off plays. On the next field, the worked on taking ground balls and throwing to second base, and they covered first base on grounders to the right side. On the other field, they fielded bunts and fake-threw to 1B. Then in the bullpen a group of pitchers would work with a catcher and pitch for 10 minutes before a second group of pitchers would do the same. They would then switch stations. Switching between stations every 20 minutes or so covered a lot of the morning. During that time, there was a group of infielders working with Paul Molitor and others taking ground balls on the other field. Outfielders were on one field working on covering ground balls, fielding them and making good throws. On other field, outfielders were working on instinct skills.
Later in the day, the pitchers had to run two 300-yard shuttle runs. That didn't look like much fun at all. At that time, the hitters broke into groups again. On the three full fields, they took batting practice in two groups in two ten-minute sessions. I would watch two or three rounds on one field and then go to the next, and went around for about eight sessoins worth of hitters. I do believe that I saw at least two rounds from every hitter in the organization.
To be honest, all of this going on was a little (or a lot!) overwhelming at first, but as the day went on, I developed a bit of a plan and strategy.
Here are some brief observations on various players that stood out:
I get a lot of grief, fair or not, about writing about the high-profile prospects more sometimes than others. I really try not to, but I have to say that there is often a reason for talking about those guys, and that is very true about two of the Twins top prospects.
Aaron Hicks - I saw him around the ballpark throughout the week and he was there early and working out on the back fields. The first thing I noticed was that he was significantly bigger than a year ago when I saw him in Beloit. His arms are huge. He is still really, really fast. Most impressively though is that the strength shows in his swing. Everything he hit was on a line to the gaps. He showed terrific power, and did a nice job in centerfield. He was the most impressive prospect that I saw and I feel more strongly about the Twins being wise in keeping him rather than dealing him.
Miguel Sano - He may not have great speed. He may or may not have a position to play defensively. He certainly couldn't bunt. But the ball comes off of his bat different. It makes that 'different sound' that we hear about. He was able to do those "little things" like the hit-and-run swings and such, but when he let loose, he hit the ball really, really hard. He hit some balls a long, long way. He has big legs and is very strong. I shook his hand at one point, and it was Adrian Peterson-like (no, I've never shaken AP's hand, but I hear so much about it). Sano has the world of potential.
A lot of other guys stood out too, even from just one day of practice watching. Please note that it is just one day, and obviously what players are able to do in game situations over the course of the season matters more, but it was a terrific opportunity to get a first glance. Here are some comments:
There were a lot more players that stood out to me in my one day. I fully acknowledge that guys can have good days, or that there are some guys who look great in batting practice or the bullpen and it doesn't carry over into games. There are other guys who don't Wow you in practice and just consistently get the job done in games. If you have any questions about players, please feel free to ask. I will also be hosting a Live Twins chat on Wednesday night for people to ask questions as well.
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