It started with a desperate, radical idea in 1974. In the middle of another great season, Tommy John "blew out his elbow", as it was said back then. In medical terms, John had torn his UCL (ulnar collateral ligament), a pitching injury that remains common in today's game. It looked like the end of his career, but Dr. Frank Jobe had a long shot solution, one that he felt had a "1 in 100" chance of working. He would replace the ligament with a tendon from the left-handed thrower's right wrist.
The rest is history. John went on to pitch 14 more years and win 164 games, including three 20 win seasons.
The surgery has advanced significantly since then. Nearly 40 years ago, it took Dr. Jobe 4 hours to complete the procedure. Today it takes less than an hour. The tendon can also taken from other places, including the ankle and hamstring. The rehab is quicker as well. While it once took around 18 months, players can sometimes return now in less than a year -- some of them throwing harder than ever.
Getting good, relatively young and healthy pitchers on the free agent trade market isn't cheap or easy. Their best pitcher today, Matt Garza, cost the team 5 prospects, including two very good ones in Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee. The Cubs just missed out on Anibal Sanchez who, up until his excellent playoff performance, was once considered more of an under the radar guy. The Tigers wound up re-signing him for 5 years and $80M, the total amount was double what he would have expected to get otherwise. The Dodgers signed Zack Greinke for almost double of Sanchez's total at $158M. The last good young pitcher on the market, the oft-traveled Edwin Jackson, has a rumored price of $12-$13M over 3 years.
But despite nearly 40 years of success stories and medical advancement, teams are still hesitant to make large investments on Tommy John survivors. The Cubs have decided to take advantage of those lingering doubts and have used it to acquire 3 pitchers this year who would otherwise have been unavailable: Arodys Vizcaino, Scott Baker, and Hector Rondon. It also has had an impact on their decision making at the minor league level, including Robert Whitenack and the recently drafted Josh Conway.
Arodys Vizcaino is the most talented of the bunch. Going into the 2012 season, Keith Law ranked him as the 12th best prospect in all of baseball. His opinion of Vizcaino is so high that when I asked him whom he'd rather have, a healthy Randall Delgado or the rehabbing Vizcaino, he didn't hesitate. Vizcaino. The only reason he was available was because he had hurt his elbow twice, the second time it required TJ surgery.
Law is not the only one who is high on the former Yankee and Braves prospect. Industry sources I have spoken with have indicated that the Cubs have a potential steal in Vizcaino. Whether he becomes a #2 or #3 starter or a closer, the 22 year old RHP has impact potential because of a mid 90s fastball, a hammer curve, and a solid change. He also throws with surprisingly good command for such a youthful power pitcher.
The Cubs were able to pick up Vizcaino when the Atlanta Braves, who just missed the playoffs the season before, needed to shore up their pitching down the stretch. The Cubs nearly traded them Ryan Dempster for Randall Delgado but when the deal infamously fell through, the Braves turned to lefty Paul Maholm and the Cubs got the higher risk, but higher ceiling pitcher in Vizcaino. It's a move that could pay off big as soon as mid-season in 2013.
Scott Baker, 31, would have never been let go by the Twins had he not had TJ surgery early last season. He had a club option for $9M that would have been a bargain in today's market for the kind of mid-rotation starter Baker is when healthy. He doesn't have the youth, stuff and upside that Vizcaino does, but has had major league success as a starting pitcher for the Twins. His track record includes a 15 win season in 2009 but what really stands out with Baker is a very good career 3.44 K/BB ratio. He throws strikes and misses bats -- and that allows him to be less reliant on his defense to succeed. With the Cubs expected to have a plus defender at every position except, perhaps, CF. Baker won't have to do it all on his own and we could expect a jump in his numbers if he's healthy this season. Baker (90-93 mph) doesn't throw as hard as Vizcaino, but his fastball has been a plus pitch because of movement and his ability to locate it. He complements his FB with a solid slider and change-up.
Hector Rondon was a fast rising prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization in 2010. At the time, Baseball America projected him to be the Indians #3 starter by 2013. Shortly after that writing, Rondon fell on some hard times, most notably the TJ surgery and the subsequent fracture during his rehab. Still, the Indians didn't want to lose him. They gambled that teams would be scared off by his 2 consecutive injury-plagued seasons and were surprised, as I was, when the Cubs selected him with the #2 pick overall in the Rule 5 draft. Had he been healthy, there was no way he would have been left unprotected. Rondon finally made his way back late last season and was clocked as high as 97 mph. He continued to throw well in Venezuela this winter. At this point, the Cubs don't expect Rondon to be that #3 starter, at least not for 2013. He'll be used out of the bullpen, where the Cubs hope he can maintain the kind of velocity and command he showed in his minor league career and in Venezuela this offseason.
Interestingly, the Cubs didn't take the same gamble with one of their own prospects, Robert Whitenack. Like Rondon, Whitenack was considered to be a prospect with the potential to be a #3 starter when he was healthy. Had he not tore his UCL, he would have been one of the Cubs top 10 prospects, and perhaps their best pitching prospect prior to the acquisition of Vizcaino. Aside from a good 92-93 mph fastball that can reach 96, Whitenack throws a hard slider (he junked his knuckle curve which he had trouble commanding), and a good change-up. He returned to the mound less than a year after his surgery and while he didn't look like the same pitcher in his abbreviated comeback, the Cubs saw enough to believe that he could return to form in 2013.
The philosophy has even extended into the draft, where the Cubs drafted top 50 talent Josh Conway in the 4th round. Conway is a power pitcher with a 94-96 mph fastball and nasty slider. He walked a respectable 18 batters in 55 innings in his last season at Coastal Carolina. Our friends at Chasing the Dream, did a nice interview with him here that included some questions about his progress. Regarding his rehab, Conway says, " I am currently a little over 6 weeks and my arm feels great. Dr Andrews did a wonderful job and everyone who has helped with the rehab has been great as well. I am currently in Arizona, rehabbing with the Cubs and couldn’t be happier with the progress."
Other than TJ surgery, the common thread with all of these pitchers is that they all have good fastballs and throw strikes -- the kind of pitcher that can be terribly expensive on the free agent market. As it is, four of these pitchers (Vizcaino, Baker, Rondon, and Conway) would never have been available to the Cubs (at least not at their respective costs) had they not gotten hurt, and the 5th, Whitenack, would have been left unprotected had it not been for the advancement in TJ surgery and the trust the Cubs place on their medical staff. If that trust pays off, the Cubs could eventually find themselves with a quintet of pitchers that would have otherwise been costly on the open market.
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