“He looked very, very good,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said of Vizcaino, who is projected to pitch out of the bullpen. “We’re very pleased with his session. Very sharp, live fastball, breaking ball, he was burying his pitches when he needed to. He’s progressing well. We’re happy to say there are no setbacks and we hope it continues that way.”
The last time the right-hander appeared in a game was 2011 with the Braves. The radar gun was hitting 97, 98 mph on Saturday.
“Everything felt good — my elbow, shoulder, everything,” Vizcaino said.
This is incredibly good news. Vizcaino has been recovering from Tommy John surgery since 2012, when he came over from Atlanta in the Paul Maholm trade. He had a setback with rehab-related calcium buildup in his elbow and missed 2013 as well. I'm sure he was working out the rest of his body during all this time, and the fact that he was still able to throw his entire arsenal at good velocity is very encouraging.
The Vizcaino news prompted me to have a few conversations with my collaborators in Dabynsky and Behind The Ivy. We were trying to figure out whether the 98 mph fastball meant that the Cubs would be taking the kids' gloves off of Vizcaino, or if they would stay conservative given his long rehab from TJS and take it very slow.
Dabynsky took the position that because they need to ensure that Vizcaino is healthy first, the Cubs would probably bullpen test him for 2014 before stretching him out next offseason. This seems a bit overly conservative to me, but Dabynsky does have a point...given the upside the Vizcaino has, they should play it safe, and with that much magic in the arm, having an elite reliever or closer isn't the end of the world here. Either way they have to try to make sure he can stay healthy for 150 innings, or if he's bullpen'd, 50-100 innings depending on usage.
I really don't like having to turn Vizcaino into a reliever and would prefer the Cubs try to see whether he can start in Iowa. I can understand the reason for caution though. The Cubs weren't as cautious as they should have been with Kyuji Fujikawa, who had forearm issues in spring training and during the early part of 2013. Eventually Fujikawa was lost for the season with his own TJS, and it's hard to say when he will return this season, if at all. However, injuries are going to happen and it's impossible to prevent 100% of them. I simply want to see Vizcaino start until he proves he can't do it anymore.
I posed the question of whether it makes sense to start him off slow as a bullpen arm and then gradually build him up through the season. That's when Behind The Ivy admonished me for being an amateur and explained why that was an extraordinarily bad idea. BTI suggested that the Cubs should pick one course of action (starter or reliever) and stick with it this season. Trying to build him up through the season would be dangerous given that Vizcaino hasn't pitched in nearly two years.
We were all in agreement that either way is probably fine. I next posed the question of whether Vizcaino would lose stamina if he was bullpen'd and then had to stretch out again. BTI reminded me that Ryan Dempster also had TJS prior to joining the Cubs and after pitching in relief for 3+ seasons, he was able to successfully convert back to a capable starting pitcher. BTI also said that because of the way Tommy John Surgery works, the repaired ligament should make the elbow stronger than before. This, coupled with what we assume to be a rigorous offseason workout to strength the legs and the core (i.e. everything that's not a pitching elbow), should keep Vizcaino primed and prepared for an eventual rotation spot. So whether he starts 2014 in the Iowa Cubs rotation or holds back until 2015, he should be able to convert fairly quickly.
One issue is whether the Cubs will take the supposed contention timeline into account when deciding what to do with Vizcaino. We are in agreement that they should choose one or the other, though Dabynsky is leaning bullpen while BTI and I are leaning towards the rotation in Iowa. But with the Cubs seemingly in another tank season, it doesn't make sense to me to risk injury to Vizcaino by forcing him into the rotation before he is ready. However, if the guy is ready to go, just let him work and let's see the magic take shape on the mound, either at Iowa or at Wrigley.
The second issue is purely financial. Since he's been on the disabled list (60-day DL) for two full seasons and his last action prior to surgery was with the Braves as a major leaguer, Vizcaino has already accumulated over two years of service time. This means that Vizcaino will be arbitration eligible in 2015, and this season is his final pre-arbitration season. There may be a reason to keep him in the bullpen at least for this season to suppress his arbitration salaries. It's probably a secondary concern, because again, if he's healthy and can stick in the rotation, they might as well do it. But those millions of dollars do add up, even for billionaires. I think this point may be less critical than the health issue, but you never know.
Here's to a successful spring training and that the Cubs make a decision that will cause us Cubs fans to swoon.