“You can never have too much pitching” is an adage that predates the bombing of Pearl Harbor and a notion that’s at least as old as Old Hoss Radbourn’s sore right arm. Every team goes into the season expecting that its rotation will need far more than five starters, and one pitcher’s absence is another’s opportunity to step up, but that doesn’t make the inevitable rash of spring injuries any more bearable. This week, we’ve got a handful of prominent ones worth noting, with All-Stars Carlos Rodón and Tony Gonsolin likely to miss a few regular season turns, top prospect Andrew Painter targeting a May return, and José Quintana potentially out for longer than that.
The latest-breaking injury involves Painter, the freshest face among this group. The fast-rising 19-year-old Phillies phenom placed fifth on our Top 100 list. Moreover, the 6-foot-7 righty, who sports four potentially plus pitches, had already turned heads this camp, reaching 99 mph with his fastball in his spring debut on March 1 (Davy Andrews broke down his encounter with Carlos Correa here). While he topped out at Double-A Reading last year after two A-level stops, he was considered to be in competition with Bailey Falter for the fifth starter’s job, and had a legitimate shot at debuting as a teenager, though his 20th birthday on April 10 didn’t leave much leeway.
Alas — there’s always an alas in these stories — two days after Painter’s outing, manager Rob Thomson told reporters that he was experiencing tenderness in his right elbow, and several subsequent days without updates suggested there was more to the story. Indeed, an MRI taken on March 3 revealed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, with the finding subsequently confirmed via a second opinion from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, hence the delay. The Phillies termed the injury “a mild sprain” that isn’t severe enough to require surgery. The team plans to rest Painter for four weeks from the date of injury (so, March 29) and then begin a light throwing program that under a best-case scenario would have him back in games in May.
In the meantime, the Phillies are likely to turn to Falter, a 25-year-old lefty who made 16 starts and four relief appearances totaling 84 innings for the Phillies last year, then failed to make it out of the first inning in his NLCS Game 4 start against the Padres and was left off the World Series roster. In the regular season, he put up a 3.86 ERA and 4.65 FIP, striking out a modest 21.2% of hitters while serving up 1.71 homers per nine. He did improve notably as the season went on thanks to a shift from relying upon a sinker/slider combination to an approach centering around his four-seamer and curve; after returning from Triple-A Lehigh Valley on August 20, he posted a 3.00 ERA and 3.74 FIP in nine starts totaling 45 innings, walking a minuscule 3.4% of hitters.
Falter is now heavily favored for the fifth spot, though Thomson has said that lefties Cristopher Sánchez and Michael Plassmeyer and right-hander Nick Nelson are also in the picture. In a 40-inning stint with the Phillies that included three starts and 12 relief appearances, the 26-year-old Sánchez had a 5.63 ERA and 4.56 FIP. The 26-year-old Plassmeyer, who was acquired from the Giants in a June trade for catcher Austin Wynns, made two appearances totaling 7.1 innings, one on August 23 and the second a six-inning, three-run outing as the bulk man on October 5, the final day of the season, against the Astros. Both are more likely ticketed for Triple-A, where they spent the balance of last season, while the 27-year-old Nelson, who carried a 4.85 ERA and 3.04 FIP in 68.2 innings as the team’s long reliever last year and is most likely to resume that role, would need to be stretched out; so far he’s been limited to single-inning stints this spring.
Elsewhere in the NL East, after throwing a scoreless inning for the Mets against the Cardinals on Sunday, Quintana departed with what was initially termed left side tightness. That alone was enough for the 34-year-old lefty to announce that he would have to withdraw from pitching for Team Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. On Monday, he was diagnosed with a small stress fracture in his fifth rib on his left side, with the team saying that he would head back to New York for further imaging and a timetable for return.
That timetable hasn’t come yet, in part because Quintana’s original flight back to New York was canceled, but it will suffice to say that small fracture may be anything but trivial. As I wrote earlier this week, shortly after the lockout ended last spring, the Red Sox’s Chris Sale was discovered to have suffered a stress fracture of his eighth rib in mid-February. He began the year on the 60-day injured list, didn’t make his first rehab start until June 20, and didn’t return to the majors until July 12, roughly five months after the injury occurred and four months after it was diagnosed.
I have no information as to the relative severity of Sale and Quintana’s fractures or if the prognosis for a fifth rib differs greatly from that of an eighth rib, but the larger issue is that rib injuries can’t be immobilized the way a broken arm or leg can be, and even breathing creates some stress. An orthopedic specialist will tell you that it’s generally six to eight weeks before somebody suffering a rib fracture can return to working out, and then from there a pitcher has to ramp up his workload like it’s spring training all over again.
The Mets signed Quintana to a two-year, $26 million deal on the assumption that he’d slot into a rotation that already included Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Carlos Carrasco; just a few days later they added Japanese newcomer Kodai Senga as well. The moves bumped 27-year-old lefty David Peterson and 27-year-old righty Tylor Megill back into the waiting room after the pair did respectable jobs of filling in for Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Carrasco et al last year. They’re now the top contenders to open the season as the fifth starter.
Peterson made 19 starts and nine relief appearances totaling 105.2 innings, pitching to a 3.83 ERA and 3.64 FIP; all but the ERA were career bests, as was his 27.8% strikeout rate, which owed a whole lot to a much-improved slider. He did have a minor scare this past week, taking a comebacker off his left foot in Saturday’s game, but he didn’t suffer a fracture. Megill made nine starts and six relief appearances totaling 47.1 innings, posting a 5.13 ERA and 3.77 FIP. He was exceptional early in the year, most notably starting the team’s combined no-hitter on April 29 against the Phillies, but he missed a month due to biceps inflammation and then three months due to a shoulder strain.
Beyond that pair, 29-year-old lefty Joey Lucchesi and 27-year-old righty Elieser Hernandez are also in the picture. The former spent last year rehabbing from a June 2021 Tommy John surgery, pitching a total of 12.2 innings in the minors; prior to that, he made eight starts and three relief appearances totaling 38.1 innings with the Mets after spending 2018-20 with the Padres. Hernandez spent the past five seasons with the Marlins but was torched for a 6.40 ERA and 6.35 FIP in 10 starts and 10 relief appearances totaling 62.1 innings.
Where the Painter and Quintana injuries were the first notable ones for their teams’ respective rotations this spring, the Yankees have already taken a couple of hits with the losses of Frankie Montas to arthroscopic shoulder surgery and Nestor Cortes to a hamstring strain; the former will at best be limited to a late-season return, though the latter is just a couple of weeks behind schedule and should make his spring debut next weekend. On Thursday, general manager Brian Cashman revealed that Rodón will begin the season on the IL due to a forearm strain.
The 30-year-old Rodón, whom the Yankees signed to a six-year, $162 million deal in mid-December, was roughed up by the Braves in his spring debut last Sunday. As he conceded his arm felt “a little cranky” going into the start and had trouble recovering afterwards, the Yankees sent him for an MRI that revealed he’d suffered a mild strain of his brachioradialis, the most superficial muscle of the forearm.
Rodón told reporters he suffered the same injury last May while with the Giants, and pitched through it without missing a start — that in a season where he set career highs with 31 starts, 178 innings, and 6.2 WAR while posting a 2.84 ERA and 2.25 FIP. “I can go out there and perform, but am I performing at my best and how long am I going to last throughout the season if I continue down this road?” Rodón told reporters on Thursday. “I’m not here to pitch until the All-Star break. I’m here to pitch well into October and whenever this team needs me. If it’s Oct. 5th or it’s the ALDS, I’m taking the ball. I want to pitch.”
Cashman said that Rodon’s UCL, which was repaired via Tommy John surgery in 2019, is intact and that the pitcher will be shut down from throwing for seven to 10 days. Barring further setbacks, that would put him on track for a return in mid-to-late April.
With the loss of Montas, the Yankees already figured to rely upon either 30-year-old Domingo Germán or 26-year-old Clarke Schmidt in his stead, with both righties possibly opening the season in the rotation behind Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, and Rodón, and Cortes joining the fray by mid-April. After missing about half of last season due to a right shoulder impingement, Germán pitched credibly (3.61 ERA, 4.44 FIP) in 14 starts and one relief appearance totaling 72.1 innings, while Schmidt shuttled back and forth to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; in 26 relief appearances and three starts totaling 57.2 innings, he posted a 3.12 ERA and 3.60 FIP. Thus far this spring, he’s been having success with a new cut fastball, which he used to notch all three of his strikeouts in Thursday’s start against the Red Sox.
Additionally, Cashman mentioned 23-year-old righty Deivi García as a candidate who could get a longer look amid the injuries. As a 21-year-old, the 5-foot-9 García made a splash over the course of half a dozen starts with the Yankees in 2020, pitching to a 4.98 ERA and 4.15 FIP, but he’s been trending in the wrong direction ever since, making just two major league appearances in 2021 and none last year, though he did serve as the 27th man for a doubleheader. Beset by a finger injury and mechanical issues that cost him velocity — problems that reached such a head that the Yankees gave him a midseason physical and mental reset in Tampa — he was hit for a 6.89 ERA in 64 innings at Double-A Somerset and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; he did strike out 25.9% of hitters but also served up 1.8 homers per nine. He turned some heads in his spring debut on February 27 by reaching 97 mph his four-seamer and showing off a newish cutter of his own.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Thursday wasn’t a great day on the injury front. In addition to announcing that of Rodón, Cashman revealed that righty relievers Tommy Kahnle and Lou Trivino will both open the season on the IL, the former with biceps tendinitis and the latter with (gulp) a mild elbow ligament sprain. Kahnle, who’s made just 14 appearances in the past three seasons due to Tommy John surgery and additional elbow inflammation, could be back in April, while Trivino might return by mid-May. Meanwhile, on Friday it was confirmed that center fielder Harrison Bader is dealing with an oblique strain; manager Aaron Boone didn’t offer a specific timeline for his return, but he seems likely to start the season on the IL.
Moving from the Grapefruit League to the Cactus League, the Dodgers reported on Wednesday that Tony Gonsolin had sprained his left ankle during pitcher fielding practice on Monday, putting his Opening Day status in jeopardy. The 28-year-old righty is coming off a breakout season founded on an improved split-finger fastball and an ability to handle a larger workload. He set career bests with 130.1 innings and a 2.14 ERA, and made the NL All-Star team, though his season ended on a sour note; he suffered a forearm strain in late August and made just one two-inning regular season appearance after that, nearly six weeks later, then couldn’t get out of the second inning in his Division Series Game start against the Padres.
According to manager Dave Roberts, x-rays have ruled out a fracture, but Gonolin isn’t expected to throw for several days, and could eventually need an MRI depending upon how quickly his ankle progresses. “It’s not something we feel really good about right now,” said the skipper regarding the pitcher’s availability to start the season.
Gonsolin is slated to slot into a rotation headed by Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw, but as I wrote on Thursday, the unit took one of the largest hits during the offseason by losing All-Star Tyler Anderson and a much-improved Andrew Heaney to free agency, and that’s without counting Walker Buehler’s loss to Tommy John surgery. The team signed Noah Syndergaard after a so-so first full season following his 2020 TJ, and is hoping for a full year from Dustin May after he made a shaky return from his own ’21 TJ.
Given potential workload concerns for May and the Dodgers’ general conservatism regarding their starters — Urías and Buehler are the only ones to throw 175 or more innings in either of the last two seasons — the team was already positioned to require contributions from the prospect group of Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove, and Bobby Miller, all righties. The 25-year-old Pepiot, who ranks ninth on the team’s Top Prospects list, split last season between Triple-A Oklahoma City and the Dodgers, making seven starts and two relief appearances totaling 36.1 innings for the latter; he posted a 3.47 ERA, but an unhealthy 16.9% walk rate offset a 26.3% strikeout rate en route to a 5.42 FIP. Pepiot sports a plus changeup and a high-spin fastball, but struggled mightily with his mechanics and command last year while trying to integrate a slider; he’s tackling those issues this spring.
The 26-year-old Grove (22nd on the team’s prospect list) split his season between Double-A Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and the Dodgers. With the big club he made seven starts and one relief appearance totaling 29.1 innings, while posting a 4.60 ERA and 5.16 FIP; he served up 1.84 homers per nine and struck out just 18% of hitters, so he spent the offseason working on reshaping his slider to give it more depth and arm himself with a reliable putaway pitch. He started the team’s Cactus League opener and also took Gonsolin’s start on Wednesday, his fourth outing of the spring.
Miller, who turns 24 on April 5, placed second on the team’s prospect list and 33rd on our Top 100 after splitting last year between Double-A and Triple-A, striking out 30.9% of all hitters on the strength of an upper-90s fastball and three secondary pitches that are above-average or better, headlined by a plus slider. As his ranking suggests, he’s considered the best of this group — “an impact, mid-rotation starter in the near future,” as Eric Longenhagen put it, with the possibility of even bigger things — but with just four starts at OKC last year, he’s likely to return for more experience instead of getting first crack in Gonsolin’s stead.
If there’s good news in all of this, it’s that none of these pitchers has been lost for the season. But with just under three weeks to go until Opening Day, they’re all out of the question for now, and inevitably, they’ll be joined on the sidelines and trainers’ tables by more hurlers.