In discussing the Washington Nationals' willingness to draft pitchers with injury concerns after he and GM Mike Rizzo picked Erick Fedde with the Nats' first-round pick last June, just days after Fedde underwent Tommy John surgery, and then took Andrew Suarez, who'd previously had surgery to repair the labrum in his left shoulder, with their second round pick, Assistant GM and VP of Scouting Kris Kline talked about taking risks on players they believe are worth it.
"We're never going to take a hurt guy, whether it's a guy like [Erick] Fedde, or somebody that's going to require surgery unless we feel that he can get to the big leagues quick," Kline said.
That doesn't mean the Nationals are going to rush their prospects, however. Fedde, Lucas Giolito and others who have gone through the rehab process, are put through deliberate, personalized programs that take a number of factors into account.
In an MLB Network Radio interview on Friday afternoon, Nationals' Assistant GM and VP of Player Development and Pro Scouting, Doug Harris, talked to hosts Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette about the process of rehabbing starters after Tommy John.
"You have a baseline that you work off of, obviously," Harris explained.
"When the procedure is done: Who does the procedure? When it's done? What time of year? And we create that foundation at that point and build a plan off of that. The one thing that we've been very fortunate here is we have some individuals who are well-versed at the rehab process, have done an excellent job with it and we individualize every single player that goes through this. Hopefully in the future, there's less, but we've done a very good job in bringing guys back from the procedure."
So who are all the Nationals' top pitching prospects working with as they go through the process Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and others have been through before them?
"There [are] many people involved in it," Harris said. "Going back to several years ago, Spin Williams took the lead on this. Spin was our pitching coordinator, now he's a Senior Advisor in the minor leagues. Mark Grater is our rehab pitching coordinator, had a big hand in it. Steve Gober, now our assistant major league trainer, and now [Medical and Rehab Coordinator] Jon Kotredes is in the minor leagues. So we've had a lot of guys [who] had their hands in this and we continue to pass the torch and we've been fortunate to have a lot of success with it."
As for Fedde, in particular, the UNLV right-hander the Nationals drafted 18th overall after he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
"He's on track right now," Harris said. "He had a good offseason. He began throwing shortly after the new year. He's in the middle of his throwing program right now. We're going to be very cautious with him.
Harris on Giolito: "We're going to continue to build him incrementally, we have parameters we work with regardless of TJ Surgery recovery"— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 13, 2015
"As we create this foundation, going slow early is fairly important to us so we can build a strong foundation and we're committed to that."
Lucas Giolito, the 16th overall pick in the 2012 Draft, underwent surgery in 2012 after injuring his elbow in his final year in high school. He returned to the mound in 2013 and finished his first full season this past summer, going (10-2) with a 2.20 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, 28 walks (2.57 BB/9) and 110 Ks (10.10 K/9) in 20 starts and 98 innings.
"We're going to continue to build him incrementally," Harris said when asked what was in store for the top pitching prospect in the system in 2015.
"Beyond an individual going through the procedure, we have parameters that we work within with regard to building pitchers and building their volume year-to-year. So we expect him to continue to build that volume and face a greater level of competition and extend him a little bit more in individual outings and the volume throughout the course of the year."
As Harris explained, pitchers have to adjust not only to the increased workload, but the increased intensity as they move up through the minors.
"There is certainly a different intensity level, not only going from the minor leagues to the big leagues, but going from level to level," Harris explained. "When guys are challenged, we recognize that. When we feel like they're in a good place to go out and compete and learn at the same time, that's a different stress level than taking the next step where you're constantly facing stressful innings, so we recognize all those things."
The Nationals added another top pitching prospect via trade this winter when they acquired 21-year-old right-hander Joe Ross from San Diego after a 2014 campaign which saw the 2011 1st Round pick work his way up to Double-A in the Padres' system. Harris said today that the Nationals scouted Ross extensively and were impressed.
"Obviously we got very favorable scouting reports on him," he said.
"Young kid with a really good arm. Excellent athlete. We're really anxious to get him in here, get our arms around him and introduce him to the Washington Nationals."
Asked what, if anything about Ross, really stood out for him, Harris said it was the command.
more Harris on Joe Ross: "He has really good stuff, and throws the ball consistently over the plate with that good stuff"— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 13, 2015
"The one thing that really stood out is, obviously, he's got really good stuff. But his ability to throw the ball over the plate on a consistent basis with that stuff is the thing that is very attractive to us. Two plus pitches with a chance to have a third one on the come and we're going to continue to work in that direction with the third pitch."
Ross was ranked sixth in the Nats' system by Baseball America's John Manuel after this winter's trade, with only two pitchers ahead of him on BA's updated list: Giolito... and Reynaldo Lopez.
Lopez, 21, made 16 starts between Auburn and Hagerstown in 2014, going (3-2) with a 0.75 ERA, a 3.14 FIP, 15 walks (3.75 BB/9) and 31 Ks (7.75 K/9) in seven starts and 36 IP for the Doubledays, and (4-1) with a 1.33 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, 11 walks (2.09 BB/9) and 39 Ks (7.42 K/9) in nine starts and 47 ⅓ IP for the Suns.
"[Lopez] had an incredible second half last year," Harris said. "Very, very dominant. And that came with a really modest mechanical adjustment. His arm strength has grown incrementally year to year, probably a little bit quicker than his body has grown, so we've had to kind of slow that down a little bit, but once he got going and his body was able to handle the workload, we made a mechanical adjustment. He was kind of a lateral front side guy, where the velocity was more foul balls and fly balls, and Tim Redding and Spin Williams did a great job with him creating a little better front side where he worked top-to-bottom which created a better angle to the fastball.
"The velocity never changed, but now you have better angle, and rather than foul balls and fly balls we got ground balls and swings and misses. It allowed him to stay in the strike zone a little bit longer, modified the tilt to the breaking ball, where it went from a slurvy, curveball to more of an 11-to-5 with better depth and came with more swings and misses and it just allowed him to really take big steps forward."
A.J. Cole took a big step forward last season too.
After reacquiring the 2010 Nationals' 4th Round pick from the Oakland A's in the winter of 2013, a year after he was traded in the Gio Gonzalez trade and struggled in his first year in the Athletics' system, GM Mike Rizzo told reporters that they would get Cole straightened out.
"His developmental curve is on track," Rizzo said then, "and we're going to get him with our pitching people and kind of straighten out his delivery and I think that this guy will be a quick mover for us from this point forward."
Cole worked his way up from High-A to Double-A in 2013 and went from Double to Triple-A last season, making 14 starts at Harrisburg in which he was (6-3) with a 2.92 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 15 walks (1.90 BB/9) and 61 Ks (7.73 K/9) in 71 IP and 11 starts at Syracuse in which he was (7-0) with a 3.43 ERA, a 4.48 FIP, 17 walks (2.43 BB/9) and 50 Ks (7.14 K/9) in 63 IP.
"When young players are traded it can be a big, big transition for them," Harris said today.
"I think that had contributed to some of the trials and tribulations he had [in 2012]. Oakland does a tremendous job with pitching. We're no smarter than the next guy, but there were some things that we did with him mechanically before we traded him and we really got him back to that since we reacquired him and it allows him to stay in the strike zone a little more consistently and create a little depth with the breaking ball and the quality of the changeup."
Cole was ranked 6th on Baseball America's list of the Nationals' Top 10 Prospects, no.2 on MLB.com's list and 98th overall on Keith Law's Top 100 prospects list for 2015.