BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates have seen their fair share of Tommy John injuries the last few years. Oddly enough, a lot of those injuries took place with the upper level pitchers, rather than being spread evenly throughout the system. This impacted their pitching depth in recent years, with the team needing to trade for pitchers at the deadline in 2015 and 2016, rather than turning to one of their internal options.
We’re starting to come out of the other side of the Tommy John tunnel, with many of those depth options returning. The biggest story so far has been Jameson Taillon getting back on track, and even improving his game in his return, while looking like a future top of the rotation option. Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes have also both returned, and made some good strides to regain their former prospect status, with Holmes being added to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
The Pirates saw two more guys start their return today, as Casey Sadler and Angel Sanchez threw off the mound for the first time this year. Sadler made a spot start for the Pirates in early 2015, then went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John shortly after that start. Sanchez started to emerge as an interesting upper level pitching prospect who could have had a shot in the majors, but went down with Tommy John in late 2015, around the time the Pirates had to trade for J.A. Happ.
Both pitchers got a chance to throw off the mound last year, although the work was limited. Sanchez had almost a dozen bullpens in September and October, while Sadler threw one at the end of instructs.
“I’m really pleased, being the first day on the bump for the year,” Sadler said after his session today. “Just trying to take it easy, get the timing back, get downhill, don’t do anything crazy. I was really pleased with it today.”
Both pitchers mentioned that they’ll be ready by Spring Training, although the Pirates might opt to hold them back early in the season, moving them through the rehab process in the lower levels.
“It looks like I will be ready for Spring Training, to pitch a couple of innings,” Sanchez said. “They will probably keep me here [when camp breaks] to pitch in High-A and Double-A.”
Both pitchers threw all fastballs today, with about 20 pitches each. They have both been throwing their changeups in flat grounds. Sanchez told me that he expects to throw changeups in the bullpen sessions next week, and should be throwing all of his pitches by the end of the month. Sadler appears to be on a similar schedule.
Typically, when returning from Tommy John surgery, a pitcher will focus on a specific part of his game. Sanchez said that he added 22 pounds of muscle, since he lost some weight after the surgery. Sadler focused on cleaning up his mechanics a bit, trying to stay loose.
“I have a tendency to tense up a little bit to try to get more, which is not what you want to do,” Sadler said. “Just being more fluid, maximizing your natural movement of your body to get the most out of everything.”
Both pitchers said they are progressing as starters, and haven’t been told what their role would be. However, it sounds like they would both be relievers going forward, due to the amount of depth in the system.
“In Sanchez and Sadler’s case, probably looking more likely out of the bullpen, just given the numbers, depth, and options that we have, and where they are in our transition back,” Neal Huntington said. “We certainly want to keep an open mind if they’re able to get themselves back in our rotation at some point. The reality early in the season is more bullpen work.”
Huntington also mentioned that the Pirates are looking forward to seeing what Nick Kingham can do this year. He discussed Brandon Cumpton as well, who is behind Sadler and Sanchez on the timeline, as Cumpton had a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the 2016 season, following missing the 2015 season with Tommy John surgery.
Huntington said that it would have been great to have these guys as depth last year. They’re likely going to see that happen this year, with Sadler and Sanchez looking like bullpen depth at some point during the season. Add to that Nick Kingham as a rotation option, and possibly Brandon Cumpton late in the year as another bullpen option. With all of these options returning, the Pirates could see some nice pitching depth out of Triple-A, finally turning their Tommy John luck around.
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