The Washington Nationals had hoped for better health at this point in spring training. Several players (Joe Ross, Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy) entered camp still rehabbing from surgeries they underwent in 2017. A few more have been put on the shelf with various ailments.
But how much should fans be worrying? And if these injuries persist, what might that mean for the Nats’ Opening Day roster? Let’s take a closer look at what we know, and what we don’t, about the team’s injury situation.
Here’s what’s up with the Nats who are working their way back from last year’s injuries.
What we know: Ross had an uneven first half of the 2017 season. At the time, he was trying to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2016, a season in which he returned toward the end of the year but didn’t seem to have much left in the tank, exhibiting little stamina and generally tag-teaming with rookie starter Reynaldo Lopez, who had similar issues with getting deep into games, in his starts. Ross seemed to be figuring things out before exhibiting a pronounced decrease in velocity and struggling with command in a few outings. Things got so bad on July 9 that several of Ross’ fastballs registered on the scoreboard as changeups. The Nats pulled Ross, sent him for an MRI, and ultimately confirmed he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He underwent “Tommy John” surgery to replace the ligament on July 19, ruling him out of action for 12-18 months. He reported to spring training camp but was swiftly placed on the 60-day disabled list to make room for the addition of reliever Joaquin Benoit to the roster.
What we don’t know: It’s unclear when, or if, we can expect to see Ross pitch in 2018. It’s also unclear how he will bounce back from his surgery. In some cases, post-Tommy John pitchers find themselves able to throw harder with their new ligament than they could with the old bad one (although the medical science on this is fuzzy). In other cases, post-Tommy John pitchers struggle to throw pitches that they had no trouble with before tearing their UCL. In rare cases, surgeries prove to be unsuccessful. Fellow Nats pitcher Tim Collins, during his time with the Kansas City Royals, had to repeat a Tommy John procedure. And another Nats reliever, Ryan Madson, underwent the surgery with the Cincinnati Reds, but it didn’t achieve the desired results and he ended up missing three seasons working his way back.
What’s the best-case scenario? Ross is a trade-deadline pickup for whom the Nats don’t have to pay a red cent. He rejoins the rotation about 12 months after undergoing surgery and looks as good as, maybe better than ever. There is some room for optimism, considering the Nats’ strong track record with rehabbing pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, including co-ace Stephen Strasburg and top prospect Erick Fedde.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Ross never throws a major league pitch again. Tommy John is a major surgery that re-plumbs the internal workings of perhaps the body’s most complex joint. It has no guarantee of success. And there have been pitchers who simply never bounced back from it. The less-gloomy pessimistic scenario is that Ross misses all of 2018 (just as Nick Tropeano did with the Los Angeles Angels last year after his August 2016 surgery) and will have to compete for a rotation spot in spring training a year from now.
How worried should we be? A little worried. Ross was never expected to be ready to begin the 2018 season, and it is no surprise he isn’t. But we have no real indication of what his status this year is. In the meantime, the Nats have no established option for their fifth starter and appear likely to go with A.J. Cole, a 26-year-old former top prospect who has been less than stellar at Triple-A over the past couple seasons. If Ross comes back midseason, that would be a significant boost to a pitching staff that expects to spearhead a playoff run this year. But it’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath. Temper expectations. Ross will either come back this year, or he won’t. Worry a little, but don’t obsess over it. There are more pressing matters.
What we know: Murphy did not quite look like himself down the stretch in 2017, and he was pretty quiet in the National League Division Series. Some here at TalkNats wondered if he was healthy. As it turned out, he really wasn’t, and the Nats announced Oct. 20 that he underwent “successful” debridement and microfracture surgery on his right knee. The team hasn’t publicly committed to him being ready for Opening Day, but they haven’t officially ruled him out. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that he “seems unlikely” for Opening Day, a conclusion TalkNats had already reached. Manager Davey Martinez said this week Murphy has progressed to hitting off a tee and playing soft-toss, so at least he is doing some baseball activities at this point.
What we don’t know: Exactly when Murphy will return is unclear, of course. We also don’t know if the aftereffects of the knee surgery will disrupt his timing and/or limit his range of motion in the field. If he’s a half-step slower, then Murphy, already not quite an average defender at second base, could look like a better bet at a less demanding position like first base or left field (which are presumptively occupied already). If he struggles to get into a rhythm at the plate, Martinez could end up phasing him out of the everyday lineup.
What’s the best-case scenario? Murphy makes rapid strides and, even if he misses Opening Day, he’s ready in the first week or two of the season. The Nats did see this sort of swift turnaround with ace Max Scherzer last year. The ultra-competitive pitcher figured out a way to keep throwing his fastball without aggravating a knuckle healing from a late-season fracture last spring training. While he couldn’t three-peat as Washington’s Opening Day starter, he somehow managed to avoid missing a start despite getting a late start on Grapefruit League action.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Some medical experts say athletes should wait as long as nine months to return to sports after knee microfracture surgery. Murphy underwent his surgery in late October, so if you do the math, that gives you a return date just after the All-Star Break in July. No one with the Nats has suggested they expect to be without Murphy for that long, but it’s certainly possible. And one reason for their cautious approach with him this spring must be to avoid a new injury caused by rushing back into high-stress physical activity.
How worried should we be? Moderately worried. Murphy has been a huge piece of the Nats’ offense since signing a three-year pact before the 2016 season. While the Nats should have a ready fill-in in the form of utilityman Howie Kendrick, there’s no easy way to replicate Murphy’s production, and Kendrick isn’t as strong defensively as he once was in the middle infield. Furthermore, Murphy’s rehabilitation hasn’t moved as quickly as hoped. While it isn’t surprising that it seems he’ll miss Opening Day, the original best-case scenario was that he might be able to participate in spring training, and as recently as mid-February, team officials said he should be fully healthy by Opening Day. You can check out sort of a time-lapse of injury reports from RotoWire and see the evolution of outlooks for yourself.
What we know: Eaton’s knee injury was one of the most horrific on-field injuries of 2017. While sprinting out an infield single in an April 29 game, Eaton appeared to lose his footing on the first-base bag and ended up rolling on the ground, clutching his left knee in obvious agony. It came as no surprise when the injury was diagnosed as a tear of his anterior cruciate ligament (and medial collateral ligament). The Nats have played it very cautiously with Eaton this spring, and while he has participated without restrictions in drills and baseball activities, he has yet to see game action, and The Washington Post suggested earlier this week he won’t be playing any time soon. Martinez repeated Thursday a now-familiar refrain: Eaton is “progressing” but the Nats will divulge no target date to have him playing in a game, except for Opening Day.
What we don’t know: Just how healthy is Eaton? It seems surprising that the scrappy outfielder, now approaching the 11-month mark since his injury, hasn’t at least gotten a few at-bats as a designated hitter. It will take time after a nearly year-long layoff for him to regain his timing at the plate against major league-caliber pitching. We’re about two weeks into Grapefruit League action without seeing Eaton in a game at this point, and there’s no indication he will be ready anytime soon. Did the Nats see something that concerned them with Eaton during his on-field workouts? We just don’t know what is keeping him out of the lineup at this point.
What’s the best-case scenario? The Nats are just playing it coy. Eaton is completely healthy, but the Nats either don’t want him to grind through a full spring training schedule or are hoping not to tip opponents off to his state of readiness. The team is forcing Eaton to take it slow, but they have a plan to phase him in through some minor league and eventually major league spring training games and get him 45-50 at-bats in short order to have him fully ready for Opening Day. With Eaton’s natural tenacity, compact swing, and gritty athleticism, they aren’t really concerned about it taking a long time for him to get his timing back. They are sure he will be fine for the start of the season and see no need to rush.
What’s the worst-case scenario? The Nats have seen Eaton in workouts and drills, and they really don’t like what they’re seeing. They expected Eaton to be fit and healthy, and he’s neither. Management is concerned that after nearly a full year off the diamond, he’s simply not in baseball shape to play outfield every day. Trying to ramp him up quickly could re-injure a knee that already hasn’t bounced back from multiple ligament tears as quickly as they hoped. While they’re not publicly hitting the panic button, they are quietly preparing for Eaton to miss at least a few weeks at the start of the season. On Opening Day, while the rest of the team is in Cincinnati, Eaton will hopefully be starting to play some intrasquad games in extended spring training.
How worried should we be? Definitely worried. Every day that passes without Eaton getting into at least a minor league game decreases the chances he will be able to contribute at the start of the season. Originally, Eaton said he wanted to come back by the end of the 2017 season, a hope he reiterated as late as August, by which time he had resumed “light” activities. In May, a report suggested Eaton would need six to nine months to rehab his knee injury, which likely ruled him out for 2017 but suggested no restrictions on him in 2018. But it’s nearly mid-March, Opening Day is less than three weeks away, and he has yet to play. Nats fans should prepare themselves to not see Eaton until the season is already in full swing. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer after that. The good news here is that the Nats have good outfield depth, although there is some cause for worry about…
Some Nats who weren’t hurt to start spring training but are hurt now, including the following.
Michael A. Taylor
What we know: Taylor was a late scratch Monday with what was described as “mild right side tightness”. He hasn’t appeared in a game since then. Martinez said Thursday that he is “babying” Taylor and that he will still have time to get “tons of at-bats” this spring. However, Taylor has a history with injuries in this area. He landed on the disabled list July 7 with an oblique injury that kept him out of action for more than a month. The good news is that he returned from that injury without any seeming loss of strength and went on to be the Nats’ top offensive contributor in the National League Division Series in October.
What we don’t know: Whether this injury is actually “a thing” or not is a total unknown. Last year’s oblique strain leads one to suspect Taylor could have a recurrence of the same injury. But it could have been a minor issue that is now resolved, and the Nats are just keeping him out of the lineup for now out of an abundance of caution. For all we know, Taylor could return to game action this weekend. For all we know, he could be back in there next game.
What’s the best-case scenario? This injury is nothing, and Taylor is back this weekend, picking up right where he left off with clutch power hitting and great plays going back on the wall. It’s entirely possible. The Nats don’t sound too worried about this one, and maybe, just maybe, we should take their word for it this time.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Taylor is on the shelf for a couple months, and when he comes back, he’s a shadow of himself at the plate. Oblique injuries can be notoriously slow to heal, and they have a reputation for sapping power and disrupting timing even after a player is cleared to return. Former Nats outfielder Ben Revere suffered an oblique injury on Opening Day 2016 and went on to have a terrible season even after coming off the disabled list that May. Some suggested Revere simply never recovered from the oblique injury and it continued to throw him off throughout the year. The Nats haven’t betrayed any panic over Taylor’s condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing.
How worried should we be? A little worried. Taylor has a history with these type of injuries, and obliques are nothing to mess around with. A breakout performer last season, Taylor is going to be looking to fight off the seemingly inexorable rise of Victor Robles this year. It’s an interesting reversal for Taylor, who was forced into an everyday role due to early injuries to the Nats’ presumptive starting center fielders in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but now appears at risk of the same thing happening to him this year. The good news here is that there is plenty of outfield depth, even if the Nats keep Robles in the minors for a month and a half or so to avoid burning a year of team control. There is less depth, however, if you consider Eaton’s injury woes as well. And if you’re a big fan of Taylor who is excited to see him play full-time this season, well, an oblique injury that keeps him from returning until mid-May could mean he comes back to a team that has already ensconced Robles in center field and has nowhere for Taylor to play every day. The clock is ticking.
What we know: Zimmerman is coming off his first fully healthy season in years. However, he has yet to take the field this spring and has had just two at-bats as a DH injuring his calf possibly when he legged out a double before he was substituted in the game. Zim has not appeared in a Spring Training game since March 2nd. Previously, he was scratched from a late-February match-up after complaining of stiffness in his back. More recently, “general soreness” has kept him out of action, although he did appear in a minor league game Wednesday. Martinez said Wednesday that Zimmerman “feels good” but that he wants to be cautious. That’s a reasonable approach. Wracked with injury, Zimmerman missed much of 2016 with various ailments, including plantar fasciitis, and was all but unplayable when he was healthy. He missed significant time in 2014 and 2015 as well.
What we don’t know: Exactly what is ailing Zimmerman? The 33-year-old has had so many different injuries and maladies over the years that there’s no way to guess just what’s wrong with him. Something like an oblique injury, an inflamed rotator cuff, or back spasms could spell seriously bad news for Zimmerman’s season, at least in the early going. But if it’s something more minor, there wouldn’t be too much cause for concern.
What’s the best-case scenario? The Nats were waiting to see how Zimmerman did on the minor league side. Fully satisfied, they will return him to the major league side of camp, and he’ll DH a bit and then take the field for the first time next week to get his defensive reps in. He’ll not only be ready for Opening Day, but he’ll be fully locked in by then.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Zimmerman is trying to play through a bad flareup of his plantar fasciitis or a back injury or something like that, and he shouldn’t be. Regardless of his results against minor league pitching, Zimmerman is not prepared for the rigors of a game on both sides of the ball on the major league side, and trying to force the issue could lead to an extended stint on the disabled list. We’ve seen it before.
How worried should we be? Not worried at all. Sure, it’s possible that Zimmerman somehow tallied three hits on Wednesday despite his body falling apart again. But this seems like a reasonable approach for a player who has had no shortage of injuries in the past. While the betting man or woman would have a few dollars down on Zimmerman going on the disabled list at some point this season, there’s really nothing to indicate that he is in jeopardy right now. He should be getting major league at-bats soon. In the meantime, the Nats have Matt Adams tearing it up at first base. They’ve also used this opportunity to give minor league catcher Spencer Kieboom some reps there, which might come in handy.
What we know: Suero is coming off a breakout season in which he proved himself one of the best relievers in all of minor league baseball. He said publicly his goal for this year is to convince the Nats he belongs on the major league pitching staff. He’s been one of the team’s most impressive pitchers this spring, showing off a wicked cutter that generates plenty of swings and misses. Unfortunately, Suero’s bid for a spot on the major league roster may have taken a serious hit Thursday, as he was taken out of a game after throwing just two pitches. Martinez said Suero had complained of tightness in his left side. No MRI has been scheduled, and he is set to be reevaluated Friday.
What we don’t know: Side tightness can often mean an oblique injury. This is the same worry we have with Taylor. It’s possible it was just a cramp and Suero is feeling pretty embarrassed right now that he had to leave the game (and, to add insult to injury, Jaron Long gave up a double when he came in to finish the at-bat, and the runner ended up scoring, and the rules say that earned run is charged to Suero). It’s possible that it is an oblique strain, but it’s pretty minor, and Suero can return to pitching in just a couple weeks. Or it’s possible that it is a significant oblique tear, and Suero will miss most or all of the first half of the season recovering. An MRI could tell a lot, but the Nats haven’t performed one yet.
What’s the best-case scenario? Suero is mostly fine. He gets some extended rest but pitches again next week, strikes out the side again, and is right back in the conversation for a bullpen spot. Maybe he takes this as a lesson learned to hydrate better. Lack of hydration is often blamed for cramps, especially in humid weather.
What’s the worst-case scenario? It’s a bad oblique injury, and it’s going to put Suero out of commission until June or maybe even early July. Oblique injuries can be difficult to recover from, and the cutter and curveball, Suero’s bread-and-butter pitches, require fine muscle control and excellent timing to throw properly. It could be enough that Suero misses his chance to make his major league debut this season.
How worried should we be? Moderately worried. Suero has been a bright spot this spring amid a relief corps that hasn’t looked all that inspiring, especially this week. He looked like he was at or near the top of the organizational depth chart for right-handed relievers. Losing him for an extended time means a significant blow to pitching depth, something every team needs. Even if Suero was a long shot to make the team out of spring training, if he’s healthy and another reliever is not, he could find himself in Washington pretty quickly. An oblique injury would lessen those odds and put more pressure on fringier pitchers in camp, like Chris Smith and Trevor Gott, to step it up.
What we know: Glover, at the time the Nats’ nominal closer, was placed on the disabled list in early June last year with what was initially described as back pain. It turned out Glover had tried to pitch through severe inflammation of his right rotator cuff. While he tried to make it back late in the season, Glover was shut down in September. But while Glover was supposed to come back as a key contributor out of the bullpen in 2018, the Nats announced shortly after the start of camp that he was experiencing rotator cuff inflammation and was being shut down…again.
What we don’t know: There’s been no clarification as to whether Glover’s inflammation ever subsided over the winter, i.e. whether this is new inflammation aggravated by something recent or inflammation that has persisted ever since he injured himself in late May. We also don’t know how severe this inflammation is. It’s sometimes said that every professional pitcher has shoulder inflammation, it’s just a difference of degree. Glover has taken that idea to an extreme in the past and tried to pitch when he shouldn’t have. It’s unclear whether he’s still paying for that mistake from last year, or whether this is an acute flareup that can be prevented going forward.
What’s the best-case scenario? The Nats haven’t set a timetable for Glover’s return to action (sound familiar?). But in theory, he could be healing up and start throwing off a mound again in the next few days. Perhaps he could even get into a game or two before the Grapefruit League winds down and Opening Day arrives. A healthy Glover could slot into a key spot in the bullpen and significantly bolster it.
What’s the worst-case scenario? Glover’s spent more of his major league time on the disabled list than off of it, and we could be in for a repeat this year. If Glover blew up his shoulder last May and it still hasn’t healed, at some point, the Nats need to talk very seriously with him about surgery. Glover seems surgery-averse. It’s an option he avoided after tearing his hip labrum in 2016, and that injury flared up and cost him a bit of time early in 2017, too. Either way, shoulder inflammation that won’t go away can cost a pitcher a career, or at least significantly delay his timetable for getting back into a game. Taking pains to avoid re-aggravating the injury would also probably involve laying off that crazy mid-90s slider that he was throwing last year before he got hurt.
How worried should we be? Definitely worried. Glover was hailed not so long ago, before the acquisition of Sean Doolittle and the emergence of the likes of Jefry Rodriguez and Gabe Klobosits as top relief prospects, as the Nats’ closer of the future. Now there is significant doubt as to whether he will ever get his once-promising career back on track. In terms of the effect his injury has on 2018, probably no one should have really been counting on Glover given how 2016 and 2017 turned out for him. But even still, his extended loss would be a serious blow to bullpen depth that looked on paper like it could be among the best in baseball just a few weeks ago.
Who has a chance with all these injuries?
Holes in the starting outfield certainly create opportunities for the likes of Brian Goodwin and Howie Kendrick to play every day on the grass. They also mean that players like Andrew Stevenson and Moises Sierra, who have been strong so far this spring, have a shot at making the Opening Day bench, if only temporarily.
Since it looks like Murphy will miss Opening Day, an open bench spot leaves open a plethora of possibilities. TalkNats examined some of these last week. The likely favorite to hold Murphy’s roster spot for a little while is utilityman Matt Reynolds. Other possibilities include infielder Adrian Sanchez and non-roster catcher Spencer Kieboom, who has been getting some looks at first base and ranks among the team’s better hitters this spring.
The Nats already cut about half of their non-roster pitchers on Thursday, and there’s not much reason to bring any of them back. But some of the “survivors”, like right-handers Chris Smith and Edwin Jackson and left-handers Tim Collins and Bryan Harper, could potentially take advantage of the injuries to Suero and Glover to at least establish themselves as call-up candidates. Still others who are on the roster, like Trevor Gott, Sammy Solis, Austin L. Adams, and Jefry Rodriguez, may be viewed more seriously as injury depth if neither Suero nor Glover are available.