Teams still searching for perfect solution for grooming young pitchers
A looming dilemma in Cincinnati: With Johnny Cueto's return to the rotation imminent -- he's recovering from a strained lat and could be starting a rehab assignment later this week -- what do the Reds do with Tony Cingrani? The rookie with the video game fastball has been one of the great revelations of the season, with three runs allowed and 28 strikeouts over his first 18 innings. He's blooming into one of Cincinnati's key players, a potential ace for years to come -- and that's why the Reds must consider keeping Mike Leake in the rotation, sending Cingrani back to the minors and telling their phenom, Thanks for your good work. Now see you in September.
Sometime soon the Reds will sit down and talk about a plan for Cingrani, about how the 23-year-old lefthander (who logged 146 innings in the minors a year ago) should be managed and how he fits into the Reds' quest for their first world championship since 1990. "There are some similarities here to what the Nationals faced with Stephen Strasburg," says Reds medical director Timothy Kremchek. "You just don't want a kid like Cingrani throwing 200 innings. If he throws 150 innings, at whatever level he is, and he's ready to hit the playoffs and ready to go in September -- well, that's a huge plus."
Kremchek will have a say in the Cingrani decision; a year ago when the Nats decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg, Kremchek "strongly applauded the decision. Look, Strasburg could have pitched, dominated, and helped the Nats win the World Series -- you don't know," he says. "But you do know that if he hurt himself again, based on track records of pitchers who hurt themselves again [after having Tommy John surgery], that you've lost 10 years of one of the premier pitchers in baseball. Do you want to take that chance?"
Innings limits will be an issue for the Reds and other contending teams like the Cardinals (with Shelby Miller), Braves (Kris Medlen), and A's (Dan Straily), to name just a few. Developing talented young pitchers into durable aces remains the biggest challenge facing teams: healthy starting pitching is the most valuable currency in the game, and despite all the advances in sports medicine and nutrition, despite the advances in Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation, investing in young pitching remains a high risk/reward proposition.
There have been reminders again this week, with both Strasburg and Dylan Bundy dealing with troubling arm issues, that no one seems to have all the answers. Late Monday night Nats manager Davey Johnson told reporters that Strasburg was experiencing forearm tightness, and that his young pitcher would have to prove he's ready before making his next scheduled start, though Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said Strasburg would remain on schedule.
And there was the news earlier in the day that Bundy, the best pitching prospect in baseball, would be shut down for six weeks, after visiting with Dr. James Andrews in Florida. Bundy's golden right arm has been as carefully calibrated and finely tuned as a NASA instrument over the years, and still the phenom has struggled this year with tightness in his arm. On Monday he underwent an injection of platelet-rich plasma, and will be sidelined from baseball activities for at least six weeks. Surgery is still a possibility, and so the nervous waiting in Baltimore continues.
Bundy could still very well be the best starter in the O's rotation a year from now, but his injury is a reminder that there is no perfect pitching prospect. And there are certainly no sure things, not even Strasburg a year after he was so carefully managed by the Nats. "The Rays do it better than most teams," says an AL executive, of developing and maintaining young arms. "It's something every organization is putting a ton of resources into -- and not necessarily getting all the results. You can be as careful as possible, you can do everything you can, but things can still go wrong."
Every organization is haunted by failures with young pitchers, including the Reds. "You go back to a first round pick like Chris Gruler, or a guy like Ty Howington, pitchers we drafted so high but burned out with all the number of innings early on they took on and because we didn't have them do the right type of rehab program," says Kremchek, Cincinnati's team doctor for 15 years. "We've come a long way. Now we have a list of the top 15 pitches in the organization that we are all over, not only on their exercises and educating them on their conditioning program, but also watching the innings pitched and the types of pitches that they throw."
"A great example of this is when we drafted Mike Leake out of Arizona State -- we drafted him in June and shut him down for the rest of the summer, and it pissed him off, and it pissed his agent off," he says. "But if you've pitched a fair amount in college, we're not going to bring you to rookie league and have you pitch a lot there too. We're going to shut you down and teach you the ways of how to become a professional pitcher at this young age. And so far it's worked. You have to make those hard calls sometimes."
Three years ago Cingrani had just completed a disastrous junior season at Rice when he walked into his manager's office and asked, "Do you even want me back?" Cingrani's stuff even then was too good to ignore. Now he's an X-factor for the Reds in the NL Central race, but the team still understands that Cingrani could be better served by spending the his summer in the minors, where the organization can more easily manage his innings and let him develop his secondary pitches.
Should the Reds send Cingrani down and save him for September and October? Did the Nationals do the right thing with Strasburg? Should the Orioles have done anything differently with Bundy? "These are all tough questions," says Kremchek, "with no easy answers."