CLEARWATER, Fla. — In the waning days of January, as it became clearer that Major League Baseball would keep the players locked out beyond the scheduled start of spring training, most pitchers faced a choice.
“One thought was, ‘OK, do I do a little bit less to save my arm?’” Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod said here the other day. “The other thought was, ‘Well, I’m going to do as much as I can safely and be prepared when I come in.’ That’s how I took it. I did everything I could to come in ready to go.”
And still, Coonrod strained his right shoulder last week.
There are similar stories emerging from training camps across Florida and Arizona, and others will arise once the season gets underway. A 99-day lockout has consequences. So does a three-week spring training. Pitchers are accustomed to building arm strength gradually. Shortcuts often lead to injuries. It isn’t so much inevitable as it is physiological.
There’s a chance, then, perhaps even a likelihood, that April will be the cruelest month ever for pitchers. Managers and GMs routinely utter some version of the age-old baseball proverb about never having too much pitching. They will mean it this year. Even with the expectation of 28-man expanded rosters for the first month of the season, success on the mound will come down to survival of the fittest.
“I think that’s probably a good way of putting it,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s a concern, I’m sure, for every organization in the game.”
And it will be the organizations with the deepest pitching that wind up in the best position once (if?) everything finally normalizes in May and June.
For all the reasonable enthusiasm over Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, and the rest of the Broad Street Bashers, the Phillies’ staff beyond the top 12 or 13 pitchers is about as deep as a puddle.
It will be tested right away, too. Two of the Phillies’ top starters (Ranger Suárez and Zack Wheeler) won’t make their first spring training starts until Friday and Saturday, respectively. One reliever (Coonrod) will open the season on the injured list and the status of two others (José Alvarado and Connor Brogdon) is uncertain.
Back to all that in a minute. First, some data.
In 2018, 574 major-league players, including 340 pitchers, went on the injured list, according to the tracker at Spotrac. In 2019, it was 563 players (313 pitchers). In 2020, when the pandemic halted spring training in March and the season began in July after a three-month shutdown and a three-week training camp, the injury toll over 60 games approximated the previous two 162-game seasons: 456 players (272 pitchers) sidelined.
There also appeared to be a carryover effect last year, with 835 players, including 489 pitchers, spending time on the IL.
It would be naive to think the attrition rate for pitchers would be any less harsh this year than in 2020.
“I think it’s a good comparison,” Phillies starter Kyle Gibson said. “A however-many-month layoff that was in 2020, that’s enough to make you have to start over. You can draw on that a little bit.”
But here’s the really ominous part: Unlike the two-month schedule in 2020, this season will last six months. Save for Mets ace Max Scherzer, who freakishly threw 72 pitches in his first spring training start, even the pitchers who will emerge healthy from this spring sprint haven’t built up the usual April endurance. Gibson, for example, will make four Grapefruit League starts as opposed to six.
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“It’s something that, we’re just going to have to be honest with ourselves,” Gibson said. “You’ve got to be aware of your body, you’ve got to be aware of how you feel, and you’ve got to be honest with the training staff. I think that’s what we’re going to do, and hopefully everyone seems like they’re feeling really good.”
True. But Suárez’s arrival to spring training was delayed a few days while he obtained his work visa. Wheeler halted his throwing program during the lockout because of a sore right shoulder that cleared up before spring training began, then missed a few days of camp because of the flu.
It’s impossible to make up for lost time in such a compressed spring. If Suárez and Wheeler are able to pitch in the first week of the season, they likely will be capped at about three innings.
“I knock on wood when I say this,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said, “but we’re actually pretty healthy with our starting staff. It’s just that we’re in a shortened spring training, and you don’t want to do things that are foolish.”
Get ready, then, for an early-season dose of Bailey Falter, Cristopher Sánchez, and Nick Nelson. They figure to make the team as what Girardi calls “chunk guys,” multiple-inning pitchers who can follow Suárez and Wheeler.
Dombrowski referred to them confidently as the team’s “6, 7, 8″ starters. But they have combined for a 5.53 ERA in 81⅓ major-league innings and made a total of four starts. At least the bar isn’t high. Last year, the Phillies spent $7 million on veteran free agents Matt Moore and Chase Anderson and got a total of 22 starts and a 6.47 ERA.
Coonrod will open the season on the injured list. Hard-throwing lefty reliever José Alvarado will pitch in a minor-league game Saturday — his first game action of any sort this spring — after being slowed by neck stiffness.
And then there’s Brogdon, whose typical mid-90s fastball velocity has barely scraped 93 mph this spring. Brogdon maintains that he isn’t injured. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a reliever to build velocity as the spring goes along, but it isn’t as easy when the runway to the season is so short.
So, the Phillies made a trade Wednesday, picking up right-hander James Norwood from the Padres for a minor-league infielder and cash. Norwood, 28, is out of minor-league options and has 28 games of experience in the majors. But he may be able to help the Phillies, who are actively seeking other arms just like his.
Hey, you can’t have too much pitching, right?
“I think it’s a concern for everybody in baseball,” Dombrowski said.
Some teams more than others.