Cubs stockpile ‘damaged’ arms after success of Tommy John surgery
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org February 25, 2013 10:41PM
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 9: Jaye Chapman #37 of the Chicago Cubs pitches in relief against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the game on September 9, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Updated: March 27, 2013 6:26AM
GLENDALE, Ariz. — On a hot, muggy day in 2011 in Lawrence-ville, Ga., Jaye Chapman saw what the Cubs see now when they look at Arodys Vizcaino.
On their first day as Class AAA teammates late that season, Vizcaino threw in the Gwinnett Braves’ bullpen while Chapman stood nearby.
‘‘He tells the catcher to get down,’’ said Chapman, who then imitated the sound of a rocket. ‘‘Oh, my goodness. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. That night when he went into the game, the radar gun was 97, 98, 99, 96.’’
Within months, Vizcaino blew out his elbow.
And then Theo Epstein’s front office traded its hottest major-league pitcher, Paul Maholm, to the Atlanta Braves to get the injured kid.
‘‘I was at home with my mother, and they called and said I was traded to the Cubs,’’ Vizcaino said. ‘‘I was like, What?”
The last thing Vizcaino expected was to be traded while he was hurt.
It was unheard of even a few years ago.
But because of Frank Jobe and James Andrews and the generation of surgeons who have followed in their paths, the damaged arms that would have disappeared from the baseball landscape decades ago often come back even stronger than before, especially when they involve elbows.
And the Cubs are rebuilding a franchise around some of those rebuilt arms, leading a growing trend in the game of intentionally acquiring “damaged goods” to stockpile pitching.
‘‘I don’t know about the surgery part, but the fastest way to respectability is good young pitching,’’ said Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax, 77, who still seems to be trying to get his mind around the realities of this relatively new medical frontier.
‘‘So if that’s what they’re doing, great. If they’re taking guys coming off Tommy John, that’s taking a crapshoot. You don’t know. . . .
‘‘But the success rate has been so good that I wouldn’t hesitate today.’’
Koufax might have the last great pitching arm in the game that couldn’t be fixed.
‘‘They wouldn’t operate on you,’’ said perhaps the greatest left-hander in history who had to walk away from the game at 30 because of bone spurs and arthritis in his elbow. ‘‘In those days, they wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t do it.
‘‘Now they go in, take a chisel, cut them off and send you back out.’’
Koufax might have been the perfect Cubs free-agent target after surgery if they’d had free agency in his day as well as elbow surgery.
He missed them both by less than a decade.
‘‘I had a good time; I had a decent career,’’ said Koufax, now a special spring-training instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers. ‘‘I’m not looking back on anything. I have no rearview mirror.’’
Pitching with pain and through repeated cortisone shots, Koufax had the most dominant six-year pitching stretch in history, with three Cy Young Awards, six All-Star appearances, an MVP and two World Series titles.
What could he have done with the ease of elbow-cleanout procedures, not to mention the routine nature of reconstructions?
On a smaller scale, those are the kinds of questions the Cubs are trying to find the right answers to with several pitchers they’re counting on, even this year.
They gave $5.5 million of free-agent money to veteran Scott Baker, who missed all of last year with Tommy John surgery and will open this season on the DL. In December’s Rule 5 draft, they selected Hector Rondon, a former elite pitching prospect who underwent Tommy John surgery, then needed another surgery when the bone section near the repair broke off while he pitched.
Even the top pitcher they took in the amateur draft last June, Pierce Johnson, had a forearm injury at the time.
‘‘It’s normal now,’’ Rondon said. ‘‘A lot of pitchers now have Tommy John. No big deal.’’
Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio marvels at the thought of Koufax if the same could be said in the ’60s.
‘‘There’s no telling,’’ he said. ‘‘It would have been interesting to see if they were that far advanced back then, what kind of numbers this guy could have attained.’’
He’s pretty sure, though, that the Cubs would be first in line to take a post-surgery flier on the guy if he were a free agent today.
“I’d love to have him in that barn,” Bosio said.
Imagine a modern-day Koufax, post-surgery, far deeper into his career maybe doing the lights-out, John Smoltz closer thing.
‘‘No, no, no,’’ Koufax said. ‘‘I am what I am, and I had a good time. . . . I’m like Popeye. I am what I am.’’