Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Can Nats survive without Storen?
Contrary to popular belief, there have been actual, recorded cases of big-league pitchers traveling to Birmingham, Ala., to have their arms examined by Dr. James Andrews and not ending up on the operating table.
But it doesn't happen very often, and typically a trip to see the noted orthopedist results in some kind of surgical procedure.
So Drew Storen should be fully prepared to go under the knife in the next day or two after Andrews takes a look at his right elbow, which began acting up again following a simulated game at the Nationals' extended spring training complex in Viera, Fla.
"Hopefully it's nothing serious, but it doesn't sound good to me," manager Davey Johnson told reporters at Citi Field prior to Monday night's 4-3 loss to the Mets.
If there is a silver lining to this saga, it doesn't appear Storen is in any danger of needing Tommy John surgery. The enhanced MRI the Nationals took of the young closer's elbow last month revealed no damage whatsoever to his ulnar collateral ligament.
That MRI did, however, reveal the presence of at least one "loose body" in Storen's elbow. In other words: a bone chip. That's what would need to be removed via arthroscopic surgery.
It's a far less invasive procedure than the UCL ligament replacement surgery that now bears Tommy John's name, but neither is it a stroll in the park. Recovery time for surgery to remove bone chips is typically measured in months, not weeks.
Two years ago, Jason Marquis had chips removed from his right elbow. He was back pitching in a big-league game in just under three months.
Go ahead and do the math: The Nationals are looking at spending the entire first half of the season without Storen and hoping to get him back around the All-Star break.
Can the Nats survive that long without the man who last year saved 43 games and firmly established himself as one of baseball's elite young closers? Honestly, yes, they can. They're better equipped to deal with an injury to Storen than probably anyone else of consequence on the roster.
The Nationals already had one of the sport's best bullpens last season, and general manager Mike Rizzo only bolstered it further over the winter, signing veteran right-hander Brad Lidge for $1 million. The former Phillies closer was brought it not only for his mentoring abilities, but also because team officials believed he could still pitch quite effectively in the big leagues.
Lidge's performance this spring and in Thursday's season-opening win over the Cubs only confirmed that belief. He may not boast the 95 mph fastball that made him a two-time All-Star last decade, but he can still dial it up to 91-92 mph and complement that heater with a devastating slider.
Johnson should feel perfectly comfortable handing the ball to Lidge in the ninth inning with his team leading by a run or two. As for Henry Rodriguez ... well, the jury's still out.
As electric as Rodriguez can be -- and he was downright filthy protecting a three-run lead Saturday in Chicago -- he's still an unfinished product. Last night's game against the Mets was a perfect example. He faced four batters in the eighth and ninth innings. He didn't throw a first-pitch strike to any of them.
The bottom of the ninth was an unmitigated disaster. Rodriguez walked Mike Baxter on five pitches. Then he made an unnecessarily rushed throw to first on Ruben Tejada's sac bunt attempt. That put runners on second and third with nobody out and set the stage for Daniel Murphy to lace the game-winning single to right on 1-0 pitch.
Johnson has stated his intention to use both Lidge and Rodriguez in Storen's place, alternating between the two right-handers depending on whose arm is fresher. Truth be told, the manager might be better off making Lidge his primary closer for now and then picking a few lower-pressure situations to give Rodriguez a shot (such as Saturday's three-run lead).
If he picks his spots well, continues to rely on Tyler Clippard to pitch out of tight jams in the seventh and eighth innings, and works Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett and Tim Gorzelanny into more pressure situations, Johnson can make do without Storen for three months.
And then, assuming all goes well, the Nationals could have themselves a healthy and fresh Storen ready to join the mix sometime in July, affording Johnson the opportunity to give those other guys more breathers and ensure everyone still has bullets left come September (or perhaps even October).
Would life be a whole lot easier had Storen avoided this injury altogether? Of course.
But it's too late for that. This is the hand the Nationals have been dealt. Fortunately, they came into the season well prepared to overcome such a hurdle.
Posted by Mark Zuckerman at 12:22 AM