Checking in on Tommy John Returners

Waiver wires – like the southwest being obliterated by consistent triple-digit temperatures – are bone dry at this point. This is why every top-100 prospect who comes up gets obscenely bid up in FAAB proceedings just in case he’s ready to dominate immediately. Perhaps the ripest avenue for talent still left at this point is the disabled list, and specifically, pitchers on the mend. Let’s check in on three Tommy John returners working their way back and see if they can be our second-half saviors, especially as we seem to lose a top arm every day over the last couple of weeks.

Alex Cobb | Tampa Bay Rays

I’m starting with Cobb almost to just get him out of the way. I’ll state out front that I don’t draft TJ returners in their first year back (though I won’t completely ignore them on the wire at this point in the season). Not only are they rarely anywhere near as good as their peak, but even in those instances where they are really good, they frequently run into setbacks which often results in another DL stint (see also: Darvish, Yu this year and Fernandez, Jose last year). Cobb has all that and the fact that the Rays are notoriously deliberate with pitchers working against him.

It’s bad enough that they’re buried in last and 17.5 games out of first place, but even if they were, they wouldn’t rush Cobb back. He was cleared to start his rehab in early July, but lasted just two-thirds of an inning in his first start on July 6th and then only made it an inning of a scheduled three in the second start because of fatigue. Original estimates suggested he might only need 4-5 rehab starts before becoming an option for the Rays, but I’d put the timetable around mid-August at the earliest.

Even in the majors, I can’t imagine he’ll be more than a five-inning max starter. So what are we really getting? He’s not a huge strikeout guy and that brutal pen can’t be trusted to hold any kind of lead for four innings. TJ returners aren’t necessarily bad every time out, but the off starts can be really damaging and mess up the good work of 3-4 others so even if we got a reasonable facsimile of Cobb’s normal ratios (career 3.21 ERA, 1.19 WHIP), the off starts would likely make him more of a low-4.00s guy with OK strikeouts and no wins. Pass.

Homer Bailey | Cincinnati Reds

Bailey is also working his way back from TJ. He has already hit the speed bumps commonplace during rehab. He is almost two months behind his original timetable of a mid-May return. On May 1st, it was deemed a slight setback and then he it was two months between rehab outings. He just got going on take two on June 27th, but seems to actually be progressing forward.

He has added pitch count over the three starts, going from 25 to 38 to 51. The results of any rehab are generally meaningless, but for those curious he has allowed five runs on 14 hits in 6.7 IP with three strikeouts, three homers, and zero walks. He was sitting 93-94 in his latest outing which is in line with his 94.2 MPH average from 2014 (9th-best among SPs w/at least 140 IP).

If I’m worried about the Rays bullpen blowing Cobb’s wins, I can’t even begin to think about what the Reds bullpen do to any lead Bailey has when he returns. Jose Fernandez is in contention for baseball’s best pitcher at any given moment. He averaged just under six innings per start in his return last year so I don’t expect Bailey to be much above five per start. He has legit swing-and-miss stuff, but strikeouts have never been a huge part of his game so I don’t expect more than about 7.5-8 per nine innings. I think we’re looking at a 4.15 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, and -5 (yes, negative five) wins. Not exactly season-saving, but I would at least keep him stashed in NL-only leagues.

Zack Wheeler | New York Mets

Wheeler has not only shown the least in his major league career thus far, but he’s also the furthest from returning as he’s not rehabbing yet. He was slated to get it going in mid-June, but elbow discomfort pushed him back. He played some catch on June 27th and apparently felt fine. Command is generally the last thing to return after Tommy John and Wheeler’s was already suspect. This was about the time he was originally supposed to return and that’s obviously out the window. The Matt Harvey injury has created an opening that the Mets would’ve loved to slot Wheeler into, but they know they can’t force it and at this point, I’d be surprised if he was back before September, or maaaybe late-August. I wouldn’t even bother with him in NL-only leagues.

OK, so the Tommy John route isn’t the best for second half saviors. These three slow paths back and Yu Darvish’s return to the DL after just three (good) starts only ensure that I’ll never draft a TJ return in March and I’m not all that likely to try them out in-season as they work their way back.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Bud Smith
Bud Smith

Between these guys and the Medlen/Beachy/Johnson/Luebke/Griffin/Parker/Moore fiascos from last year, TJ isn’t looking as sure-fire as it once did.