It will be weeks before the Phillies and Aaron Nola know whether a conservative treatment for the young pitcher’s injured elbow is successful. Start with this: Nola’s season is over. He will not throw a baseball for at least a month.
The 23-year-old righthander, one of the faces of the team’s rebuilding process, was diagnosed with “low-grade” sprains and strains of ligaments and tendons in his elbow. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedist whose name is so commonly associated with Tommy John surgery, examined Nola and prescribed a platelet-rich plasma injection and rest.
“At this time,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said Wednesday, “nobody’s talking about surgery.”
But there is trouble in Nola’s elbow, a fact that renders his future murkier than ever. Nola, so good so quick, was viewed as a stable presence — someone the Phillies could count on as they augmented the roster. But pitching is not a healthy task; the most durable can falter with the snap of an elbow.
Phillies officials said this season would be judged, in part, on the development of their young pitchers. That assessment will be incomplete without more information on Nola.
“More than anything,” Klentak said, “it reinforces the position that we’ve taken for most of the last year about the importance of starting pitching depth.”
So the conclusion from a season all about pitching is that the team needs more pitching?
“For four months, this team’s starting rotation was about as healthy as any starting rotation in baseball,” Klentak said. “And for the last two, three weeks it’s been something less than that. That’s kind of the nature of our game.”
There are six more weeks for evaluations. Jerad Eickhoff, 26, resembles the most reliable rotation presence entering 2017. Vince Velasquez, 24, has displayed an electric repertoire but is still learning the complexities of pitching. Jake Thompson, 22, made his third career start Wednesday. Jeremy Hellickson, 29, is a free agent at the end of the season. Zach Eflin, 22, has chronic knee problems and a broken foot.
Nola suffered damage to his right elbow in the ulnar collateral ligament. He strained the flexor tendon in his right forearm. The Phillies transferred him Wednesday to the 60-day disabled list. They will sit him for four weeks and then restart a throwing program. If that feels right, he could pitch in the instructional league in October to gain some peace of mind before the winter.
What happens if that does not work?
“We haven’t gone down that road yet,” Klentak said. “Right now nobody is suggesting that surgery is the way to go on this and we feel good about the fact that there’s a consensus among all the doctors that have seen him.”
Nola said he was relieved to hear the diagnosis.
“I feel like I’m pretty confident right now that everything is going to heal correctly,” he said, “and by spring training I should be good to go.”
Nola, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, has a 4.29 ERA in 33 career starts. But in eight starts from June 11 to July 28, Nola posted a 9.82 ERA. The Phillies ordered him to take a two-week break in July for both a mental and physical recharge. He went on the disabled list earlier this month when he complained of elbow soreness.
Team and player said they could not blame his ineffectiveness on the elbow injury. Nola said he did not experience pain until his final start, July 28 at Atlanta.
“I want to learn from the challenges I had,” Nola said. “The experiences that didn’t go well, I want to learn from them and kind of build on those.”
But there is no other way to view it: Surgery or no surgery, the Phillies will enter the offseason with Nola added to the sizable list of questions about the future.
“I can’t know exactly what it’s going to be like in a few weeks or a few months, or spring training from here,” Nola said. “But I expect it to be good to go and all healthy. My arm should be healthy by then.”