“Thank God that we signed Freddy Garcia this winter.”
Those were the words spoken by Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez before his team took batting practice on Monday morning at Bright House Field in Clearwater. Garcia, who turns 38 in October, is famous in Phillies history for being a flop after coming in a trade that sent away pitching prospects Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez.
But in the clubhouse of the defending National League East champions, Garcia is suddenly moving up the depth chart and possibly in line to pitch out of Atlanta’s rotation in April. Atlanta righthander Kris Medlen grabbed his right elbow in the middle of the fourth inning of Sunday’s game against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.
It was the kind of moment teams dread seeing each spring. But pitching injuries are as much a part of baseball as peanuts and crackerjacks (they still sell crackerjacks, right?).
Three days before Medlen walked off the mound in pain, Cole Hamels was scheduled to face hitters in a live bullpen session for the first time this spring in Clearwater. Instead, Hamels said he was fatigued and not strong enough to perform the task; he isn’t likely to throw off a mound until later this week at the earliest.
A day later, on Friday, Washington Nationals righthander Doug Fister was scratched from a spring start with elbow inflammation. In Mets camp, Jonathon Niese won’t make his first spring start until Friday and Matt Harvey, who underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall, threw off flat ground Monday but isn’t likely to pitch until very late this summer, at the earliest.
That’s three potential Opening Day starters - Hamels, Harvey and Medlen - who will not be taking the ball for their respective team’s first games.
“You just never know - you never know,” Gonzalez said of the fragility of starting pitching. “You feel like you have enough (depth) and the next thing you know something happens and it screws up everything.”
Even outside the NL East teams are dealing with pitching injuries: Zack Greinke of the Dodgers strained his right calf in his only spring start, St. Louis’ Jaime Garcia is scheduled to see Dr. James Andrews about his ailing left shoulder and Kansas City reliever Luke Hochevar needs Tommy John surgery.
Most teams are turning to untested rookies or minor league free agents to fill in the gaps. With Hamels’ latest setback, paired with injuries to Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin, Jeff Manship and David Buchanan, who most Phillies fans hadn’t heard of a month ago, are suddenly real candidates to pitch for the team in April.
The Braves are arguably in better shape than most. They entered the winter feeling good about a homegrown crop of five starters: Medlen, Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood.
But on Monday, less than 24 hours after losing Medlen, Atlanta’s manager was asked about guys like Freddy Garcia, who has a 4.84 ERA in the last two seasons, and Gavin Floyd, who the Braves gave $4 million this winter despite the fact that he had Tommy John surgery in May.
“People say well this team is favored or that team is favored, but you have to play out the season,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone has injuries. The people that can survive those injuries, or can hang in there, they’re going to be be in there at the end.
Last year we lost (Tim) Hudson with that freak play at first base and our young kids stepped up. You know? Those are the things. You think you’re prepared but you don’t know.”
While the Phillies never recovered from losing Roy Halladay, turning to the likes of Zach Miner and Tyler Cloyd at times last season, the Braves persevered without Hudson thanks to their plethora of homegrown talent.
On Monday, Gonzalez was asked if team’s needed luck to survive pitching injuries. But he knew better.
“You got to have luck,” he said. “(But) you’ve got to be prepared to have those injuries.”