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One of the most prominent story lines of the second half of the season in baseball has been the shutdown plan for Stephen Strasburg. The electric righty – the best pitcher on the best team in baseball for most of that stretch – had Tommy John surgery back in August 2010, and pitched just a bit in late 2011. He was mostly full-go in 2012, but the Nationals announced, early in the year, that his innings would be capped, regardless of how he or the team was doing. The cap came a few weeks ago, and Strasburg was, indeed, shut down.

Criticisms and compliments flew about the Nats’ plan to try and protect Strasburg’s arm. Some said it was a credit to GM Mike Rizzo, for being able to stick to his guns despite the fact that playoff appearances are never guaranteed, let alone possible World Series appearances. Others said the Nats were babying Strasburg, and there was no evidence that you could prevent arm injuries in this way.

This post isn’t actually about Strasburg, but is instead about the Chicago Cubs’ 2013 plan for top pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino. The 21-year-old righty, acquired in a deal for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson in July, underwent Tommy John surgery back in March, and has recently been throwing on flat ground. He is expected to be ready to throw competitively by Spring Training, but few expected him to pitch a full season’s worth of innings in 2013.

And it sounds like the Cubs feel the same way.

“He’s going to come into Spring Training probably ready to pitch, but it will be on a [plan],” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Vizcaino, per CSNChicago. “Definitely we’ll be babying him through everything. I’m sure his innings will be whatever next year – 100 innings – I don’t know the exact number we’re going to end up with. It’s not going to be a full, blow-out scale with him next year.

“He’s so young and everything you’re going to baby that situation as much as you can, and have him really, really ready for the next season.”

There is a bit of a pejorative flavor to using “baby” and “pitcher” in the same sentence, but I certainly won’t say this is the wrong plan. Not only are the Cubs not expected to be competitive in 2013, but pitchers are rarely as effective in the year after Tommy John surgery as they are two and three years after. In other words, it’s not likely that the Cubs will be losing out on a whole lot by taking it very easy with Vizcaino, who has had other arm issues in his young career, beyond the big one.

What form the plan will take will be very interesting. To be candid, I would be surprised to see Vizcaino throw all of his 2013 innings with the big club. It isn’t just a matter of effectiveness (he might not be effective), but there are also service time considerations (I know, it’s icky to say it, but why waste a guy’s controllable, cheap service time when he’s doing glorified rehab?) and development considerations (he’s just 21, and still has plenty of developing left to do – plus, there’s still the question of whether he’s a starter long-term, or a reliever).

So, I’d tentatively expect him to break camp either with AAA, or in extended Spring Training. From there, if and when he does make the big club, I’d think – if he’s starting (I expect the Cubs to give him every opportunity to succeed as a starter) – he’ll be making shorter outings, rather than having outings skipped. In other words, I’m not sure the Cubs will stretch those 100 or so innings over a long season. Most thinking on pitcher health says it’s better to have a guy pitch straight through on normal rest for each start, rather than continuously shutting him down and ramping him back up with skipped starts. You can skip a day or two (as the Cubs did with Jeff Samardzija several times this season), but it’s probably not best to skip entire turns unless the guy is dealing with soreness or an injury.* If things play out that way, we might see Vizcaino starting with the big club for just a couple months in 2013.

It’s exciting to have a young arm like Vizcaino in the system, but it’s important to know that he’s coming back from arm surgery, has had other arm issues in the past, will be limited in 2013, and might suffer from bouts of ineffectiveness next year as his new tendon strengthens and his arm gets back into competitive shape. We’ll all just have to remember that as we watch the Cubs “baby” him.

*Then again, not everyone – including team medical professionals – thinks the same way. Pitcher health is among the most debated and mysterious parts of the baseball experience, even to this day. See, e.g., the Strasburg debate. Very smart, well-educated folks still disagree on this stuff.

  • Believe in 2015

    Excited to see him pitch next year!

  • DocPeterWimsey

    Given the unknowns, I say err on the side of caution.

  • Zach

    He hasn’t even stayed healthy a full year in the minors as a starter. So why would we even consider it. The team should start him in the bullpen in tge minors. It’s time to groom tge next closer

    • http://worldseriesdreaming.com/ Rice Cube

      You could do that, or you can attempt to maximize the value this player has by first getting him back to game shape and then putting him in the best position to eat as many quality innings as possible. You can groom a closer, but if he has no games to close, that seems a bit of a waste to me.

      It’s not like Tommy John surgery is a career-breaker. Right now we don’t know, which is why proceeding with caution makes sense. They’ll baby him but eventually they’ve got to at least test and see if he can give 5, 6 or 7 innings plus.

      • https://www.facebook.com/chris.siuty Chris84

        It’s not like Tommy John surgery is a career-breaker.

        Its crazy how far that surgery and rehab process has come. I remember when Kerry Wood had Tommy John surgery and everyone thought his career was done, because of how few pitchers came back from that injury.

    • cubs1967

      so we traded Maholm for a closer?…………wow……come on theo…….dude just can’t make a trade to save his life……..

      • Mick

        Troll.

        • Stevie B

          Double troll.

          Ick…get away troll.

          • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

            Best advice is and always had been: ignore.

            • hansman1982

              still ticked he beat me to that first reply with his garbage…

      • Drew7

        ………………………………………………………………

  • Featherstone

    What kind of stuff does Vizcaino feature? Where does he project as a starter?

    • Frank

      Others will know more about this than I do, but I remember hearing that he was considered almost as good a prospect as the Braves had–maybe projecting to a number 2 in the rotation before the injury?

      • nick cafardo

        Vizcaino makes greg oden, prior, and mike vick seem durable.

  • MichCubFan

    I do think he needs more time in the minors to work on his motion anyway. He has one of those very tall motions kind of like Tommy Hansen which puts a lot of stress on his shoulder. He needs a stronger front arm and he needs his glove hand to be farther out in front of him (toward the plate) when he is about to release the ball. This will cause him to release the ball closer to the plate which will make his pitches more effective, but it will also take stess off of his elbow by making him “spin out” less. This will make his delivery appear less tall and it will take a lot of stress off of his shoulder when his arm decelerates in his follow through.

    Being that he is only 21 this year is more important for him to fully recover and make improvements as a pitcher. We don’t need him on the big league team this year anyway. The Braves really rushed him as he had obvious room for improvement. Especially when you consider his age and his ability to start in the future instead of pitch out of the bullpen back then.

  • Cedlandrum

    I think if he breaks camp with a team it will be with Daytona where the weather in the early season is warm. That tends to be where we send rehab guys at the beginning of the season. I think Brett is right though that there is a good chance he is kept at extended for a while.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Very fair point – I guess I had it in my head that he would do extended, and then go to Iowa after it had warmed up (late May, early June), and then, if he looks good, up to the Cubs mid-season.

  • Deez

    I live here in DC & I think the Nats did the prudent thing & I would never call it “babying” the pitcher.
    Gotta look at the body of work.
    Would a normal person run a 5K or 10K 18mos after ACL Surgery on a Knee!?
    Plus, look at one’s body of work.
    How can you expect a pitcher w/ a career high of 154IP (prior to injury) to come back & pitch 180IP+ 2 years after surgery?
    The Nats could have scaled his work better though start him in the Bullpen for 2 months to hopefully save him when he’s needed.
    I don’t see the Cubs having the problem of competing for the playoffs, so, 150IP – 160IP for Arodys Vizcaino shouldn’t be a problem.

    • hansman1982

      And we should have an interesting case study in workloads as Chris Sale is being thrown out there to the end. Not perfectly matching cases but you will never get a perfectly matching case.

      • Cubbie Blues

        A big caveat is that no two people heal at the same rate.

      • JulioZuleta

        I don’t see the comparison. Sale never had any big arm injuries that I am aware of, did he?

        • hansman1982

          He had the tender elbow issue to start the season but two young arms, one gets shut down (TJ surgery’s tend to not reinjure, rather it is something else that gives) and one goes the distance.

          Now, again, it is impossible to perfectly compare the two but this may be the best we have.

  • Cizzle

    I thought I remembered reading that his “prior” injury was actually probably the same injury to his throwing elbow that eventually required TJ surgery, they just tried to rehab it before they shut him down for good in 2012.

  • MightyBear

    I would love to see A. Vicaino, JC Paniagua and Pierce Johnson all come of age and be solid starting pitchers in a couple of years. These guys are all older (21 and 22) and played organized ball for a few years so should develop quicker than say Underwood who is 18. We need some young starting pitchers to become stars with Samardzjia to have a good staff in a couple of years.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      It’s highly unlikely, just because of the flameout rate for all prospects, but, because of their ages and experience – as you said – it’s not insane to think there’s a chance each could be in the big league rotation in a couple years.

      Yeah. Unlikely. But fun to think about those things.

      • TWC

        But fun to think about those things.

        We are Cubs fans, after all. Our imagination is all we’ve got.

        • hansman1982

          Especially those of us that spend far too much time on a blog…

          BAZINGA!

  • Kyle

    I’d really love to see them stick him in the bullpen, to be honest. I’m still of the firm belief that 75 high-leverage innings is just as valuable as 200 starters’ innings, and right now our high-leverage situation is much more dire than our starting-pitching situation.

    • Featherstone

      i understand the sentiment posed there, but I have to disagree. 200 quality innings by a starter is far preferred to high leverage situations because you have to have your starters put up quality innings before-hand to even have a chance at those high-leverage situations. Also, finding quality starters is significantly more difficult than finding relievers. You also think that our bullpen is worse than our starting pitching? Garza, Shark, Wood, then what?

      Sure if Vizcaino can’t handle the load as a starter put him in the pen where he can fire bullets for an inning, but let us exhaust the starter option first.

  • cubsin

    It’s hard to consider our starting pitching situation anything but “dire” when we’re running out Berken, Germano, Rusin, Volstad and Wood every fifth day. Even when Samardzija and perhaps Garza come back next year, we’re still at least two starters short.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Dire feels like the right word. Is/was the right word to describe pitching in the minor league system, too. Especially at AA/AAA.

      • hansman1982

        I’d say still is, especially the minors. We don’t have a top flight SP in the system – more “really good” guys in the system but not a Bundy/Cahill/Bauer type.

        • Featherstone

          That’s what this year’s draft for! Wooo, going after the 2nd overall pick.

          • EQ76

            If I remember correctly, the last time we picked 2nd we got Mark Prior. It would be nice to land a future ace with that pick, maybe this time one that can stay healthy.

  • http://bleachernation.com lou brock lives

    I think the Cubs medical staff will pursue the same regimen with the Vizcaino kid that they did with RHP Robert Whitenack this year – very similar injury & both starting pitchers. They will limit pitches & innings as he gains strength & confidence. But they will most likely limit total pitches thrown in competition. Look for him early on to pitch 3 innings or 50 pitches at the most.

  • terencem

    My problem with Ervin Santana is that he’s never been a good pitcher by almost any metric. He had two years where he managed to keep his FIP under 4, and 3 with an ERA under 4.

  • terencem

    Here are the reclamation projects or “value” pitchers I’d be willing to go after:

    1. Liriano
    2. Bedard (actually had a decent season this year if you ignore ERA)
    3. Chien-Ming Wang
    4. Scott Baker (will probably sign with the Twins)

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      The question with Bedard is why did no one pick him up after the Pirates released him (which, itself, suggested something dramatically wrong). Suggests he might be toast.

  • ColoCubFan

    Trying to find out what “other” arm problems he’s had.???

  • CabsFan66

    Keep him in the minors and let him rehab there. Remember, Demp came to the Cubs while rehabbing. Look how he did and where he is at!

  • terencem

    It’s great that Cubs have every reason to give him a chance to be a starter. I’d expect the first season will be a bit rocky with flashes of brilliance if that’s the case. If he works out, we’re looking at a #2 ceiling (going by the idea that aces are rare and extremely special).

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