By now everyone is aware that the New York Mets have lost their young pitcher Zack Wheeler to a torn ulnar collateral ligament. On the date of my visit to camp, Wheeler had merely been scratched from his start because of tenderness in the elbow. It was later determined that he had actually torn the ligament. Wheeler is now expected to undergo Tommy John surgery and will miss all of the 2015 season.
On the same day, the Mets were on the verge of receiving bad news with regards to Wheeler, there was also good news to be found. Veteran third baseman David Wright hit his first home run of the spring. It also happened to be his first home run since July 2014. It didn’t just creep out of the park either. It was a smash over the centerfield wall, a signal perhaps that the power that eluded Wright and his injured left shoulder in the second half of last season might just be returning.
This display of power is significant because Wright’s diagnosis, at least on the public face of it, was vague. That’s not necessarily atypical of shoulder conditions, particularly when inflammation in one area can impact surrounding tissues causing the entire joint and the supporting musculature to be problematic. When there is not a clear-cut “fix,” as is the case, for instance, with Tommy John surgery to reconstruct a torn ulnar collateral ligament, the outcome of a global rehabilitative approach is seemingly less predictable. That is not to say there cannot be excellent outcomes but the combination of the often multifactorial nature of shoulder problems and a non-specific injury make for a trickier path.
Wright first began having problems with his shoulder after a headfirst slide in a muddy field in June. He played through it, but his power was clearly impacted. A series of cortisone shots in July followed by movement in and out of the lineup in July and August eventually culminated with Wright undergoing an MRI and being shut down in September. At the time, Wright was dealing with “persistent inflammation in the rotator cuff in the left shoulder,” according to the Mets. Wright later underwent an MR arthrogram (using contrast dye to enhance imaging), revealing ligament involvement, contributing to shoulder instability for Wright. This would help explain the intermittent nature of the problem as well as the chronic pain, inflammation and functional loss of power Wright was experiencing.
Rest definitely helped with the pain component and Wright said he was completely pain-free in January, focusing at that time on continuing to build up strength in his shoulder. The real test for how the rest and rehabilitation would work, however, would not come until Wright began taking spring at-bats in game situations. The home run on March 14 showed Wright still has it in him to deliver the power, the remaining question is whether that can happen on a consistent basis.
There is no reason to think otherwise, barring re-injury. The most likely method of re-injury? A headfirst slide or a diving play where the shoulder ends up in a vulnerable position. According to ESPN New York's Adam Rubin, Wright, now 32 years old, acknowledges that avoiding headfirst slides might be wise. He and Mets manager Terry Collins also seem to agree that targeting less than 162 games is reasonable, with strategically-placed days off here and there as part of Wright’s health management.
The trade-off would certainly be a welcome one if it helps Wright -- who has dealt with severely limiting hamstring and shoulder problems the last two years -- be more productive across a broader spectrum of the season.