MIAMI -- Understandably, Thursday's buzz is about the return of Jose Fernandez. But he’s not the only starting pitcher making a long-awaited reappearance. A pair of Matts – Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants and Matt Moore of the Tampa Bay Rays -- will also rejoin their respective teams on Thursday after injury layoffs of roughly one year.
In fact, Cain will share the mound at Marlins Park with Fernandez, albeit to far less fanfare. Cain has been out for 51 weeks, largely as a result of problems with his throwing elbow.
Cain began having trouble with his right elbow in the middle of 2014, and it was affecting his performance on the mound, although he later acknowledged the condition had been present for years. He underwent a procedure last August to remove bone chips and associated debris, not uncommon for a veteran pitcher. In the spring he said his arm felt as strong as ever. As the team began to ease him into spring training game situations, there were hints of the vintage Cain. Just as it appeared he was ready to return to the Giants' rotation, he developed forearm tightness. The diagnosis was a flexor tendon strain, and Cain again found himself on the DL.
It has been a very incremental return process for Cain since April; he didn’t throw his first bullpen session until May and didn't make his first rehab start until June. The caution surrounding a 30-year old post-surgical elbow showing signs of wear and tear is understandable, and ultimately the extra time may have been exactly what he needed. Incidentally, the elbow wasn’t the only body part that ailed Cain last season. This past September, he also underwent a surgical procedure on his ankle to address a bone spur, which may have factored into his body’s overall challenge toward returning to form, despite the initial improvements in his elbow.
While it’s hard to know what to expect from Cain after this extended intermission, perhaps the best sign for the Giants is that he has had no setbacks since resuming competitive throwing. The next challenge will be one of endurance, maintaining his health across the second half of the season while hopefully performing effectively.
North of Cain and Fernandez in the same state, Moore will make his return against the Cleveland Indians at Tropicana Field. He shares the same injury history -– and almost the same timeline -- as Fernandez. Moore, a left-hander, also tore his ulnar collateral ligament in April of 2014 and subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery. He too has been progressing gradually under the close supervision of his team’s medical staff and is just now turning the corner to resume major league competition. Like Cain and Fernandez, Moore also had a setback-free rehab process and has shown evidence of his former self in his handful of rehab starts.
Moore is not the same type of thrower as Fernandez and he does not hit the same velocity, with a fastball that hovers more in the low 90s. Does that translate to lower risk? Perhaps. But like Fernandez, Moore is not entirely safe from re-injury. He remains on the recovery path as he continues to build his workload across his MLB starts. Command and control often wax and wane for those returning from TJ surgery, and Moore, who was challenged by a somewhat subpar walk rate before injury, may be similarly challenged upon his return. The first order of business, however, will be building his innings. Moore gets a chance to start attacking that plan Thursday.