The Toronto Blue Jays may have the most unusual rash of spring training injuries among all 30 teams, some more devastating than others.
On the day I visited camp, the mood was overwhelmingly positive. Outfielder Michael Saunders had just taken swings in the cage for the first time since undergoing meniscus surgery on his left knee and was feeling great. A bizarre injury that could have sidelined him for multiple months (his foot planted on a sprinkler on a practice field on the first day of camp while he was shagging balls) looked as if it might not cause him to miss much, if any, time at all. Shortstop Jose Reyes, no stranger to soft tissue injuries throughout his career was upbeat about how his legs were feeling heading into his age-31 season. Edwin Encarnacion's back flare-up was expected to sideline him a few days but did not appear to be serious. There were smiles all around.
The joy was short-lived however, tempered by the news that young pitching ace Marcus Stroman had torn his left ACL, fielding a bunt of all things. When GM Alex Anthopoulos made the somber announcement he pointed out that Stroman was injured doing something he’s done “a million times.” The unexpected nature of this type of serious injury to a pitcher (his ACL, not his UCL) combined with the simple means by which the injury happened seemed to leave the club stunned.
The good news for Stroman is that he is young and is considered one of the best athletes on the team. The rehab process is arduous, but he is well-equipped to endure it. There aren’t a lot of comparisons available to us as far as pitchers returning from ACL surgery, but there is no compelling reason to think Stroman won’t have success. Perhaps the most notable ace to tear his ACL and stage a successful comeback was Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Rivera tore his ACL while shagging fly balls in the outfield in May 2012 ... at 42 years old. But No. 42 returned the following year, at age 43, to put his signature on a historic career, amassing 44 saves during his final season.
Rivera was a closer, however, and Stroman is a starter. What about the comparison there? Well, longtime Milwaukee Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, now with the Texas Rangers, tore his right ACL in May 2008 in a game situation (specifically a contact injury resulting from a collision at first base). Gallardo, who was 22 at the time, not only returned successfully, he returned the same season, for one regular-season and two postseason starts.
There is one difference, however. Both Rivera and Gallardo tore their right ACL and both are right-handed throwers, meaning the injury was to their push leg. In Stroman’s case (also a right-handed thrower), his injury is to his left knee, making this an injury to his landing leg. Not that it makes Stroman’s successful return any less likely. The demands on the landing leg have more to do with control and balance, as opposed to power and drive, requiring slightly different emphasis in return to play functionality. Without a doubt, those elements will be specifically targeted in the course of Stroman’s rehabilitation.
The key for any pitcher returning from a significant lower-extremity injury is restoring normal strength, power, balance and mobility prior to aggressive throwing to ensure there are no compensations that travel upward to the throwing arm. (See: Garrett Richard of the Los Angeles Angels who is returning this season from a patellar tendon rupture in his left leg. Incidentally, the injury is also to Richards’ landing leg.) Assuming all progresses well through the course of his rehabilitation, Stroman should be on track to start next season.
It didn’t end with Stroman. The latest Jay to suffer an unusual injury is outfielder Kevin Pillar, who sustained a Grade 1 (mild) oblique strain while sneezing. Although oblique strains can be resistant to healing, the most minor variety -- which it sounds like is the case for Pillar -- can resolve within a week to 10 days, leaving the possibility open that Pillar could be available for the start of the season, barring another hard sneeze.
In the meantime, the Jays can take comfort in the solid progress of Saunders. He told me the way his knee has progressed since surgery he would be “shocked” if he weren’t ready by Opening Day. Saunders reiterated, however, that he would do what his knee "tells him to do." Ultimately, no specific date is a lock for his return, rather he will see how his knee responds to each more aggressive test. This week, Saunders is expected to DH in a game, the next measure of ramping up for him. After a 2014 season with injuries aplenty, Saunders is eager to stay on the field once he returns.
And the Jays must be hoping this string of unusual injury events is behind them.