Lake Buena Vista, Florida
John Foster was waiting and prepared for the bad news. He couldn’t turn a door knob with his left arm, or even open the refrigerator door. It had all the signs of a player headed for the knife and the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
But Wednesday afternoon the doctors that had performed the MRI in Celebration, just outside of Disney, delivered the news to the Braves’ lefty reliever, and General Manager John Schuerholz shared it with the media.
“He has an inflamed ulnar nerve,” Schuerholz said. “What our intention is, based on the doctors review and their prescription, is to shut him down for a couple of weeks and then put him back on a throwing program for a two weeks. Then at the end of that full one-month period we’ll reassess to see how things are.”
The news was much better than expected. Foster started having pain earlier this month after a bullpen session. He has not pitched since March 7th, and his elbow is still inflamed. With the pain being so severe, everyone expected a full tear of the ulnar ligament, which would have ended Foster’s season with surgery. But now there is some hope rest and rehab will give Foster a chance to pitch this season.
“It’s better than I think most everyone expected, so we’re hopeful,” Schuerholz said. “We’ll reassess in a month.”
Some remain skeptical that Foster can avoid the surgery, but the one certainty is that he will not be ready for Opening Day, which creates additional questions for a bullpen already facing much uncertainty. Blaine Boyer, trying to come back from a shoulder strain, has had three straight positive bullpen sessions and hopes to pitch in a game within the next week. The Braves say Boyer’s at about 85% right now, and Schuerholz believes there’s still a chance the young right-hander could be ready by April 3rd.
“He made progress,” Schuerholz said. “He’s okay now. That’s good. That’s encouraging. He had a real big setback and worked his way through it and worked hard to come back. His arm seems healthy now - knock on wood. He’s a young guy, and if he can go out there and show that his arm can hold up, we’ll be way better off. He’s a one-inning guy, so a young guy like that, we think he can get himself in shape and be ready to go.”
Macay McBride has been battling a forearm bruise, but is expected back in the next week. The Braves say if it were the regular season, McBride would be able to pitch. And then there’s the question of Mike Remlinger, the soon-to-be forty-year-old that is trying for one last gasp in the big leagues. After a rough early March, Remlinger had a perfect two-inning performance against the Astros on Tuesday.
“We have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to find all the guys we need to give us a strong pitching staff, starters and relievers alike,” Schuerholz said. “We just don’t know who is going to fill which job yet. We felt coming in here we have plenty of talent, and out of that talent we’re going to have a good pitching staff. We still feel that way.”
However, as we move to within two weeks of the Braves’ breaking camp here in Florida, the rumors will certainly start to fly that a trade could be a possibility. Schuerholz has made a late-March trade the last two years. He acquired Juan Cruz and Chris Reitsma in 2004, and then last March traded Nick Green to Tampa Bay for Jorge Sosa. This afternoon Schuerholz sounded comfortable with the internal candidates, but also like a man on the lookout to help his team once again.
“We’re still stocked well enough,” he said. “Like I’ve said for many, many years we’ve got time to go before we make our final decisions on our roster. We’ve got plenty of time to work on that, and this year particularly because of the uniqueness of spring training where a lot of clubs have not been fully formed at this mid-spring date because of the World Baseball Classic, and I’m not denigrating the World Baseball Classic, but I’m just making a statement that it’s been more difficult for all clubs to make those judgments about their own rosters and for other clubs to make evaluations about who has players that might feel the needs they have. We’re in the same boat. A lot of that may come later in the spring that it ordinarily does.”
Right now, on paper, Chris Reitsma will be Atlanta’s closer. It’s also safe to say that Lance Cormier, who pitched in his fifth game without allowing an earned run Wednesday, and his fellow former Diamondback Oscar Villarreal, are locks to make the bullpen. Joey Devine continued his perfect work Wednesday with another strikeout and another scoreless inning, so it’s hard to believe he won’t be apart of this bullpen come April 3rd. Then with McBride, as long as he’s healthy, you have five pitchers that are pretty safe at this point.
One of those two remaining spots should go to a left-hander, and Remlinger and young Chuck James are the two internal candidates. If Boyer is 100% healthy, he could fill that last spot. But if there are still questions about his health, that’s where it could get a bit sticky.
Would the Braves move Jorge Sosa to the bullpen, with Kyle Davies doing so well as a starter this spring? Do they go with a fringe pitcher, like a Travis Smith, or a Wes Obermueller, or a Chad Paronto? Or do they give a rookie a chance, like an Anthony Lerew or Sean White, both of whom continue to impress Braves’ Manager Bobby Cox?
It’s only March 15th, and questions remain - as usual.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.