It’s not often that news relating to an ulnar collateral ligament is promising, but it certainly seems as if there’s now real hope that Angels righty Garrett Richards can avoid Tommy John surgery. The staff ace’s latest trip to the doctor revealed sufficient healing that he can begin throwing, Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times was among those to report (Twitter links).
Richards did indeed pick up the ball today, making 25 tosses from 45 feet. He says that it felt like the first day of spring camp — which seemingly represents yet another sign of hope. Presumably, his throwing program will be heavily dependent upon how he feels and will proceed at a measured pace.
While there are still many hurdles remaining for the 28-year-old, it is remarkable that he has made it this far in his endeavor to avoid going under the knife. At the time that Richards’s UCL tear was first reported, in early May, the assumption was that he was headed for a procedure. While some minor tears don’t require surgery, his was initially seen as a clear case.
It was surprising, then, when the news emerged that Richards — as well as lefty Andrew Heaney — would attempt a platelet-rich plasma and stem cell treatment. By not immediately undertaking a TJ procedure, Richards sacrificed any chance of returning for the end of next season if he did ultimately have it performed. But he also gained the possibility, however slight it seemed, of pitching a full 2017 season.
Heaney chose the same path, but ultimately did not show sufficient improvement and ended up with a replacement UCL. But Richards has continued to respond to the treatment, saying recently that his arm feels great. It still remained to be seen whether and when his doctors would clear him to throw, but he finally was allowed to do so with promising results.
While it is certainly fantastic news that Richards has reached this point, the true tests are yet to come. The expectation is that he’ll try to build up towards competitive action this fall — perhaps including a stint in the Arizona Fall League. If Richards can stay on that track and return to full mound work in live game action, then there would be sufficient confidence in the ligament that he’d look to prepare for Spring Training in 2017.
The stakes remain high for both player and team. Indeed, if anything, they are increasing. If he were to swap out UCLs within the next month or two, he’d likely be ready for the start of the 2018 campaign. If he ultimately needs it at a later date — say, early next year — then much of that season could too be in jeopardy.
In spite of the downside, it’s hard not to see the reasoning behind the decisionmaking. For Richards, a return to health now would mean a chance not only to return to action in short order, but also to earn a slight bump on his $6.425MM arbitration salary rather than potentially hitting the open market following a non-tender.
For the Halos, it’s an opportunity to reap the rewards of Richards’s highly valuable pre-free agent seasons. Even if he had gone through with the surgery in May, it would have been difficult to tender him a contract for each of the next two years just in hopes that he’d be ready to go for the start of the 2018 season — his final campaign before qualifying for free agency.
After all, a healthy Richards represents a powerful, top-of-the-rotation piece for a Los Angeles team that badly needs one. Working off of a mid-to-upper-nineties fastball, Richards has nudged his swinging strike rate upward in recent years while generally limiting the damage on balls put in play against him with a solid groundball rate. Since the start of his breakout 2014 season, Richards has worked to a 3.11 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 over 410 2/3 innings.
This story is notable even beyond what it means for Richards and the Angels. It scarcely bears mentioning that the fragility of the ulnar collateral ligament has been a major issue in baseball in recent years. Numerous high-profile hurlers have succumbed to the surgery, and while its success rate remains quite high, it’s no sure thing — and also represents a major risk factor for another such procedure. If Richards’s seemingly novel treatment works out, it could provide an alternative in appropriate cases.