6:31pm: Richards has indeed been cleared by Yoon, meaning he’ll now prepare for Spring Training as usual rather than undergoing Tommy John surgery, Fletcher reports.
1:11pm: The news that both Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney had damaged ulnar collateral ligaments back in May was a dagger to the hearts of Angels fans everywhere, but it now appears that Richards’ decision to elect for stem cell treatment over Tommy John surgery may have been prudent. Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register writes that Richards made another successful start in the instructional league yesterday, throwing 55 pitches in front of a large contingent of Angels decision-makers, including GM Billy Eppler, pitching coach Charles Nagy and owner Arte Moreno. Richards reported no issues following the start, and the team, according to Fletcher, now believes that he can return to anchor the rotation in 2017.
“The ball felt like it was coming out of my hand as good as it ever has,” said Richards. “It was cutting and sinking. I was throwing my slider for strikes and balls, same as my curveball. If I can go do that, there’s no worry in my mind. … I’m excited about pitching next year.”
Richards is set to meet with Dr. Steve Yoon for a final examination of his elbow today (including an MRI), per Fletcher. Richards may receive an additional stem-cell injection to continue to strengthen the ligament while he rests between now and the resumption of his throwing program in January. Fletcher suggests that today’s exam is little more than a formality, noting that Richards’ velocity was up to 96 mph in yesterday’s outing.
If Richards is able to successfully rehabilitate a partially torn UCL via this stem cell therapy, it could indeed be a significant development not just for him and the Angels but for future victims of UCL injuries. Richards tells Fletcher that he’s hopeful that what he believes will be a successful recovery will persuade other pitchers in his situation to try an alternative method to Tommy John before undergoing surgery.
For the Angels, the importance of an unexpected rebound for Richards can’t be emphasized enough. The team already lost both Heaney (who attempted the same stem cell treatment without the same success) and Nick Tropeano to Tommy John surgery, and both C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are free agents at season’s end. Not long ago, it looked like the Halos would head into the 2017 season with Ricky Nolasco and Matt Shoemaker as the only sure things in their rotation, with a hopefully healthier Tyler Skaggs and an unproven Alex Meyer as rotation options for the upcoming year as well. If Eppler and his staff can pencil Richards into that equation with any form of certainty, it should make the Angels’ offseason navigation markedly easier. Certainly, the team will still need to focus on accumulating further rotation options, but a healthy Richards is the most cost-effective impact move the Angels could make to next year’s rotation, based on his $7MM projected arbitration salary (via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz).