Young hurlers no stranger to Tommy John
Brewers' Braddock, Axford had surgery as amateurs
PHOENIX -- The joke among scouting directors is that it might make more sense to give all of the amateur pitching prospects Tommy John surgery and just get it over with.Which might be kind of funny, unless you're one of those kids under the knife. "I was 16, I was a junior in high school and it was a little bit scary," said left-handed Brewers pitching prospect Zach Braddock. "The day I got out of surgery was the first day colleges are allowed to call and recruit. So, suffice it to say, it was tough to tell schools, 'Yeah, I would love to come to your college, but...'" Braddock made a deep run into Spring Training with the Brewers and is proving that undergoing elbow reconstructive surgery, even at a very young age, is not a career-killer. He was one of at least three players on Milwaukee's spring roster and a handful throughout baseball who had the procedure as an amateur and endured a grueling, year-long rehabilitation to make it to the professional ranks. The list includes Braddock's Brewers teammate John Axford and former teammate Scott Schoeneweis, who was released from a Minor League contract on Tuesday and will seek work elsewhere. Axford had his surgery as a junior at Notre Dame in 2003, Schoeneweis as a sophomore at Duke in 1994. Schoeneweis was doubly tested; he was coming off chemotherapy for testicular cancer when he blew out his elbow. "Besides raising my kids, if anyone would ask me what my greatest accomplishment is it would be making it to professional baseball," Schoeneweis said. "I learned about work ethic." Said Axford: "I basically sat out two years, and that's a tough road to travel. You learn a lot about what it takes to keep your body healthy." Reigning American League Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey was drafted by the Brewers in the 16th round in 2005 while his arm was still in a sling and nearly signed a contract before returning for his senior season at Wagner College to improve his stock. He went to the A's in the sixth round of the following Draft and enjoyed his big league breakthrough in '09. Speaking of 2009 breakthroughs, the Twins' Brian Duensing had Tommy John surgery in '04 while at the University of Nebraska and came back to break into the big leagues with the Twins last season, then started Game 1 of their American League Division Series against the Yankees. Duensing's Twins campmate Jeff Manship was a Notre Dame teammate of the Brewers' Axford, and both Irish right-handers had the surgery in '03. The Tigers' Nate Robertson had Tommy John surgery while at Wichita State and has gone on to spend parts of the past nine seasons in the Majors. The Mariners' Anthony Vavaro had his in 2005 while at St. Johns and is enjoying his first year on Seattle's 40-man roster. The late Nick Adenhart felt a pop in his elbow during his final high school start in Williamsport, Md., and plummeted post-surgery from a sure-fire first-rounder to the 14th round, where the Angels took a chance. It paid off when Adenhart broke into the Majors in '08 and '09, only to lose his life tragically in an auto accident last season.
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That's not an exhaustive list, but all of those pitchers were old geezers when they faced surgery compared to Angels prospect Tyler Chatwood. He was only 15 years old and primarily a position player when he injured his elbow and went under the knife as a high school sophomore. A strong senior season on the mound prompted the Angels to take a chance in the second round in 2008, and now the Roy Oswalt clone is one of the organization's top pitching prospects."Tommy John surgery is much less a roll of the dice than, say, a labrum surgery [on the shoulder]," said Mariners specialist assistant Tony Blengino, a former Brewers scout who first saw Braddock as a 14- or 15-year-old. Blengino said the Brewers entered the '05 Draft set on picking either Braddock or right-hander Pedro Beato, a Brooklyn, N.Y., high schooler who also underwent Tommy John surgery as a high school junior. When the Mets took Beato in the 17th round, the Brewers went for Braddock in the 18th. Beato made it to Double-A with the Orioles last season. "It's a risk-reward situation," Blengino said. "If you believe in a kid's makeup and you can look at all of the medical records and determine, 'OK this looks like a pretty typical case,' and you're able to sign a player for less money, it can be a worthwhile gamble to take. Not all of them work out, though." Like Indians left-hander Scott Lewis, who had Tommy John surgery while he was at Ohio State University. Lewis was Cleveland's third-round pick in 2004, made it to the Majors for the end of 2008 and started the team's home opener in '09. But he re-injured his elbow in that outing and was dropped from the 40-man roster. He was not in camp with Cleveland this spring. "There is still mixed opinion," said Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash, who heads Milwaukee's medical program. "There are people who think there is a time limit to the repair." In other words, a pitcher who underwent one Tommy John surgery is at increased risk of future injury. The Brewers have seen that play out with left-hander Chris Capuano, who had his first reconstruction in 2002 while he was a D-backs prospect and another in '08. He recently had a setback and took a brief break from throwing. But there is a positive to those players, too. "The one thing that these kids learn how to do is work, that's for sure," Brewers farm director Reid Nichols said. "You feel like you're indestructible at that age, like nothing is going to break. They learn, through the rehab, what you need to do to get your body ready to play the game. Until you go through it, you don't really know." Braddock sure knows, because his Tommy John surgery was not the end of his injury woes. He has been limited to 73 appearances, 30 of them starts, during his four Minor League seasons by elbow and shoulder problems, but he made a career-high 26 appearances in 2009 and then appeared in the prospect-rich Arizona Fall League. During the '09 regular season, Braddock allowed only eight earned runs in 40 1/3 innings at the Class A and Double-A levels for a 1.79 ERA. He struck out 22 batters vs. only three walks. He's ticketed for Triple-A Nashville to start the season, but many believe Braddock will help the Brewers at some point in 2010. "Things are looking good," Braddock said. "It's my first big league camp, my first opportunity to show them what I can do. It's been a long road in the Minors so far, and it's all led up to now."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.