Last night the news broke that Cincinnati Reds top prospect Hunter Greene would undergo Tommy John surgery. Depending on where you happen to fall on the wide spectrum of reactionaries on the subject, you were very surprised or not at all, or somewhere in between.
There’s been a interesting timeline that has led up to last night. Let’s start from the beginning. The Reds selected Hunter Greene in 2017 with the #2 overall pick in the draft. He began his career with the Billings Mustangs and was hitting, not pitching. The plan was to have him pitch, but after not pitching much his senior year in high school the team wanted to ease him back to the mound. As a potential 1st round pick as a shortstop, the Reds allowed him to play a few games with the Mustangs as a hitter. His time on the mound came near the end of the season when he got three starts and pitched just 4.1 total innings. After the season he noted that his focus was going to be on the mound and his time at shortstop/designated hitter was over.
In 2018 the Reds sent him to Dayton, and after a slow and tough start to the season he went out and dominated for the final two months of his season. In those 11 starts he posted a 2.63 ERA with 13 walks and 63 strikeouts in 51.1 innings for the Dragons. But in his final start on July 26th he pitched just two innings against Fort Wayne. And that’s when things started to get a bit strange.
The statement made for his removal from the game was that he was having stomach issues. He reportedly threw a bullpen session like he would between every other set of starts, but that’s when things didn’t feel right and he had his elbow tested. The MRI showed a partial tear of his UCL in his pitching elbow. Greene opted to go the rehab route rather than Tommy John surgery at that point.
The next update that we had came three months later. Hunter Greene said that he was 100% and feeling great at the end of October. It’s worth noting that Will Carroll said later that day that Greene had one of the larger tears of a UCL among players that chose to not undergo Tommy John surgery and to go with the rehab route. Things seemed to be going well, though. In December we saw Greene in Goodyear throwing without restrictions and it was another step in the right direction.
When spring training began and MLB Network was going from camp to camp, Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis stopped by Goodyear and spoke with Hunter Greene. This was in late February, before minor league camp began – but Greene had never left the complex during the offseason as he worked on his rehab. Things were going well at the time, then, too. Greene noted he felt 100% and was planning on throwing 120 innings and reaching Double-A in 2019. Once again there were no signs that things in his rehab weren’t going well and that he was looking like the Reds were going to be able to avoid another UCL surgery – much like they did in 2017 with both Michael Lorenzen and Anthony DeSclafani who had partial tears but got back on the mound with rehab.
Minor league spring training began on the final day of February. Hunter Greene was in camp and was ready to participate. With that said, he was not going to be quite ready to start the season when camp broke – but he was pitching without any restrictions on his effort or ability to use pitches – he was limited simply in his workload and was going to need to build up. In mid-March Dick Williams was on local radio in Cincinnati with Lance McAlister, who hosts sports talk shows on both 700 WLW and ESPN 1530. I don’t recall which station the interview aired on, but Williams said this at the time:
“He has been throwing but we have been careful with him. He occasionally feels things and we back him down. Just playing it by ear. Dr. Kremcheck saw him the other day and doesn’t see any injury. Pitcher’s arms are finicky so we are going to constantly be monitoring him. I do not know this exact timetable.”
This was the first time along the way that there was ever any sort of “hold up a second” kind of issue spoken about. Clearly the Reds were being careful, and as noted by Williams, Greene was examined by Dr. Kremchek and there was no injury. On March 23rd I was in Goodyear for my final day of spring training coverage and the 19-year-old was throwing a simulated game (watch it here if you would like). Things seemed to go well that day, too. And by watching the video you can clearly tell that he’s not holding back.
However, things went south a few days later. As heard in the interview with Dick Williams at the top of the article, it was the following outing where Hunter Greene was warming up and felt something. It was “new damage that had occurred to the ligament” in his pitching elbow. This time it was clear that rehab wouldn’t be an option and that he would require Tommy John surgery.
Hunter Greene and the Reds decided to give things a shot and not miss the 2019 season after he injured his elbow in late July of 2018. Things were going very well for a good while after making that decision. Unfortunately, last week happened and it didn’t work out. As I wrote yesterday, there are a lot of things to note before the pointing, name calling, second guessing, hindsighting, and whatever else goes on:
First is that the player decides the plan of action, not the team or the doctor. Second is that Greene, and the Reds, seemed to believe that he was 100% heading into spring training. The pitcher said as much in multiple places, and the team noted that he was not being held back at various times throughout the winter and spring. Third, as noted by Dick Williams in the video above – the injury suffered last week “was new damage that had occurred to the ligament”.
Pitchers get hurt. A lot. It sucks, but we all seem to know that for a very, very large portion of pitchers, it’s a matter of when, not if. The timeline for Greene getting the surgery last August instead of next week doesn’t change a whole lot for his return. If he had opted for the surgery last August, he wouldn’t have pitched again until April of 2020. Younger players tend to “recover” faster from Tommy John surgery. The general timeline is 12-18 months, but the younger a player is the closer that timetable is to 12 months than 18 months. If we cut that down the middle and call it 15 months, that would put Hunter Greene back on the mound in June/July of 2020.
You want to avoid surgery if you can. The Reds and Hunter Greene tried to do so. They couldn’t. But the “delay” in having the surgery doesn’t really do a ton to move the timeline of him getting back on the mound. But had the rehab worked, as it has in the past for more than a few pitchers (and even several Reds pitchers in the last few seasons), he would not have missed hardly any time on the mound at all. The “risk” was very, very minimal to try the rehab process here.