If everything goes according to plan, the Red Sox won’t need to lean too heavily on their bullpen. The top three starters on the roster each finished in the top-six on the innings pitched leaderboard last season, and they are all in the top-sixteen over the last three seasons. Behind them, there is upside that should at least show up fairly often in Pomeranz, Wright, and Rodriguez and give them six or seven solid innings on enough nights.
Of course, plans are assumed to go poorly in baseball, and Boston has prepared for that by building a solid bullpen. Craig Kimbrel and Tyler Thornburg are a strong one-two punch, and there’s some upside with Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes as well as stability with Robbie Ross. They will need something big to take that next step forward, though. Luckily, they should be able to do that without even making a midseason trade. Carson Smith should be back on the mound at some point in the summer of 2017, and could potentially push the unit closer to the elite groups around the league.
As we all know, Smith was hurt shortly after he was acquired by the Red Sox in the Wade Miley deal. He attempted to come back in early May, but only managed three outings and 2.2 innings before hitting the shelf again. This time, it was revealed he’d need Tommy John surgery. Smith went under the knife in late May, and with a typical rehab time of at least 12 months and usually closer to 13 or 14, that puts a reasonable return date around the All-Star Break. Earlier this winter, there was some speculation he could be ready to throw in spring training, but that always seemed like an absurd prediction. Still, the potential for him to come in and start making an impact in the second half could be a huge boon for a contending team that figures to have its bullpen be one of its weaker areas looking towards the trade deadline.
This is the kind of assumption we can make this time of year, when optimism abounds. We can just assume that Smith will be able to make an impact because we remember how good he was for the Mariners in 2015. Hell, we can simply assume that he’ll even come back completely healthy without any complications. Well, you know what they say about assuming. Although Tommy John surgery is far less concerning than it was even relatively recently, it’s still a serious procedure. We see success stories all the time, but we do still see some careers derailed. It also seems as if we see more starters go under the knife, or at least hear about more starters. So, let’s try to find some relievers who recently underwent the procedure and see what the spectrum of outcomes can look like for Smith.
If you’re hoping for one scenario from recent history, you should be looking towards Chicago and their bullpen. Specifically, at their set-up man Nate Jones. The White Sox righty had started his career with two very good seasons before getting hurt early in 2014. He’d miss essentially all of that year (this is Smith’s 2016), and a big chunk of 2015 (which would be Smith’s 2017). Since the surgery, he’s come back to be one of the better and more under-appreciated relievers around the league. Last year was his first full season back, and he threw 70 innings with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings and and ERA, FIP and DRA all under 3.00. Even in the small sample of 2015 he looked like a great reliever again. He’s turned into a hot trade target around the league, and could easily be a top-three reliever on a championship team despite his recent surgery.
Jones didn’t make it back until the middle of August, but he also underwent his surgery a couple months later in the calendar year than Smith. This is the best case scenario for the Red Sox righty, and would put him on track to return in mid-June and look just as dominant as he did pre-Tommy John.
Now, we also have the scenario none of us want to see. For that scenario, we’ll take a quick trip down to Queens and look at the career arc of Bobby Parnell. By the end of 2013, the Mets righty was coming off his fourth straight year of being a strong option at the back of the bullpen. Then, in 2014, he was diagnosed with a torn UCL after the first game of the season and went under the knife that April. He would return to the mound in June of 2015, but he was not the same pitcher. His strikeout stuff completely dissipated and he no longer had the sharp pitches he leaned on to put up his big ground ball numbers throughout his early career. He was awful in his half season of 2015, and couldn’t latch on for more than six outings in 2016 due to poor performance.
Now, it’s worth noting that Parnell was three years older than Smith at the times of their respective surgeries and that he had a hell of a lot more mileage on the arm. Still, he was a ground ball pitcher who leaned heavily on a sinker and slider, which gives him some similarities with Smith. It at least gives us the possibility that he could come back as a different guy, and not for the better.
Obviously, these aren’t the only two relievers to recently undergo Tommy John surgery, but I think they accurately show both ends of the spectrum of possibilities. There are other scenarios, of course, like Jonny Venters who hasn’t pitched in a game since his surgery after the 2012 season. However, that was his second procedure, and undergoing this a second time puts you in a whole new group of comparables. This is the point on the calendar in which we should all be optimistic, meaning we can rightfully hope for the Nate Jones scenario to come true. However, it’s worth keeping the idea in the back of your mind that Smith could just as easily become Bobby Parnell 2.0.