Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Bryan Mata.
The Question: Can Bryan Mata get back to his pre-surgery trajectory?
One of the most astounding parts of the 2021 season for the Red Sox, a season that was astounding in a number of ways, was the lack of injuries to the rotation. Prior to Opening Day, this was seen as perhaps the biggest reason the team would not compete, but instead they avoided any significant stay on the injured list from their core starting pitchers all season. However, while there was a distinct lack of injuries in the majors, there was quite a bit in terms of their depth. Notably that included Tanner Houck and Connor Seabold, both of whom were expected to be the top depth starters, and while they weren’t needed as things turned out they were out of commission for the first few months of the season.
But looking longer term, the most impactful injury in the minor-league ranks for pitchers was Bryan Mata, who suffered an elbow injury in March of last season while still in camp that would ultimately end up needing Tommy John surgery to recover. The surgery took place in mid-April of last season, which means he will certainly start this season on the injured list, assuming there is a season that starts.
Despite the injury, and other injuries that have popped up over his career, Mata remains one of the best and most exciting pitching prospects in the system. He’s been surpassed by Brayan Bello and perhaps one or two others, but he’s still right up there with any arm in the system for long-term trajectory. He’s pitched extremely well almost every chance he’s gotten to pitch in the minors, going from a little-known international signee to knocking on the doorstep of the majors last spring as a 21-year-old.
Now, with the Tommy John surgery, we could be looking at what amounts to essentially two lost seasons for Mata. He missed all of last season, as we know, and with the typical timeline for Tommy John recovery being 12-18 months, that puts a most likely return to the mound for the young righty somewhere in the middle or end of summer. And that brings us to the crux of this post, which is that it’s likely not going to be enough time for him to really get back on the fast track and up to the majors. The real hope for his 2022 should be that he can get back on the mound and throwing consistently again by August, and make enough starts that both he and the organization can feel comfortable with him being a full go to start in 2023.
While the recovery from Tommy John is certainly less problematic than it had been in the past, you still never know what a pitcher is going to look like in their return until it actually comes. For Mata, there was a whole lot to like about him before the injury. His stuff is that of a major-league starter, with a fastball that can get up into the high 90s with movement, and a slider that can miss bats and produce weak contact. He also has a solid changeup that, while not an above-average pitch at the moment, should be enough for a good third offering from a major-league starter. His command wasn’t always consistent, but there was enough there to be confident in its long-term efficacy.
On the other hand, injuries have been a theme in his career. Aside from the Tommy John, he’s dealt with a back issue and a hamstring issue with the Red Sox as well as a groin injury that cost him a larger bonus with the Brewers when he was still an amateur. To Mata’s credit, he has bulked up some since entering the organization, and his smaller stature was a reason some were worried about him in the early days of his pro career. That said, his delivery is still has a little more effort than you’d like, and they say past injuries are the biggest indicator of future injury.
Still, we’re not going to try and predict health for Mata, because that’s a fool’s errand for any pitcher. Instead, we’re going to look forward for a pitcher with promising stuff who missed a crucial year of development in 2021, especially after the cancelled 2020 minor-league campaign. That makes this year a big one for the righty, not necessarily in terms of numbers at the minor-league level, but rather showing he’s still the same guy. Look for him to come back at some point this summer, and keep an eye on reports about his stuff. There will be command inconsistency, but if the stuff looks good and he can get through a couple months healthy, he’ll be right back in a good position in 2023 ready to finally make an impact at the highest level.