PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s not a good sign for a baseball team when the front office releases medical updates for two of its projected starting pitchers on the same day of spring training.
For the Mariners, a team that already serious questions about the rotation, Friday wasn’t full of good news.
Before the team took the field for workouts, manager Lloyd McClendon informed the media that prized pitching prospect and rotation candidate Taijuan Walker was being shut down from throwing for seven days because of inflammation of the bursa in his throwing shoulder.
“It’s a little bit of a setback,” McClendon said. “It is what it is. And we’ll just have to continue forward.”
Later in the day, the Mariners got more bad news, though not quite as dire.
All-star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who has been sidelined with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand, met with hand specialist Dr. Donald Sheridan in Scottsdale. The hope was that Iwakuma’s finger had progressed enough for him to remove the immobilizing splint he’s been wearing the past three weeks and begin throwing.
That didn’t happen.
While Iwakuma’s finger had improved, Sheridan recommended that he continue to wear the splint for three more weeks. It follows the original prognosis of four to six weeks in the splint that he made upon examining Iwakuma.
Because of that layoff, it all but guarantees that Iwakuma won’t be ready to pitch when the season begins. While frustrating, this was an expected possibility for the Mariners.
The news about Walker was much more disconcerting. He’s not just a projected starter for this season, but for years.
“We’re not just talking about 2014,” McClendon said. “Hopefully, we’re talking about the next 15 years. We have to be cautious, and we have to be smart.”
Dr. Edward Khalfayan — the team’s medical director — made the original diagnosis and informed general manager Jack Zduriencik and McClendon.
“The MRIs were clean, they were good, there was no structural damage so everything is fine from that standpoint,” McClendon said.
Walker flew to Los Angeles on Thursday to meet with Dr. Neal ElAttrache for a second opinion on the shoulder. ElAttrache agreed with Khalfayan’s diagnosis and prescribed the similar course of action of rest and anti-inflammatories.
Walker tried to remain upbeat. He came in on Friday, received treatment and then did a legs and core workout along with cardiovascular conditioning.
“It definitely sucks,” Walker said. “But I feel good about the situation. I’m not going to push or try to fight through something to make it worse. I’m just going to take the time off, get healthy and then move on.”
The shoulder issue is something that bothered Walker even before he reported to spring training. Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said that Walker had issues in December which limited his offseason throwing program and put him behind when he came into camp.
The issue hadn’t been serious enough for Walker to be completely shut down. He continued to play catch, long toss and even threw a pair of 25-pitch bullpen sessions. But the shoulder didn’t respond as hoped. He could feel something wasn’t right when he threw.
“Just a little, but it wasn’t painful,” he said. “I wasn’t like, €˜Oh this hurts.’ “
The lingering discomfort was an issue.
“It’s just something that wouldn’t go away,” he said. “It’s been nagging at me. I was feeling good for a while. Everything was going well, I was throwing and stuff and threw a couple of bullpens, and it kind of swelled up a little bit, flamed up.”
So what is in store for Walker? There is no exact timetable for when he can step on a mound.
Griffin has written out a three-week program, but that doesn’t mean Walker will be ready in three weeks.
“What I told Lloyd and (pitching coach) Rick Waits, it’s easy to write a program out of three weeks, but that doesn’t mean you can follow the program,” Griffin said. “They have to be able to do what you planned for the next day. In a perfect world, you write something on a piece of paper and it goes like that. But that happens about once in 500 tries. We’ll just have to go through that progression.”
The progression starts after the seven days rest. Walker will start playing catch from about 65 feet for about five to eight minutes.
“He has to be pain free when he plays catch for several days,” Griffin said.
Walker would then graduate to long toss for several days, where he must be pain free during and after. Then he actually gets to step on the mound for bullpen sessions.
Mariners pitchers were threw three bullpen sessions before stepping on the mound to face live hitting and then moved onto games.
It will be a little different for Walker. The Mariners would have him throw in simulated games. It’s a more controlled environment that the medical staff could monitor. It will be a carefully monitored process.