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Wagner’s Remarkable Comeback Route

08.28.09 at 11:57 am ET

By his own admission, Billy Wagner has little business being in Boston — or in any other major-league uniform. There is an element of the improbable to the fact that, at 38, he is throwing with mid-90s velocity and command, let alone that he is doing so roughly 11 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Wagner is certainly one of the oldest pitchers, if not the oldest, ever to come back from the procedure.

“We don’t have a lot of comps at that age,” said Will Carroll, a medical reporter for Baseball Prospectus. “Most guys don’t come back.”

But Wagner did. It would be difficult to imagine a greater validation of Wagner’s rehab efforts than the fact that a contending team was willing to trade for him and spend roughly $3.5 million for his services (roughly $2.5 million in salary and another $1 million for a buyout of his 2010 option after the season) over the duration of the 2009 season. Less than a year after he had been told that his career could well be over, his recovery has been so successful that he is not merely back on a mound, but sought for his potential to boost a club in a playoff race and perhaps the postseason.

“I was told my career was over, so I just stuck with (Mets and former Red Sox physical therapist) Chris Correnti and he was there day in and day out with me motivating me and pushing me to keep working. He believed that I had something left, my family thought that I had something left and that I should pursue it and see how far this thing will take me and I’€™m here in 11 months where it’€™s normally 14 months,” said Wagner. “Eleven months after Tommy John, somebody wants somebody like me to help them maybe get in the playoffs. I’€™m pretty excited.”

The left-hander pushed the normal time line for a return from Tommy John surgery, even though, when he went under the knife, the doctors did more than just replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last September. Wagner identified additional procedures that were done at the time of his Tommy John surgery and that made his rapid recovery — especially at this age and stage of his career — all the more noteworthy.

“They did a scope in the back (of the elbow), moved the ulnar nerve, fixed the flexor (tendon) ‘€“ they did it all,” Wagner said. “They didn’€™t even tell me that they had done the scope or anything else until after.”

But Wagner followed a rigorous rehab program at an aggressive pace. Had it been a younger pitcher, the course of the rehab process might well have been more deliberate. But Wagner and Correnti — who oversaw the dominating return of Pedro Martinez from a damaged rotator cuff in time for the 2002 season — decided to push the pace almost immediately following the surgery, since the long-time closer is involved in a race against time.

Wagner has targeted both 400 saves and 425 saves as goals, the former because it is a round number, the latter because it would allow him to pass John Franco as the all-time leader for saves by a left-handed pitcher. Such milestones could bolster the pitcher’s Hall of Fame candidacy. If he can demonstrate an ability to pitch at a high level and with health over the final five weeks of this season, Wagner can position himself where clubs in need of a closer this offseason will be far more willing to target him.

At the beginning of the rehab process, there were no guarantees. While it is taken almost for granted that pitchers can return at full strength from Tommy John, and despite numerous success stories, it is by no means a given that a pitcher can regain his velocity after the procedure.

Former Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan, for instance, never regained the life on his fastball after he underwent the procedure in 2007 (even though he was effective in 2008), and then his shoulder blew out. Carroll cited Francisco Liriano of the Twins and Chris Capuano of the Brewers as examples of other players who did not see their stuff fully return after Tommy John, and Frankie Francisco (the current Rangers closer) as an instance of a pitcher who took an immense amount of time to recover from flexor tendon surgery.

But Wagner, at least to date, has not been a cautionary tale. Instead, he is back in the majors as fast — indeed, likely faster — as anyone could have expected.

Even so, multiple major-league sources suggest that medical risks persist for a pitcher until he is at least 14 months removed from such a procedure. There are still risks of setbacks, and it would be vastly premature to suggest that the pitcher is out of the woods.

Indeed, the remaining risks in Wagner’s recovery explain in large part why the Mets were willing to part with Wagner in a deal that, despite the inclusion of a couple of players to be named, represented primarily a desire to save $3.5 million in a year when they have fallen far short of expectations despite a payroll pushing $150 million.

While Wagner can contribute in meaningful situations for the Red Sox, he was not going to have that opportunity in 2009 for a Mets team that is buried in the standings. If there were a guarantee that Wagner, a likely Type A free agent following this year, would be healthy enough to ensure a free-agent market for his services as a closer, New York might have been more inclined to suffer the financial hit of keeping the reliever for the rest of the year so that they could collect a pair of draft picks after he left.

But because the team was mindful of the possibility of a setback that could make it impossible to offer Wagner arbitration (or that would prevent any team from signing him and sacrificing a top draft pick), it could not stomach the idea of paying him with potentially zero return. A cold, hard financial reality was in play for a team that has the second highest payroll in baseball but that has endured a disastrous number of injuries that have crushed any of its hopes in the pennant race.

The Sox, on the other hand, might receive benefit from the pitcher down the stretch this year. And so, for them, the $3.5 million investment (an amount that Boston G.M. Theo Epstein noted represents a reinvestment of savings in unpaid incentives for pitchers John Smoltz and Brad Penny) harbors immediate potential return. Given that, Boston can focus more on the potential payoff of having a pair of compensation picks rather than the potential risk that it would get none.

In an effort to assure Wagner’s health down the stretch, his usage will be carefully regulated. He will not throw on back to back days, his pitch counts will likely be limited, and the Sox will certainly try to avoid putting the pitcher in a situation where he warms up multiple times before entering games.

Still, while there will be limits to how Wagner can be used, the fact that the 38-year-old can be used at all and has been thrust back into a pennant race is, in its own right, noteworthy.

“I was told, ‘€˜You’€™ve had a good career.’€™ And that kind of motivates you because I feel like I’€™m in control of my career,” said Wagner. “My fastball has got a lot more life right now. My slider is probably a little harder and sharper than in the past, and I’€™ve developed somewhat of a changeup. So this whole Tommy John thing isn’€™t looking too bad right now.”

Read More: billy wagner, chris correnti, Mets, tommy john
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