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2019 Prospect Preview: The Ghost of Tommy John Past, Present, and Future

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A look at three UCL casualties on the Rangers’ farm.

MLB: Texas Rangers-Media Day Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning LSB. Today you’re going to be playing the role of LoneStarBall Scrooge as I take you on a journey of the Rangers’ absolute suck luck with their young pitching health over the past couple of seasons. You can imagine it as the Dickens novella or as “Scrooged” (you can be Bill Murray) or as the one by the Muppets. Up to you. Who knows, by the end of this you might have a new lease on life, finally able to understand the true meaning of TINSTAAPP.

2017 and 2018 were obviously disappointing seasons from a big league standpoint, but they were peppered with frequent gut-punches of torn UCL’s by three of the Rangers’ top young arms. Joe Palumbo, Cole Ragans, and Kyle Cody could all, if healthy, be slotted somewhere between 2-7 on the Rangers’ list of pitching prospects. All three were coming off of good seasons the previous year before injuring themselves early in the season.

In the case of Joe Palumbo, the Ghost of Tommy John Past, if you will, his injury came off a breakout 2016 season where he posted a 2.24 ERA and struck out 122 batters in 96⅓ innings with Class-A Hickory. He’d been relatively unheard of prior to 2016 as a smallish 30th-round draft pick; he didn’t appear in Baseball America’s Top 30 for the Rangers before the season.

He earned a promotion in 2017 but on April 18 he was pulled from his third start of the season with the dreaded “elbow discomfort.” He’d been stellar to that point, both in the game (he was through 4⅓ innings of one-hit ball and had struck out seven) and in his previous two starts.

By early in the following week, Palumbo had gone under the knife and begun his long recovery. He missed the rest of 2017 and a large chunk of 2018, but his recovery period wasn’t totally uneventful, as he was added to the Rangers 40-man roster in December of 2017.

He returned to game action on June 24, one year, two months and seven days after suffering a torn UCL.

In the micro the Rangers were obviously extremely cautious with his in-game pitch counts, but in the macro they moved him briskly through the system in the last couple months of the 2018 season. He started three rehab games with the AZL Rangers before returning Down East and starting six games with the Wood Ducks, averaging a little over 71 pitches per outing. He earned a late-season promotion to AA Frisco and was solid in two starts.

The lefty brings a big curve that I think could get Major Leaguers out right now, and his fastball velocity gradually ticked back up into the mid-90s after the surgery. He could have a ceiling of a 3rd or 4th starter, but as a high-K lefty who gets righties out as well, he could also end up as a very serviceable bullpen piece if his lean frame can’t hold up to a starters’ workload.

I would guess he’s most likely headed back to Frisco to start 2019 but a AAA debut in…...Nashville, weird…….wouldn’t be out of the question. Either way you can bet the Rangers are still going to be on the tentative side with him for a bit longer. For what could be expected, it was a great return season for Palumbo.

The Ghost of Tommy John Present will be played by Cole Ragans, who tore his elbow ligament in spring training prior to last season. With the assumed 12-14 month recovery time it’s expected that Ragans will miss the first month or two of the 2019 season.

Ashley Landis, Dallas Morning News

Ragans was the Rangers’ first round draft pick (30th overall) in 2016. He spent the entire season in 2017 with short-season Spokane and performed well over 13 starts. The lefty drew praise (and comparisons to then Rangers’ starter Cole Hamels) for his clean mechanics and fastball spin/life, and he was named the No. 1 prospect in the Northwest League after the season.

That was the last he’s pitched in live game action. The last updates on his recovery came in October when he started throwing from 105 feet, according to Jeff Wilson. Ragans presumably got up to 120 feet before the Rangers shut him down until next year.

He’ll spend some time with in Arizona in 2019 as Palumbo did last season, and assuming all goes well he should be ready for a debut with Class-A Hickory in May or June.

The Ghost of Tommy John Yet To Come has already come, but you kinda wish it would’ve come like four months earlier. Kyle Cody got straight-up Profar’d. He was diagnosed with elbow inflammation (another damning elbow term) in March of 2018, the announcement made on the exact same day as Ragans’ TJ. Instead of surgery the Rangers and Cody opted to rest his arm for four to six weeks.

Upon returning, Cody started two rehab games in Arizona before being shut down and diagnosed with a torn UCL. He had the surgery on July 19 and had some bone spurs removed in the same procedure. He’ll miss all of 2019, so by the time he returns to game action in April of 2020 it will have been over two and a half years since he’ll have thrown any innings of significance.

It was just a miserable blow for Cody, who, like Palumbo, had broken out the year before his injury. He’d been named the Rangers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after posting a 2.64 ERA across Class-A and High-A ball in 2017. He was expected to start the 2018 season in Frisco.

What’s worse is that Cody isn’t exactly a young prospect, he’ll be 26 by the time the 2020 season is over. When he was healthy, he used his massive, 6’7”, 245-pound body to get good downward-plane action on a mid-to-high-90s fastball, and he features a slider that looks like said fastball until it shows sharp, late break.

Up until the elbow issues, he’d been healthy since the Rangers had drafted him, although the Twins took him the year before the Rangers did but backed out of signing him due to elbow concerns. You’d love to envision Cody as a big-bodied four or five in your rotation and to be able to use him as a workhorse innings eater, but now there’s some question about whether he’ll be able to hold up to that.

Blegh. It’s always something. The Rangers actually had a pretty damn good year on the farm where pitchers are concerned, when you take into account the performances from guys like Hans Crouse and Jonathan Hernandez and Tyler Phillips, but a significant chunk of this upcoming wave has been pushed back a year-plus due because of elbow junk.

I guess we can focus on the silver linings to close out. Cody and Ragans still have significant time to miss, but Ragans will return to the mound by mid-season and we should have a decent idea of where he stands by September. Palumbo could be pitching in DFW in 2019, whether it be in a return to Frisco, or as his first taste of Major League action later on in the season, which is a possibility for the 40-man rosteree if his recovery stays on point. And keep in mind the Rangers have a TON of new arms on the farm, so the loss is somewhat mitigated by some newfound firepower.

But, for the most part, bah humbug.