First off, if I'm going to analyze baseball I need to read more carefully. Friday's S.F. Chronicle had a headline in the Sporting Green that said, "Sandoval Asking For 6-Year Deal" and I read it as "Sandoval Asking For 6-Year Meal". Anyhow, either way we can't afford him.
I say that I am introducing you, today, to two A's prospects because that is essentially what Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin have become. The range of "ceiling" to "floor" for a Tommy John Surgery survivor is about as vast as that of many prospects. Make it TJS #2 and the data pool shrinks while the outlook seems to range from "bleak" to "honestly, I have no clue".
What can we reasonably expect from Parker and Griffin going forward?
For Parker, trying to come back from a second TJS, he faces a few obstacles. One is that the most successful starting pitcher with two TJS scars is Chris Capuano, who will likely not get the votes needed to elect him into the Hall of Fame. (Although I guess some elbow ligament could be displayed.) There isn't that much track record (43 pitchers, 26 of whom came back to pitch again, 7 of whom didn't, plus 10 who are currently attempting to come back), but the data that does exist suggests that it is far from a slam dunk that Parker will come back as a successful starting pitcher.
However, the track record for relievers is better. Joakim Soria has come back recently to lose just 1 MPH off his fastball between surgeries. Brian Wilson came back from TJS #2 throwing at the same velocity as after TJS #1, which was 1 MPH down from before he first went under the knife. Shawn Kelley is another two-time TJS survivor who has come back strong (67 Ks in 51 IP in 2014), throwing 92MPH as compared to the 93MPH he threw when he first came up with Seattle.
If the A's were to put Parker in the bullpen, and if Parker were to lose 1MPH off his fastball, with his excellent changeup and serviceable breaking stuff, it's not a stretch to think that Jarrod could become a very good set-up man or even closer. Think LaTroy Hawkins or perhaps Jason Frasor.
But don't think of Koji Uehara, Keith Foulke, or Trevor Hoffman. Why not? Because what distinguishes those relievers is not their changeup/splitter but rather their impeccable control. Those relievers thrived partly because they could paint and they didn't walk batters.
Parker has never been like that, and if there's anything to which TJS is unkind it's control. PItchers coming back from TJS seem to take longest to regain their command even after velocity and stuff have returned.
As for Griffin, he joins a much larger pool of "one TJS" survivors. Griffin never relied heavily on velocity, but has always had excellent control. If Griffin's command returns he will probably be successful in the rotation with or without losing a tick on his fastball. It just may take a while to regain the command Griffin relies on in order to be successful.
So if you were putting "best odds" on it, you might foresee Parker coming back around June, 2015 as an effective set-up man and Griffin coming back to struggle in the rotation initially -- perhaps his HR-rate makes you pine for his old HR-rate, which was already his achilles heel -- but then settling after the All-Star break into being the effective middle-of-the-rotation SP he had become when he got hurt.
Or will their elbows break down again? Here there appears to be relatively little risk ... to the A's, anyway. As this article notes, usually there is a honeymoon period of around four years where the transplanted tendon becomes a ligament, and one with less wear and tear on it at that.
After that, a pitcher might be vulnerable based on the fact that his mechanics and/or repertoire damaged the elbow once, or twice, so it stands to reason it could well happen again. But in this case, probably not on Oakland's watch.
In Parker's case, his repertoire is not particularly a red flag for TJS. He does not snap off a lot of breaking pitches and of all pitches, the 4-seam and 2-seam fastball, and the changeup, put the least strain on a pitcher's elbow. In Parker's case it could be his mechanics or it could be genetics, but I can't see any value in tweaking his pitches.
With Griffin, though, there is some evidence that his repertoire could relate to his injury. Griffin came up throwing a fastball, cutter, curve, and changeup, but abandoned the cutter because it bothered his elbow. He replaced the cutter with a slider, but a slider is no easier a pitch on the elbow and it was fairly soon after that Griffin succumbed to TJS.
So it appears that Griffin's elbow may not tolerate the torque of either the cutter or slider. The bad news is that you give up something when you subtract a pitch from your arsenal. The good news is that neither the cutter nor the slider was ever among Griffin's "signature pitches" -- he has always thrived on the combination of fastball command and a slow curve that gets "behind the bat speed" and his changeup is an effective third pitch.
How successful can Griffin be with a simpler repertoire of "fastball, curve, and changeup"? With his excellent command back I would think Griffin could be plenty effective without putting the strain on his elbow that the cutter and slider require.
It is, of course, especially easy for me to conclude all this sitting in my dining room typing on a laptop. I love my job.