Medical and Prospect Experts Weigh In: Rymer Liriano

Rymer Liriano burst on to the prospect scene in 2011 when he seemingly out of nowhere put together a .319/.383/.499 line in 116 games with the Fort Wayne Tincaps to take home Midwest League MVP honors. Baseball experts quickly took notice as Liriano shot up prospect lists and became a name to watch as he headed to the California League for 2012 as a five-tool 21-year-old looking to solidify himself as a blue chip player.

Liriano got off to yet another slow start – as he had become accustomed to doing in his brief career – but managed to rebound nicely before holding his own in a 53-game stint in Double-A. While Liriano’s career hadn’t taken off as many inside the Padres’ organization had hoped, he had put together a respectable season against advanced competition.

After a strong showing over winter in the Arizona Fall League, Liriano appeared to be ready to head back to Double-A for a few hundred at-bats before the need for a replacement in San Diego. Then, while training at the Padres’ Dominican facility a few weeks ago, Liriano tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) while playing catch, which required Tommy John surgery.

“I felt a pop in my elbow,” Liriano told Corey Brock.

The Padres are hoping to have Liriano on a recovery timetable that will have him playing in the Arizona Fall League in early October – an eight-month recovery – but as Dan Wade of Fangraphs.com notes, the recovery time of hitters from a UCL tear isn’t an established process.

“Unlike with pitchers, we don’t have the sheer number of cases needed to establish a solid timetable,” Wade said by email. “The timetable for position players is definitely shorter than it is for pitchers, but it isn’t exactly short.”

Wade also brought up the case of Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2007 and was back on June 1 of 2008. Choo went on in 2008 to post the best slash line of his career – .309/.397/.549 – in 94 games without playing a single game as the Indians’ designated hitter.

Rehab

Much of Liriano’s time over the next several months will be spent in the training room as he works his way back. While there will be positive signs to watch out for during this process, like Liriano playing catch and taking batting practices, Wade cautions that most of the important hurdles will be passed behind closed doors.

“Once he’s throwing, that’s a good sign, taking BP is a good sign since it means he has passed the tests that came before, but from the rehab coordinator’s standpoint, it’s all about how he’s doing in flexibility, mobility, and strength tests out of camera view.”

The Padres’ training staff will be looking to build the surrounding muscles around Liriano’s elbow during rehab, which will help to aid him once he resumes the types of activities that test the newly repaired ligament. While expert consensus tends to require up to 24 months before a pitcher has fully recovered from surgery, Wade noted that post-rehab Liriano should only be limited by his own confidence in his elbow.

Prospect Status

While it appears Liriano won’t suffer any long-term limitations from surgery, his baseball development will surely take a hit as he’ll lose regular season at-bats and a potential September call up in 2013.

Baseball America Executive Editor Jim Callis voiced a similar opinion, “It’s a concern because he’s going to lose 500 plate appearances this year, and that’s what he needs more than anything. He’ll only be 22 and in Double-A when he returns in 2014, but he still could use those plate appearances.”

But for the future, Callis remains hopeful in Liriano’s prospect status.

“His ceiling remains the same as a right fielder with solid to plus tools across the board,” Callis said. “His likelihood of reaching it may be diminished slightly because of the lost plate appearances, but it’s not like this injury throws his career in doubt.”

One final component to keep an eye on as Liriano gets closer to in-game action will be his swing and arm mechanics. While we are admittedly trying to draw conclusions without the depth of knowledge of the situation that the Padres have, Wade offers an interesting thought:

“The fact that he tore his UCL in a non-contact situation means something about his game was straining that joint in a way that’s going to be continually problematic if it isn’t addressed.

“I haven’t watched enough of him to know whether his throwing motion was bad or whether he was an all-arms swinger at the plate, but something about his game is going to change. I trust the Padres not to mess with him any more than necessary — they know full well that getting him back as a shell of himself is simply not an option — but if things look a little different, I wouldn’t immediately blame the surgery for the change.”

*****

Thanks to Dan Wade and Jim Callis for their insights.

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  • For a prospect like Cañoncito, how much of a hit does his stock take if his arm is downgraded to merely good?

  • That’s a great point about what how the UCL injury during a non-contact situation might require a closer look at his game in general. Good stuff, Jeff.

  • Great stuff, Jeff.