Before panic sets in regarding the news that Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters has tendinitis in his recently reconstructed throwing elbow, it’s worth noting that this is not an entirely unusual occurrence.
In fact, it’s more expected than not that throwers will feel something approaching soreness at some point along the road to recovery; occasionally it happens even after they have returned to competition. Pitcher Joe Nathan returned to the mound 11 months after his 2010 Tommy John surgery only to go on the DL shortly thereafter due to forearm tightness. Nathan told me it was while he was on the DL receiving treatment to loosen up his forearm that his elbow began to feel “amazing.” When he made his subsequent return to the mound, he knew he had physically approached “normal.”
Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing (right) elbow in mid-June of 2014 after an attempt at conservative rehabilitation failed. While it is certainly less common for position players to require this surgery as compared to pitchers, Wieters’ particular throwing demands as a catcher place repetitive stress on his elbow, which might have contributed to his injury. It is understandable, then, that his return to throwing, like that of a pitcher, needs to be performed in a controlled, progressive manner with attention given to how the elbow responds at each phase. If something crops up that isn’t quite right, the progression is put on hold.
When I visited Orioles camp just one week ago, Wieters told me his progress to date had been remarkably straightforward. He had zero issues with the elbow as far as swinging a bat or hitting nor had he experienced any discomfort with his throwing program. His only limitations revolved around the intensity and volume of his throwing. As of last week, he had been limited to throwing at 80 percent, something he described as “just not putting that last little bit of tension on the ball.” He was eager to test his arm working behind the plate, even as he knew he wouldn’t completely cut loose on the throws.
In his first Grapefruit League appearance Tuesday, Wieters caught six innings in a matchup against the Minnesota Twins. There were no attempted steals during his outing (which would have required harder throws) and his fielding opportunities were limited. In other words, it was an ideal first outing from a situational standpoint. There were no reports of any soreness until the following day, which is often when the response to the next-level demand on a surgically reconstructed elbow makes itself known. According to Orioles manager Buck Showalter, Wieters had felt a little “achiness” on a couple of throws -- nothing severe, but enough to warrant precautionary measures.
Local soreness and inflammation is not unexpected as a player resumes higher-intensity throwing; the key is proactively taking steps to quiet the symptoms before they turn into a larger problem. It appears that is what the Orioles are doing in the hopes that Wieters can resume activity within the span of a week, give or take a few days.
Although Opening Day had been shaping up as a possibility, it was never an absolute. The big picture of Wieters’ elbow health has always been at the forefront of the plan for both him and the team. With that in mind, there’s hope that this is just part of Wieters’ normal recovery process, happening sooner rather than later.