Casey Weathers' Struggles Add To Rough Record Of First-Round Relievers

Follow me on Twitter

Casey Weathers doesn't want to be the proof that not all Tommy John surgeries work out.

If everything goes the way Weathers hopes, he'll be pitching meaningful innings for the Chicago Cubs before long, proving once again that given time and innings, elbow ligament replacement allows a pitcher to get back to where he was before the injury.

Stuff-wise Weathers is back to where he was pre-surgery. His fastball will still touch 96-97 mph as it did before he had his elbow ligament repaired, and his biting slider can still generate swings and misses. That's what got him drafted eighth overall by the Rockies in 2007 when he was coming out of Vanderbilt.

But Weathers says the elbow injury may have affected more than just his stuff. He got into some bad habits as he tried to baby his elbow. He used his shoulders more to rotate to try to take stress of his elbow. The results have been problems with overrotating and struggling to stay on line to the plate.

"It's about getting to a simple mechanical delivery. It's about getting to where I can repeat something consistently," Weathers said. "Two years of bad habits don't just go away."

Pre-injury, Weathers appeared to be on the fast track to the big leagues. In his abbreviated first pro season he struck out 21 batters while allowing just six hits in 15 innings. He showed strikeout stuff the next season as well in a solid 2-1, 3.05 season with Double-A Tulsa. The Rockies expected to see Weathers in Denver at some point during the 2009 season.

First-round college relievers since 2001:
2001: Jason Bulger
2002: Royce Ring
2003: Ryan Wagner, Chad Cordero, David Aardsma
2004: Bill Bray
2005: Craig Hansen, Joey Devine
2007: Casey Weathers
2008: Andrew Cashner, Joshua Fields, Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth, Carlos Gutierrez.
2009: Drew Storen
2011: Chris Reed
But all of that changed when he tore his elbow ligament during the Arizona Fall League after the 2008 season. He missed all of the 2009 season, as was to be expected. But when he returned to action in 2010, he found his ability to find the plate had not come back nearly as quickly as his fastball. Colorado traded Weathers to the Cubs along with D.J. LeMahieu last December in the deal that sent Tyler Colvin to the Rockies.

The stuff may be the same and his mechanics are cleaner than they were pre-injury. But he isn't throwing as many strikes as he used to. Even at his best, Weathers' control balanced on the tightrope of being just good enough to allow his dominating stuff to be effective. He walked 5.6 batters per nine innings pre-injury, which was sustainable only because he gave up very few hits.

Post-surgery, Weathers walks roughly a batter per inning. This season, he'd walked batters in four of his first five outings, all short outings of two to four outs. Currently he's 1-0, 3.12 with 12 walks and nine strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings pitched.

"I was never a control guy, but I wasn't a more walks than innings pitched guy either," Weathers said.

Trending Down

No matter how Weathers' career turns out, his offseason trade offers yet further proof that drafting college relievers in the first round, in vogue through much of the past decade, is not nearly as risk-free as teams once thought.

When teams started drafting college relievers in the first round in significant numbers in the early 2000s, there were two prevailing reasons why: they could move extremely quickly to the big leagues, giving teams a nearly instant payoff for their first-round pick; and they had fewer innings on their arms than the average college starter.

When the Expos drafted Chad Cordero in 2003, he lived up to the expectations of a quick impact. Cordero needed only 19 minor league games to be ready for a promotion to Montreal. By 2004, he had won the team's closer job, a role he would fill until a labrum tear effectively ended his career in 2008.

But Cordero's story has proven to be exceptional. Until Drew Storen was drafted by the now-Nationals in 2009, no other first-round college reliever has become a big league closer. No other first-round college reliever has more than 10 career saves.

And while the relievers generally had fewer innings on their arms from their college days then first-round starters, they haven't proven particularly resilient. Of the 16 first-rounders, eight missed significant time due to injury within the first five years of being drafted.

Weather already counts as one of the eight to be injured. He doesn't want to be added to the list of first-round busts. As long as he has plus stuff, he still has hopes that some improvements to his delivery can get him back on track.

"That what makes the journey is a little bit easier. I have recovered from surgery," he said. "The (Tommy John surgery) did what it needed to do. The stuff is there. It's comforting but it's frustrating. If I'm attacking and aggressive, I'll probably have the results I want more often than not. I know in the back of my head that this will work."