Washington Nationals build their roster in part by helping rebuild injured players

After he suffered his second major right elbow injury and underwent reconstructive surgery in 2010, Christian Garcia couldn’t find a job. He understood why. Even though he was once a top New York Yankees pitching prospect because of his blazing fastball and cartoonish secondary pitches, he couldn’t stay healthy. His right elbow had undergone three surgeries, two of them ligament replacements, and he was told he had a 5 percent chance of regaining his form.

After 18 months of rehab on his own, Garcia spent four days in July 2011 with the St. Louis Cardinals, who were ready to sign him until the offer was pulled because a team doctor wouldn’t clear his physical. Then Garcia’s agent at the time mentioned that the Washington Nationals had a reputation for giving injured players a chance.

To Garcia’s surprise, after a workout that July, the Nationals offered him a two-year deal, the second contract year giving the right-hander time to build strength. Garcia, 27, rewarded the Nationals, posting gaudy statistics in the minor leagues last season, then earning a September call-up and even making the postseason roster. Despite an unrelated forearm injury this spring, he is still viewed as an important part of the team’s starting depth.

“I wanted a team that was willing to take the risk,” Garcia said. “But not only the risk but the time, because it wasn’t an easy process to go from everything I’ve been through to, you can’t just throw me out there. . . . They give you another chance to live your dream.”

The Nationals have made an art of scooping up players whose stock has dropped, mostly because of injury. They rehab them, perform surgeries if needed and fix their mechanics. Their conservative approach with injured players, evident in their handling of starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, has given them confidence in taking on other potentially risky players and attracted other players in the same situation.

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe predict whether the Nationals will exceed their MLB-best 98 wins in 2013. (Post Sports Live)

“We look for value in players, and you have to look in different areas to find good players,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We don’t go after every hurt player or injured player or rehabbing player, but we do a good job of identifying players that we think can overcome their injuries.”

Taking ‘calculated risks’

Part of the Nationals’ pitch to last year’s first-round pick, Lucas Giolito, to decline a scholarship offer to UCLA and sign with them was reassurance that they would handle his injured elbow with care. The Nationals also selected sweet-hitting infielder Anthony Rendon and left-handed starter Matt Purke, high-ceiling college players whose draft stocks were hurt by shoulder injuries. They took a chance last May on unsigned veteran left-hander Michael Gonzalez, who was coming off knee surgery, and he proved valuable.

Reliever Ryan Mattheus said he was “blown away” when the Nationals traded for him in 2009 when he was only 15 days removed from Tommy John surgery. This winter, while other teams were scared away from signing free agent Dan Haren, the Nationals felt comfortable with the veteran starter’s hip and back, and the treatment they could offer.

“We’re confident,” said Wiemi Douoguih, the Nationals’ medical director, who trained under renowned surgeons Frank Jobe and Lewis Yocum and has worked with James Andrews. “Whether they get the surgery done with us or Yocum or Andrews, we feel like we’re going to get them to the finish line one way or another. We do have a lot of confidence. I also think that we’re very prudent and we try to be conservative about who we take. . . . But there are calculated risks that the team is willing to take sometimes.”

Before the Nationals acquire a player, Douoguih checks his medical records. He evaluates the player’s injury history and relies on peer-reviewed medical literature to help determine the success rates of recovery from certain injuries.

Douoguih said he tries to render his opinion in a vacuum, without knowing how badly Rizzo may want to acquire the player. Then, the two talk. They discuss the medical risks, upsides and downsides, and the team’s front office makes the final call. “In general, what I’ve found is that you err on the conservative side,” Douoguih said.

In Garcia’s case, Rizzo used both medical and scouting opinions. He had seen Garcia pitch in high school and was impressed. The Nationals kept tabs on Garcia and once the Yankees released him, they touched base. Rizzo called a family friend, former Yankees pitching instructor Billy Connors, and heard what he needed to hear about Garcia: that he had the right talent and personality to handle the grueling recovery.

In his first full season with the Nationals in 2012, Garcia was eased along. He said that while in the minors with the Nationals he wasn’t allowed to throw three days in a row, and if he pitched back-to-back he got a day off. To build him up first, Garcia threw two innings at a time, then two days off. Steve Gober, the Nationals’ minor league rehab coordinator and now assistant team trainer, would call often to check in.

“Everything they did had a plan and a reason for anything,” said Garcia, who had heard positive reviews from Chien-Ming Wang, a former Yankees pitcher who was with the Nationals for three seasons, a tenure that began with a lengthy rehabilitation from major shoulder surgery. “And that’s why I think everything went so well.”

‘Knows what they’re doing’

Giolito noticed the Nationals’ approach, too, but from afar. While some criticized the team for shutting down Strasburg last season during a pennant race after the starter had reached an innings limit in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, Giolito appreciated the philosophy. “I see a young guy not being overworked,” he said.

As Giolito and his agent negotiated with the Nationals last July, team officials laid out their plan for him. Giolito, a right-hander who had thrown his fastball 100 mph, had been considered a possible first overall pick before he strained the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow during the spring of his senior season at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, Calif.

Concerns over Giolito’s elbow dropped him to 16th overall, where the Nationals selected him. The team’s top West Coast scout, Mark Baca, came to Giolito’s house to make the initial pitch to convince him to sign instead of going to UCLA. Rizzo talked to both Giolito and his agent, Ryan Hamill at CAA Sports, before signing the prospect for $2.925 million. Rizzo reiterated to Giolito that the organization doesn’t shy away from players with arm trouble and would be prudent with his care.

Both sides knew that Tommy John surgery was a legitimate possibility should Giolito’s arm suffer a setback. That’s what happened when he made his professional debut on Aug. 14 in a Florida Gulf Coast League game. Giolito felt pain in his arm, and two weeks later he was operated on by Yocum, who also performed the same procedure on Zimmermann and Strasburg.

“My parents were very supportive of my decision to come to this organization because they did their research as well and looked and saw Strasburg and Zimmermann,” said Giolito, who plans to throw off a mound this May. “They saw that and were like, ‘Yeah, [you’re] definitely going to an organization that knows what they’re doing as far as your arm.’ ”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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