PROGRAMMING NOTE: After months of hibernation, Morning Brushback returns.
VIERA — The Cincinnati Reds wanted Bronson Arroyo back. They were willing to take a chance on their soon-to-be 39-year-old former starter, despite the fact that he missed all of 2015 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, because they wanted someone to mentor young pitchers. Arroyo, laid back and gregarious, could do that.
But the Washington Nationals made an offer to Arroyo, too — a better one, from his perspective. So he called their new manager, Dusty Baker, for whom he’d worked in Cincinnati for six seasons. Baker told Arroyo the choice was his, to be made “on a mountaintop,” where he could make a personal decision for himself.
“Then he called me back 15 minutes later,” Arroyo said. “and said, ‘nah nah I need you on this ballclub.'”
Arroyo threw at least 199 innings in six straight seasons for Baker in Cincinnati, but has not pitched in the majors since July 2014, when he tore his UCL while pitching for the Diamondbacks. He had Tommy John surgery shortly after, a procedure that sent him on an unexpected, unparalleled odyssey.
Almost a year into Arroyo’s rehab, in June of last year, Diamondbacks General Manager Dave Stewart called Arroyo into his office in the middle of a game. He told Arroyo he’d been traded to the Braves, big contract, rebuilding arm and all.
Arroyo laughed, unable to believe anyone would want someone being paid so much to pitch so little. But he left his house in Arizona to move to Orlando, where the Braves trained. A month later, the Braves traded him to the Dodgers. He moved back into the house he’d been living in while with the Diamondbacks, and commuted to Dodgers camp each day to continue rehab.
“Honestly, I think I got the opportunity to be around three different organizations and see what their ideas were of getting healthy, which was cool, because I got to deal with more than just one,” Arroyo said. “The Diamondback guys were amazing, then I got to go into Atlanta and see what they thought of what the Diamondback guys did, and I got to go to the Dodgers and bounce ideas off them. So I felt like it was a well-rounded rehab.”
As Arroyo began to throw more, he could not shake what he described as an eraser-sized pain in that right elbow, which bothered him when he tried to throw hard, which in his case means high 80s. So the Dodgers shut him down in early October, and he got an injection. Slowly, he felt scar tissue dissipating. By December, he could play catch again. The last two or three months, he said Thursday, proceeded as they might before any other season.
“For me, the only question mark, is can I throw the ball hard repetitively, over and over and over again on four days rest and not have my elbow swell up,” Arroyo said. “Because if the health’s there, my body feels good enough to compete like I have the last few years.”
Since his early years in Pittsburgh, then in Boston, Arroyo’s style of competing includes mixing, matching, and hitting spots. His stuff never jumped out at anyone, more steady than showy, which made him wary when deciding to jump to a new team when no one knew exactly how much he had left. Baker, Assistant General Manager Bob Miller (formerly of the Reds), new trainer Paul Lessard (also from the Reds) and others saw Arroyo at his best. He figured they wouldn’t jump to judgment.
“I tend to be the type of guy who’s not gonna wow you with my bullpens or half my starts, but I’ve been steady enough and consistent enough — you need to see that over a long period of time,” Arroyo said. “and I needed someone who could trust in that process with me.”
Arroyo asked Baker for honesty. With a near-guaranteed roster spot in familiar Cincinnati, and his career effectively in the balance, he wanted to be sure there was a “true opportunity” to make the Nationals’ 25-man roster with a strong spring training. Baker said he hadn’t seen everyone the Nationals had yet, but that he expected Arroyo could make the team if he were healthy. He also said he couldn’t guarantee it.
“I said ‘I’m not looking for any guarantees,” Arroyo said. “I understand that.”
Arroyo arrived at Nationals camp Thursday, with shoulder-length blond hair flecked with grey, slender and smiling. He gave hugs to Miller and former Reds reliever Nick Masset, a non-roster invitee. He shook hands with Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark, dropping “what’s up brother?” to nearly everyone he saw, immediately providing evidence to support his reputation as a positive clubhouse presence. But after 15 big league seasons, dreadlocks and an album, Arroyo feels the end coming, and knows he must fight to fend it off.
“I’m back to being a 22-year-old kid competing against guys, except now I’m the old guy. I’m the John Burkett when I was young. I’m the guy with the greasy, grimy old glove I’ve been using for 10 years,” Arroyo said. “It’s just the way it is. We all have to deal with the fact that the body goes down hill over time, and there’s testosterone-filled young kids coming in every day trying to take your job.”
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY: 45
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