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Banking on John Danks as an asset

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In the Spring, every possible box on the positivity checklist is marked, so perhaps there’s no real reason to pay any more attention to claims that the post-shoulder capsule tear version of John Danks has regained his previous powers than ‘Jeff Keppinger has renewed focus’ headlines. But they are here, and this one was brought by Chuck Garfien:

“Of all the moves the White Sox made this offseason, maybe the best improvement to the team had nothing to do with trades or free agent signings, but with the health inside the shoulder of a certain $65 million left-handed pitcher.”

This is phrased oddly. The health inside the shoulder? Like a secret stash of health? Anyway, this is the same line used for Alex Rios and Adam Dunn going into 2012, and while it felt then and feels now like a strained argument to explain reduced spending, banking on a bounce back from career lows has worked out before.

But Danks is not simply dealing with the pains of approaching his early 30’s. When he says he’s physically fine, there’s less inherent reason to trust him. His compatriots in pitchers that have suffered shoulder capsule tears doubles as a list of ruined careers: Johan Santana, Mark Prior, Dallas Braden, Chris Young, Robb Nen, Chien Ming-Wang, Rich Harden, and other sad names.

At the risk of making last Spring’s optimism look dishonest, the Sox are putting all their eggs–ever so fragile eggs–into the basket of another year removed from surgery providing renewed strength for Danks.

“Obviously, he wasn’t the same John Danks, and him being only 10 to 14 months post-op, it’s not a surprise the ball wasn’t coming out of his hand quite the way it had in the past,” said general manager Rick Hahn. “This was always going to be the litmus test, 18 months post-op, which is where he will be sitting on Opening Day or sometime in March.”

Danks’ big selling point on a superior follow-up year is that a lot of pitchers simply don’t have it. Re-injuries are common and debilitating, so if Danks flies through 30-plus starts without issues, he’ll start entering unfamiliar territory.

You’d be further hard-pressed to find an example of a year-to-year velocity jump for a post-shoulder capsule surgery hurler. Pitchers of Danks’ age and mileage are already seeing the slow and steady drip of miles off their fastball begin, and it’d be quite a feat for Danks to still be throwing easy 93’s to the plate this year if he had gone through 400 innings of healthy work rather than two years of surgery, rehab and struggle. Farther time out from surgery is not irrelevant to Danks’ abilities, and Brooks Baseball shows that he indeed got marginally stronger as 2013 wore on, but expecting time to allow him to light up the radar guns is a long shot.

More than anything seen to the naked eye last year, Danks needs to be able to work the glove side again. Too rare in 2013 was the sight of Danks boring into a right-handed hitter with a fine cutter and calmly retrieving a sawed-off grounder as a reward for his work. He stayed on the outside with his change-up, and when he challenged hitters, he was often punished. If having his prime velocity is the difference between Danks being able to attack hitters, then things don’t look good for him. If the hope is that a year of regular conditioning and throwing improves his command and gives him a better feel of his pitches and where he can put them, which in turn, gives him the confidence to work both sides of the plate with vigor again, then we have something.

A post-surgery Danks returning to his old self would be quite the repudiation of the history of shoulder capsule tears. As inspiring as that sounds, I tend to place my sights lower with my White Sox expectations. Instructions for Danks to ‘pitch like Buehrle’ sound unhelpful and misleading, but the basic idea of adjusting to physical limitations is key. Until Danks shows the ability to thrive with what he’s got, calling him a big off-season addition or counting on him to transform back into one is a bridge too far.

Like most of this roster, he’s a lottery ticket. It’s great to close your eyes and dream on his maximum reward, but there’s a reason the lottery is a profitable business, and it’s not because it makes every dream come true.

 

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