It's likely not a big deal, but any time a Cy Young winner is questionable for the start of the season, it's not nothing, either.
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Max Scherzer, dealing with the lingering effects of a stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger, was not ready to pitch off a mound Thursday. Scherzer told reporters the fracture is "essentially healed" but was noncommittal when asked about his availability for Opening Day.
“I don’t even want to comment on [Opening Day], because I don’t even know what I’m going to be able to do or not,” said Scherzer. “It’d be unfair for me to even project or even talk about that.”
Athletes are eternal optimists -- or habitual liars, maybe -- when it comes to their recovery from injury, so the fact that Scherzer is hedging on his readiness for the start of the season is the first alarm. Also worrisome is the fact that a stress fracture sustained months ago hasn't fully healed with rest.
Any time missed, especially if days turn into weeks, would be a disaster for the Nationals and fantasy owners alike after the 32-year-old was awarded his second Cy Young Award, this time as a National League pitcher, in 2016. The right-hander took home the hardware after going 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 284 strikeouts in 228 1/3 innings. The wins, WHIP, strikeouts and innings were league highs among qualified pitchers.
Perhaps all that work in 2016 will backfire in 2017. Scherzer currently can't properly grip a baseball -- he used a modified grip during a throwing session Thursday, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post -- and as such, has yet to begin a throwing program in advance of Opening Day.
“I was able to keep some functionality in my arm,” Scherzer said of his offseason program. “Elbow, shoulder, lat, that chain all that feels good and is on pace to take on an expedited throwing program.”
Scherzer has started the past two Opening Days for the Nats, but if he's unable to go, that honor would likely go to Stephen Strasburg, whose health is always a question but who had a relatively quiet offseason. And if Scherzer misses turns in the rotation, it's likely A.J. Cole, who has made nine starts with the club over the past two seasons, will get the first look, assuming a surprise candidate doesn't emerge in spring.
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Wheeler Suffers Early Setback
Also from the "likely minor setback, possible bigger issue" department is the right elbow of Zack Wheeler.
The right-hander, who hasn't pitched in a major league game since the 2014 season, had his scheduled bullpen session Friday pushed back after feeling some tenderness in the elbow during Wednesday's bullpen session. Wheeler is now eyeing Saturday or Sunday for that next mound session.
Mets manager Terry Collins didn't seem too concerned, likening Wheeler's situation to out-of-shape beat writers being asked to exert a lot of physical effort on the spot.
“I know you guys are finely tuned athletes sitting out there right now,” Collins said. “But I can guarantee you that if I asked you to go sprint to second base right now, tomorrow you’re going to be sore. And that’s what he did, basically. For the first time in two years he got on the mound, and he thought he had to start exerting himself a little bit and his elbow is a little flared up.”
If nothing else, the incident is a reminder of Wheeler's past and his limitations in 2017. Wheeler underwent Tommy John surgery ahead of the 2015 season, missing that entire season as a result, and last year he experienced a number of setbacks on his way back to the majors before being shut down in early August.
Having not made a start with the big club since 2014, the 26-year-old wasn't expected to carry any sort of workload approximating a full season's worth of starts. In a best-case scenario, the team was reportedly hoping Wheeler could log upwards of 100 innings in 2017.
Although it's not ideal, the Mets do have options outside of Wheeler for that fifth rotation spot. Both Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo are being given a chance to win the spot in spring along with Wheeler, and with the Mets' pitching woes, both could be auditioning for big roles with the club this spring.
Quick Hits: A's manager Bob Melvin told reporters Thursday that Jharel Cotton has a "leg up" on the No. 4 spot in the season-opening starting rotation. And rightly so after the 25-year-old delivered a 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 23/4 K/BB ratio over his first 29 1/3 major league innings (five starts) in 2016. Cotton carries high-level fantasy upside into 2017 with half of his starts scheduled for one of baseball's best pitcher parks ... Evan Gattis received an anti-inflammatory injection in his right shoulder on Wednesday. Gattis skipped catching a bullpen session on Wednesday in order to get the injection, but he doesn't think it's anything serious. He should be fine in the next few days ... Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Hyun-Jin Ryu (elbow, shoulder) was sitting 84-86 mph with his fastball in his latest bullpen session. Ryu is not the hardest thrower, but that's still well below the norm for him. Roberts told reporters that the club will begin watching Ryu closely to determine whether he's healthy and maybe over-protecting his surgically-repaired left arm ... Dodgers signed RHP Sergio Romo to a one-year, $3 million contract. Romo is expected to work as a setup man for closer Kenley Jansen during the coming season, and if Jansen misses time, Romo's fantasy value suddenly skyrockets ... Nationals signed 1B Adam Lind to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with a $5 million mutual option for 2018. He'll likely just be on the right side of a platoon with Ryan Zimmerman at first base, but Lind will at least be an interesting DFS play against susceptible right-handed pitching in a good Nationals lineup ... Wilson Ramos (knee) said Tuesday that he's still hoping to return as a designated hitter at some point in May. This comes after Bill Chastian of MLB.com wrote earlier this week that Ramos "will not likely be ready to play until July, and he probably won't be able to catch until August." Stay tuned ... Rangers signed 1B Mike Napoli to a one-year, $8.5 million contract with an $11 million club option for 2018. Napoli will make $6 million in 2017 with a $2.5 million buyout on the option for 2018. Thus the $8.5 million guarantee ... The Yankees made official their one-year, $3.5 million deal with Chris Carter ... Blue Jays signed RHP Mat Latos to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training ... Rays signed RHP Tommy Hunter to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Obviously targeting low-risk relief options, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports that the Rays have also shown interest in free agent Brian Wilson, who has reinvented himself as a knuckleballer ... Sean Rodriguez underwent surgery Tuesday to repair the rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Rodriguez, who signed a two-year deal with the Braves earlier this winter, suffered the unfortunate injury in a car crash on January 28. The expectation is that he'll miss the entire season, precipitating the team's recent acquisition of Brandon Phillips.