10 young pitchers whose workload limits may not be an issue during a shortened 2020 MLB season

Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring training has been suspended and Opening Day has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and that remains subject to change as the situation develops.

The pandemic will have a real on-field impact this season, the extent of which we won’t fully understand until we know exactly when the season can begin. The New York Yankees, for example, could have some or all of their injured players in the lineup on Opening Day depending when Opening Day gets played. That certainly changes their season outlook.

At this point a shortened regular season is inevitable. MLB and the MLBPA are hoping to play 140 games, which seems optimistic, but is an acknowledgement 162 games is no longer on the table. I don’t know whether they’ll play 60 games, or 80, or 140 this year. I just know it won’t be 162. There is no way to do that now without playing into December.

For many young pitchers, a shortened season could mean their workload limits aren’t as much of a concern in 2020. Fewer games equals fewer innings to cover, and that could mean teams no longer have to skip starts to protect their young pitchers, or shut them down completely a la Stephen Strasburg in 2012. The reins could be loosened.

It should be noted teams are much smarter about workload limits now than they were even five years ago. It is not nearly as simply as counting raw innings and not exceeding the prior year’s workload by some number. They use data to track arm angles and mechanics, and watch for other indicators of fatigue and stress, then adjust on the fly.

Here are the 10 young pitchers, listed alphabetically, who may have bumped up against an innings limit during a full 2020 season, but now could be turned loose during a shortened regular season.

The Yankees moved 20-year-old righty Deivi Garcia to the bullpen in Triple-A late last season, partly to prepare him for a potential big-league role (he was never called up) and partly to limit his workload. New York has a decent amount of rotation depth ahead of Garcia, but he’s very talented and could force his way into the picture. If he does, the Yankees may not want him throwing more than 130-140 innings at such a young age. Following the shutdown, that could be enough to cover the entire season.

Since being included in the Chris Sale trade, Michael Kopech quickly developed into one of the game’s top pitching prospects with the White Sox, and he made his MLB debut in 2018. Four starts later he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Kopech has completed his rehab and is expected to be play a big role this season, though the ChiSox will have to be cautious with him in Year 1 with his new elbow ligament. Getting him back to his 2018 innings total may have been the goal prior to the shutdown. In that case, Kopech could be in position to pitch the entire season without restrictions.

Tommy John surgery as an amateur and shoulder trouble in 2019 have limited Athletics lefty Jesus Luzardo to 210 2/3 professional innings in three seasons. He is electric though, and he locked up a spot in Oakland’s rotation prior to the shutdown. Sending him out there for 180 innings was 2020 was not realistic. A more reasonable target would’ve been 140 innings, maybe 150, and that would’ve necessitated skipping starts or a shutdown. Now those 140-150 innings could cover the entire season.

The man they call “Gingergaard” for his long red hair and Noah Syndergaard-esque power stuff may not have a spot in the Dodgers rotation on Opening Day, but Dustin May should see plenty of action with the team this year. Los Angeles loves to give its starters extra rest whenever possible, so spot starts will be available, and May is presumably first in line for starts should an injury strike (plus teams could play regular doubleheaders to make up games). May’s workload has been built up diligently over the years, so he’s in position to contribute 170 innings or more in 2020, which should be more than enough in a shortened season.

Technically, Phillies prospect Spencer Howard’s career high is the 116 innings he threw between college and pro ball in 2017. That’s still not all that many, and after the right-hander missed time with a shoulder issue last season, you can be sure the Phillies were planning to handle him with kid gloves in 2020. The best-case scenario might be 150 innings. They may not want to push him beyond that given his importance to their future. Following the shutdown, suddenly carrying Howard in the big-league rotation all season is much more doable.

Similar to Luzardo, there was never any doubt the A’s would monitor A.J. Puk’s workload in 2020. He returned from Tommy John surgery last June and suffered a minor shoulder strain in spring training. Being cautious is the only way to go with a pitcher this young and this talented. Puk is not quite as locked into a rotation spot as Luzardo, but he figures to get a long look this year, and the shutdown will make keeping him in the rotation much easier. The A’s may not want to push him more than 100 innings in his first full season following elbow reconstruction.

No young pitcher generated as much buzz in spring training as Blue Jays righty Nate Pearson. He was electric, striking out 11 in seven innings before the shutdown, and forcing Toronto to consider carrying him on the Opening Day roster. Pearson finally cleared the 100-inning plateau last year — a bad luck injury limited him to one regular season start in 2018 (a line drove broke his forearm) — and the Blue Jays likely had him penciled in for 140 innings or so in 2020. Service-time manipulation aside, Pearson is now in position to throw a substantial number of big-league innings this season.

Thanks to Tommy John surgery in 2016, Padres righty Chris Paddack did not throw more than 90 innings in a single season until last year. San Diego spaced out his starts last season — Paddack had at least five days of rest for all 26 starts — and they shut him down in mid-September to control his workload. Because he has only once thrown 100 innings in a season, the Padres figure to remain cautious in 2020, though pushing Paddack to 160 innings or so seems doable.

It is remarkable Dodgers lefty Julio Urias pitched as well as he did in 2019 (2.49 ERA in 79 2/3 big league innings). He had his shoulder capsule repaired in 2017 and shoulder capsule surgery is usually a kiss of death. Pitchers have it and come back looking nothing like who they were prior to surgery. John Danks, Rich Harden, Mark Prior, and Johan Santana are among its many victims. Urias looked great though, which is good news for Los Angeles. He is slated to return to the rotation this year and it’s hard to see the Dodgers pushing him beyond 130 innings or so seeing how he’s only thrown 97 1/3 innings since the surgery.

A year ago at this time Astros righty Forrest Whitley was arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball. Shoulder trouble wrecked his 2019 season — Whitley allowed 54 runs and 103 baserunners in 59 2/3 regular season innings — and now he’s something of an unknown going into 2020. The good news: Whitley looked more like himself in the Arizona Fall League, meaning a dominating power starter with ace-caliber potential. Given the recent arm injury, Houston figured to play it safe with its prized young arm this year, though 120 innings or so seemed like a distinct possibility before the shutdown. Those innings could go a long way now.

Other young pitchers with potential workload limits in 2020: RHP Dylan Cease, White Sox; RHP Mitch Keller, Pirates; LHP Patrick Sandoval, Angels; RHP Touki Toussaint and RHP Kyle Wright, Braves

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