FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is almost certain Eduardo Rodriguez, Tyler Thornburg, and Steven Wright will be placed on the disabled list before the Red Sox season starts. All three pitchers are coming back from surgery.
For them, progress in spring training can’t yet be measured by box scores or how opposing hitters react. Their victories come on a bullpen mound with only a few coaches and teammates watching.
On Wednesday morning, all three had important days in their recovery.
Thornburg threw 20 fastballs off the mound, the most work he has done since having thoracic outlet surgery last June to solve a nerve problem in his shoulder.
Rodriguez was able to throw 35 pitches, all fastballs and changeups. He feels he’s recovered from surgery on his right knee and is focused only on pitching.
Wright, who had cartilage restoration surgery on his left knee in May, started throwing from halfway up the mound, then got to the top for the first time since his procedure and threw 10 more pitches.
Manager Alex Cora sat on the dirt a few feet behind catcher Christian Vazquez to get a better look at Thornburg’s pitches.
“Conviction is what I saw,” he said. “He’s throwing the ball with conviction. The feedback from Christian was great.”
After Thornburg was done, Cora gave him a hug. Several of the athletic trainers also were there to congratulate Thornburg. Cora said it was a big day for them, too, given all the work they did guiding Thornburg’s recovery.
“I felt like I could have thrown more, which is probably one of the better feelings you can have afterwards,” Thornburg said.
The Red Sox traded four players to acquire Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2016 season. For now, it’s one of the worst deals Dave Dombrowski has made.
Thornburg was unable to pitch last season, breaking down a week into spring training. The Brewers got 31 home runs and 101 RBIs from Travis Shaw and like the three prospects they got in the deal.
In 2016, Thornburg had a 2.15 earned run average over 67 games and struck out 90. He was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game. If Thornburg returns to even an approximation of that, the Sox will have a far deeper bullpen.
Thornburg said he felt no restriction in his shoulder and will now work on building endurance and velocity. He feels better physically than he did during his breakthrough ’16 season.
“I was doing a bunch of stuff to get ready on a daily basis,” Thornburg said. “I found ways to deal with it. That makes me giddy to get on a mound again and get in games. If I never have those issues, how could do I feel I can be?”
Wright was more concerned with how his knee felt, not the movement of his knuckleball. That he was able to push off his knee aggressively made all the difference.
“I threw last year with so much pain and discomfort. To finally get on the mound and throw with some force on it, it felt good. Like a little victory,” he said.
Knuckleball sensei Tim Wakefield was in camp for the first time to work with Wright. He made a few suggestions and liked what he saw.
“It was nice to get some critiquing,” Wright said. “When he said something, I could feel it and fix it.”
How quickly Wright recovers will determine what happens next. His knee still occasionally gets tight.
The Sox hope Wright will be able to pitch at some point in spring training then start a minor league rehab assignment to build up innings.
The same will be true for Rodriguez, although he is more advanced at this stage.
“I’ll start working the bullpens and see where it goes,” said the lefthander, who is scheduled for 45 pitches on Saturday. From there he could start live batting practice.
Rodriguez said his knee feels strong and he’s able to get full extension on the mound with confidence. He’ll soon start to mix in breaking balls.
He was 6-7 with a 4.19 ERA last season, throwing every pitch wondering whether his kneecap would stay in place.
“It wasn’t me all the time. Now things are different,” he said.
Wright was 13-6 with a 3.33 ERA in 24 starts in 2016 before lasting only five games last season. Rodriguez, only 24, has 65 starts in the majors and a 4.23 ERA. Once healthy, they would give the Red Sox good options to fill a spot in the rotation that is now open.
In all, the Sox have five players in camp recovering from surgery. They’re usually among the early arrivals to the clubhouse to get treatment before workouts.
It’s a club nobody wants to be in.
“We’re pushing each other all the time,” Rodriguez said. “For myself, I’m thinking about getting my knee ready to go and getting on the mound as quick as I can.”