Pirates pitcher Craig Hansen watches Tyler Yates do rehab drills Monday in Bradenton, Fla.
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. -- They are the Rehab 5, their own five-man rotation of recovering arms and shoulders. Five guys who toss, work out and, perhaps most painful of all, wait together. Five pitchers who won't pitch for the Pirates or Class AAA Indianapolis until probably June or July.
When 61 players packed up Monday to move to McKechnie Field, where the Pirates' exhibition season is scheduled to begin today in the annual charity game against the local State College of Florida/Manatee-Sarasota, they will be the five left behind with the 150 minor leaguers invading Pirate City.
"I have a lot of company over there," Jose Ascanio said of the quintet.
"I'd rather be playing," Craig Hansen said.
"It is a little difficult," Neal Cotts said.
"Absolutely," Tyler Yates said, adding that the waiting is the hardest part. "It's driving me nuts."
Throw in Jimmy Barthmaier and there you have the five Pirates pitchers rehabilitating at what seems to them a glacial pace.
Flip the calendar ahead, however, and you see a potentially instantaneous glut of bullpen additions.
"It is a little bit unusual," said general manager Neal Huntington, who re-signed Yates and signed Cotts this winter after each had midsummer Tommy John surgery that requires at least a calendar year to heal. "But if you look at it, some clubs had some success doing that because they were willing to make that commitment early. Rather than trying to sign a guy in July for your bullpen."
Yates, Hansen, Barthmaier and Ascanio all "are guys we have knowledge of or, in Neal's case, a guy we liked for years," Huntington added. "That's part of the thought process: Try to acquire as many good arms as we can to give ourselves some options. We may all of the sudden have some reinforcements in June or July."
Barthmaier started it all, walking the two batters he faced in his opening start, which also became his closing start of 2009. He had Tommy John surgery in May. Then, a dozen July days apart, came the same operation for Yates, after 15 Pirates games, and Cotts, after 19 Chicago Cubs appearances. Ascanio had shoulder surgery in October.
Hansen's story was different. In fact, it was a mystery, and not knowing the ending tortured him. His shoulders and neck bothered him early on. No definitive diagnosis was found for nearly a month and a half before he got a second opinion from a New York neurologist: an inflammation of the nerves that control the trapezius muscle.
"It was a relief to find out what it was," he said . It greatly limited him: no throwing, no upper-body work. "Couldn't run. Couldn't lift. Couldn't anything."
He is scheduled to pitch off a mound March 10 for the first time since April, an 11-month span almost as long as the usual Tommy John recuperation. Still, despite feeling significantly better, there is the unknown about how the nerve and muscles will react. It helps to have fellow pitchers in recovery.
"You don't want anyone else in rehab. At least not long," Hansen said of a group that contained injured relievers Octavio Dotel and Joel Hanrahan, both of whom instead will join the Pirates at McKechnie. "It's pretty funny, we have a good time. Keep everyone's mind off what's going on. It's refreshing."
Monday, while the rest of the players finished up their final practice at Pirate City, Yates and Cotts threw long toss to one another, then Yates squatted to catch a couple of Cott's pitches from 45 feet. Cotts, a left-hander whom the Pirates hope to keep around the next few years, said he was pitching off a mound about three weeks ago but was returned to flat ground when the Pirates medical staff "kind of backed off that. Just because ... I don't know. That's just been how it's been going."
Rehab can be trying for fellows who make a living off their arms. Yates knows: This marks his second Tommy John procedure -- the other came in 2002 -- and third major arm/shoulder surgery.
"I've been told: If you feel like you're moving too fast, you probably are. If you feel like you're moving too slow, you're right on pace. So the slower the better. They've done all the studies. No matter how fast you come back, it still takes 12 to 18 to 24 months before you're fully ready to go."
"If you don't have patience, you're in trouble," continued Ascanio, who Andrews cleared last week to resume a throwing regimen. "I found about surgery, you have to be patient, patient, patient."
The hated Manatees
Last year, the Pirates lost for the first time in 11 meetings with what was then known as Manatee Community College, 6-4. A handful of Pirates prospects such as Andrew McCutchen started the game, but mostly Class A players finished.
Much the same is expected today, though manager John Russell wouldn't tip his hand: "We got a lineup put together. It should be a good day for those guys. Hopefully, it doesn't rain." A storm is predicted.