After being informed of a partially torn ligament in his right elbow on Thursday, Nick Anderson felt a mix of frustration and relief.
The frustration, obviously, was rooted in the revelation that he won’t be pitching in games for the Rays anytime soon. The relief came from knowing that there was a reason for his perplexing Spring Training, his diminished fastball velocity and the nagging tightness he’d been feeling in his throwing arm.
The Rays learned on Thursday afternoon that Anderson, their highest-leverage bullpen arm and arguably one of the Majors’ best relievers since he was acquired from the Marlins on July 31, 2019, will miss at least half the season. The initial medical recommendation is that Anderson will not require surgery, but he will be shut down from throwing for eight weeks.
“I want to be out there with the guys and help the team as much as I can. That’s kind of what this game is about,” Anderson said Friday. “That’s kind of why I was a little stressed here this Spring Training, trying to figure my stuff out. I don’t want to break with the team or something like that and not be feeling good and going out and blowing games and stuff. That’s not doing the team any good.”
Over the next week, Anderson said he will evaluate options like receiving platelet-rich plasma or stem-cell injections. He is confident he will avoid surgery altogether, as doctors informed him the injury is a proximal tear, which he said is “on the higher end of the recovery spectrum.”
The 30-year-old right-hander will be re-evaluated in about two months before potentially restarting a throwing program. With that timeline in mind, Anderson is expected to be out at least through the All-Star break and possibly into August.
“It sucks, but looking at it on the bright side is, I’m not any good for the team if I’m not healthy,” Anderson said. “So to find something that there’s an issue, get to it, fix it and come back stronger.”
The hard-throwing righty paused and smiled, thinking about how he could, in fact, come back stronger.
“Hey, I’ve always wanted to hit 100 [mph],” Anderson added, “so we’ll see what happens.”
Over the last day, Anderson has often asked himself when the injury might have occurred and what caused it. He acknowledged the possibility that he might have tweaked his delivery after returning from the injured list late last season, altering his mechanics to avoid pain in his throwing arm. But he said an MRI came back clean at that point, and he was healthy enough then to take the mound and pitch.
Anderson has been a lights-out late-inning arm for Tampa Bay, posting a 1.43 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings over 42 appearances. He seemed to wear down as the Rays leaned on him heavily during the 2020 postseason: He was charged with at least one run his last seven outings of the 2020 postseasn — including Game 6 of the World Series, when he was called upon to relieve starter Blake Snell in the sixth inning.
“Not ideal. I don’t think anybody’s feeling too great and certainly not in the best moods,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Nick has been an invaluable part of our club. We’re not getting to or having the success we’ve had if it wasn’t for his contributions.”
Anderson sat out six days due to soreness and inflammation in his right elbow before returning to the mound on Wednesday afternoon against the Twins. His velocity was noticeably lower, however, with his fastball sitting between 89-92 mph as he allowed two runs on three singles and a ground-rule double while only recording two outs at Charlotte Sports Park.
Anderson didn’t raise any concerns afterward, saying on a Zoom call that he was just focused on getting his mechanics in order rather than “throwing max effort” and trying to compete like he would in a regular-season game. Cash said Thursday morning that Anderson relayed similar thoughts when they spoke after Wednesday’s game.
Anderson said it’s been more of a “weird,” nagging issue than anything that caused him acute or excruciating pain, but he acknowledged that he felt some tightness in his elbow during his March 17 outing in Bradenton, Fla. After that, the Rays let him rest for six days between outings. When he still didn’t look right on Wednesday following the time off, head athletic trainer Joe Benge advised him to go for another MRI, which revealed his injury.
“I don’t think you can overstate how good of an arm he is and what he brings to the table every day,” reliever Pete Fairbanks said. “He’s one hell of a fireman for us, and so that’s hard to replace in any capacity. … When you’ve got a guy like that, with his demeanor and his ability to never really have a moment that’s too big, I think that something like that is hard to replace. But we’ll do our best.”
In Anderson’s absence, the Rays will likely rely even more on late-inning relievers Diego Castillo and Fairbanks. They have a deep bullpen full of additional options, including right-handers Chaz Roe and Ryan Thompson, lefties Cody Reed and Ryan Sherriff and multi-inning options including Collin McHugh and Trevor Richards, among others.
Non-roster righty Andrew Kittredge already had a good chance to make the team after putting together a healthy Spring Training, and Thursday’s news could further cement his status. Anderson’s injury will create an open spot on both the active roster and 40-man roster, assuming he is soon placed on the 60-day injured list.
“Nobody has to go say, ‘I’m going to pitch like Nick Anderson.’ If they choose to, that’s fine. Sign me up,” Cash said. “It’s stronger with Nick — there’s no denying that — but we still feel we have a very, very strong bullpen.”