Elbow ligaments are not indestructible, which the Texas Rangers have known for years and years. They haven’t needed the many unpleasant and unwelcome reminders they have received the past few seasons.
This year alone, three noteworthy pitchers in the minor leagues have been lost to torn ulnar collateral ligaments and the resulting Tommy John surgery.
The recovery time is typically 14 months.
So, the two of note in 2017 are pitching in games again and at some point in 2019 will be candidates for the Rangers’ rotation. One is right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez, the former first-round pick who has too much MLB service time to be considered a prospect.
The other is ranked No. 8 in the Star-Telegram’s ranking of the Rangers’ Top 10 prospects.
No. 8: LHP Joe Palumbo
Born: Oct. 26, 1994
Height: 6-1. Weight: 168.
How acquired: 2013 draft (30th round, 910th overall)
While no UCL is immune from giving out, they don’t give out in the same way.
Some injuries comes with a warning, a blinker that an unwanted career path is ahead.
“My arm didn’t even hurt before my UCL snapped,” left-hander Joe Palumbo said. “I had no symptoms.”
Palumbo was on the move from a prospect’s perspective. He had enjoyed success since the Rangers selected him in the 2013 draft and was coming off a successful transition to full-time starter in 2016 at Low A Hickory.
The numbers were awfully shiny from his first three 2017 starts at High A Down East. But, then, the UCL snapped and Palumbo was on his way to an operating table rather than perhaps Double A Frisco by the end of the year.
That’s where Palumbo found himself 16 months later, moving up through the system again after Tommy John surgery. He’s also reclaimed his spot among the Rangers’ top prospects, and when club officials talk about which pitchers in the minors will be the first to help in 2019, Palumbo’s name is always mentioned.
“Everything is what it was,” Palumbo said. “It can only get better from here. I’m just happy with where I’m at really. My arm feels good, my elbow feels good, and that’s all that matters. I’m set to go for next year.”
He said that last week, before his final start of the season was nixed because of some of the normal fatigue that comes with returning from Tommy John. The plan is for Palumbo to throw some more innings later this month during the instructional league in Surprise, Ariz.
He will do so with his velocity where it was pre-surgery. He’s regaining the feel for his curveball and changeup. The more repetitions he gets, the more he feels like he did in 2016 and at the beginning of 2017.
“I feel like the more hitters I face, the more games I pitch, it all starts to come back, the more comfortable I feel,” Palumbo said. “I feel more comfortable out there. I’m getting a feel more all my pitches. The more I throw it, the more it comes back.”
Palumbo has confirmed that he is a strike-thrower on his way back this season. Pitchers often struggle with their command and control upon returning from Tommy John surgery, but Palumbo walked only 10 and struck out 58 over 45 1/3 innings this season.
He does so with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s but typically sits in the low-90s. The curveball is his out pitch, and the changeup is a work in progress. There is deception in his delivery, making all of his pitches tougher to hit.
It’s been that way this season. It was that way before an injury that derailed his progress for a year. Maybe he would have been in the majors this season as the Rangers look at young players as part of their rebuilding plan, but he’s confident he will be part of the future.
“Who knows if I missed out on anything?” Palumbo said. “Before I got hurt, I thought I was on a pretty good roll. I think at some point, if it’s not next year than the year after that, I can help the big-league team.”
Star-Telegram Top 10 Rangers prospects
No. 10: Cole Ragans
No. 9: Tyler Phillips
No. 8: Joe Palumbo
No. 7: Thursday
No. 6: Friday
No. 5: Monday
No. 4: Tuesday
No. 3: Wednesday
No. 2: Sept. 13
No. 1: Sept. 14