Cotts measures comeback from surgery
Cubs reliever looking to get past Tommy John procedure
MESA, Ariz. -- It was one pitch, one out of 27 that Neal Cotts threw on June 24 in a relief outing for Triple-A Iowa. He felt a sharp pain that he hadn't felt before. Those were the last pitches he threw in 2009.
The left-handed reliever began the season in the Cubs' bullpen but was demoted to the Minor League team in late May. He had nine consecutive scoreless outings before that June game against New Orleans. An exam revealed damage in his left elbow, and in early July Cotts underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Cotts is not sure if his elbow was the reason for his inconsistency with the big league team. The lefty posted a 1.94 ERA in 69 games in 2005 with the Chicago White Sox, but hasn't matched that since. This year with the Cubs, he had a 7.36 ERA in 19 games, totaling 11 innings. He blew a save on May 25 against the Pirates when he served up a two-run homer to Nate McLouth in the sixth, and was sent down. At Iowa, he pitched in 12 games and had a 2.84 ERA before he was sidelined.
"I didn't feel any severe pain when I was up there [with the Cubs]," Cotts said Thursday during a break in his rehab at the Cubs' Fitch Park facility. "I didn't feel it down there [at Iowa] until I did one thing and it hurt. One pitch. Then, the next day it felt like it had all year long.
"It's hard to put in perspective exactly if it happened on that one pitch or if it happened earlier and it was just building up -- I don't know," Cotts said. "I can't go back on it now and say, 'That was the problem.' It was just being inconsistent, bad."
He can't figure out the dramatic turn in his stats, but he's not looking back. It's time to move on.
"It's all ahead of me in terms of what I need to get done and getting back," said Cotts, who turns 30 in March. "You get in the best shape of your life now because you have nine months before you're fully activated."
Dr. Tim Kremchek, the Cincinnati Reds' orthopedic specialist, did the procedure, and Cotts then packed up his family, which includes son Madden, for Arizona. Three days a week, he would do arm exercises at a Phoenix area rehab facility, and three days a week, he worked out at the Cubs' complex. This week, he switched to five days a week, four-to-five hours a day at the team complex, working with athletic trainer Chuck Baughman and conditioning coach Scott Weberg. Cotts will keep that schedule up until Spring Training.
Before, he focused solely on his arm rehab. Now, Cotts has added cardio work, weight lifting, everything. It's a lot more intense.
"I've never been through [surgery] so it's kind of experimental in terms of how I feel," Cotts said, "but there's no soreness or anything."
He's done his research, and checked with other pitchers who've had Tommy John. Cotts expects to be pitching in 2010.
"I've talked to many guys," he said. "I saw Billy Wagner came back this year in 10 months and he looked pretty good. I guess maybe your control and consistency takes some time to come back. I think your arm strength comes back earlier, from what I've gathered."
Cotts is one of 10 players on the Cubs' 40-man roster who is eligible for arbitration. The list also includes Jeff Baker, Mike Fontenot, Tom Gorzelanny, Angel Guzman, Aaron Heilman, Koyie Hill, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall and Ryan Theriot. The team has until Dec. 12 to tender those players contracts. Cotts isn't thinking about that.
"I don't really have any control over what they decide to do in the long run," he said. "I just have to get healthy and things will play out."
He's well aware the rehab is long and can be tiresome.
"This is just a stepping stone," he said. "It's going to take time. My family's been down here with me, so it makes it a lot easier. I come here and do my work, but away from the field, I have them to keep my mind off it so I'm not watching baseball and wanting to be out there. There's other things I can focus on."
His son is now walking and full of energy. He's a handful, and Cotts has been able to watch Madden grow.
"I would rather be pitching," Cotts said, "but getting to see your first child grow up, [being hurt] has been a blessing in disguise."
He'd like to be back in the big leagues next year with the Cubs.
"I enjoy it over here and I've enjoyed the organization," Cotts said. "They've treated me well. I know in terms of performance and in terms of staying up there, it hasn't been as planned for by either side. I'd like to be up there to help the team."
Cotts has another month to go before he can pick up a baseball and play catch. He has a reminder to avoid trying to do too much too soon. The pitcher was given a DVD of the Tommy John operation. Cotts has watched bits and pieces of the procedure, in which a ligament in his elbow was replaced by a tendon from his left wrist. He's got the scars to prove it.
"There's so many success stories you've seen," he said. "I've played with [Ryan Dempster] and [Kerry Wood[ and they both had it, and obviously, their careers didn't end when they had it. I don't know if it's better or worse to have [the surgery], but you see so many stories of people who come back and they're either recommitted and better, or they're stronger and it works out. I think you can rely on those stories more than anything."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.