Rehabbing Riske aims for Opening Day
Tommy John recovery to dictate bullpen competition
MILWAUKEE -- This week, Brewers reliever David Riske marked the eight-month anniversary of his Tommy John elbow reconstructive surgery. The procedure can require 12 months of rehabilitation, but Riske is hoping to be active for the Brewers on Opening Day. Whether he meets that goal will go a long way in determining whether others are able to compete later this month for an opening in Milwaukee's improved bullpen."I'd say it's a long shot, but it's a possibility," Riske said Sunday at Brewers On Deck. "It just all depends on how fast it responds, and then when I can face hitters and how fast it responds after that." Riske has been rehabbing at home in Las Vegas and began throwing off a mound two weeks ago. That's a significant milestone for a pitcher coming off a Tommy John procedure. The Brewers would love to get some production from Riske this season because, so far, his three-year contract has not paid off. He is due $4.5 million in 2010, making him Milwaukee's fifth-highest paid player for the moment (Corey Hart is seeking $4.8 million in arbitration). Riske's contract calls for a $4.75 million option for 2011 or a $250,000 buyout. "We're waiting to see what we see in the spring," said Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash, who oversees the club's medical program. "He's done a good job in his rehab. We just have to see what we have. The medical team's perspective is that it would be a stretch to get there [by the April 5 season opener], but we don't know for sure yet." Dr. William Raasch examined Riske in Milwaukee over the weekend and discovered no red flags. Pitchers and catchers report to Maryvale Baseball Park on Feb. 20, and have their first formal workout on Feb. 22, though Riske is certain to begin on a throwing program separate from the others. By Opening Day, Riske will be 10 months removed from surgery. "Guys have come back in nine or 10 months before," Ash said. "Some of them were younger, and I'm not sure if that makes a difference or not. What I've learned through the years is that each individual heals and rehabs at his own pace. So we'll just have to wait and see." Riske, 33, is bidding to join a quite experienced Brewers bullpen anchored by closer Trevor Hoffman, who will enter the year nine saves shy of 600 for his career. Newly signed free agent LaTroy Hawkins joins Todd Coffey in the setup role, and Mitch Stetter is back as the situational left-hander with a full season under his belt. Right-handers Claudio Vargas, who was very solid in the second half last season, and Carlos Villanueva, whose numbers last season were inflated by a series of poor starts, are also ticketed for bullpen roles. Assuming all of those players get through Spring Training without any setbacks and that the Brewers open the year with a traditional seven-man bullpen, that leaves only one open spot. Given their investment in Riske, club officials would certainly give him a long look if he proves he's healthy. If Riske is not ready for the Rockies on April 5 at Miller Park, the Brewers would have a spot for a large field of competitors. The team enters Spring Training with six established starting pitchers, and the odd man out in the rotation could always shift to a long relief role. The Brewers will take a look at Rule 5 Draft pick Chuck Lofgren -- whose case is bolstered by the fact that he's left-handed. If he doesn't make the roster, the Brewers will be forced to offer him back to the Indians. Chris Narveson is also a lefty and was very good for the Brewers down the stretch in 2009. John Axford is also on the 40-man roster and picked up some Major League experience at the end of 2009. Then there are some select non-roster invitees. Left-handers John Halama and A.J. Murray and right-handers Kameron Loe and Chris Smith have logged big league innings and are hungry to return to the Majors. Smith was on the 40-man roster until last week, and on Wednesday morning he accepted an outright assignment to Triple-A Nashville and an invitation to big league camp. Lefty prospect Zach Braddock is exceedingly interesting to Brewers officials, who say he will get a real opportunity to win a job this spring. Chris Capuano might have to go to the Minors and prove he's recovered from his second career Tommy John surgery before the Brewers consider him an option. Whether any of those players get an opportunity to make the club could hinge on Riske, who says his troubles began during his first Spring Training with the Brewers in 2007, when then-pitching coach Mike Maddux tried to introduce a curveball to his repertoire. "I wish I would have never, ever tried to learn those breaking balls because that's really what triggered it," Riske said. "What do you do? You want to do what they want, and it gradually got worse and worse. ... My whole career, I threw 95 percent fastballs, and I've had a pretty good career up until last year. I wish I would have just said no." Riske said he objected, but tried to pitch through the pain. He posted a 5.31 ERA in 45 appearances in 2008 and was shut down after Sept. 7. He appeared in only one game in 2008. "I miss competition," Riske said. "I've been competing with my boys at home, and that's just not the same. I want that back. I just want to go pitch without hurting."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.