Five months after having a second reconstuctive elbow surgery and wondering if he’d ever make it back again, Braves pitcher Kris Medlen is back to being Kris Medlen — full of energy, and counting the days until he’s cleared to pick up a baseball in 2 ½ weeks and begin throwing again.
“Night and day,” he said of his confidence level now compared to March, when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and had his second Tommy John surgery in four years. “I’m in the middle of rehab so it’s hard to say, because I haven’t started throwing yet. But at this point, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to be back at some point next season.
“It depends on how aggressive they want to be with the throwing program, obviously, as far as the timing of everything next year. But as of right now, before I pick up a baseball, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back. Hopefully here.”
The last two words were something Medlen wouldn’t have needed to add if he’d been among the Braves who got multi-year contract extensions in the spring. But he wasn’t, and Medlen will be arbitration eligible again for the third time this offseason, after making $5.8 million this season.
For the first time, the non-tender deadline in December is something he’ll be thinking plenty about. Medlen would be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season if he’s offered arbitration, but would be a free agent this winter if the Braves decide they’re not willing to pay him a salary similar to this season and thus decline to offer arbitration.
“It’s a little nerve-racking, just not really feeling like I’ve really completed anything here yet, and wanting to stay as long as I can,” said Medlen, an undersized 10th-round draft pick in 2006 who became a point of pride for the Braves organization after working hard to become a top-of-the-rotation starter.
He went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts in 2012 after moving from the bullpen to the rotation at the end of July, and was 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA in his first season as a full-time starter in 2013. Medlen won three National League Pitcher of the Month awards from August 2012 through the end of the 2013 season, while no other pitcher in either league won two in that same span.
He was penciled in for one of the top two spots in the Braves rotation this season before blowing out his elbow in a March 9 spring training game, three days before Braves starter Brandon Beachy did the same. Each is trying to join the small group of pitchers who’ve been able to come back to pitch at their previous level – or at least close to that level — following a second “TJ” surgery.
Medlen, 28, has gone through the rehab process with his good friend Peter Moylan, the former Braves reliever who was pitching for the Astros when he blew out in the spring and had his second Tommy John surgery two weeks after Medlen.
“We getting our (butts) kicked,” said Medlen who meant the workouts have been demanding – and rewarding. “Like I said, just taking better care of ourselves. Honestly, I mean, I’m not drinking as much. I know that’s not supposed to be an issue, but we’re fun guys, we like to have a good time. But we put that aside and we realize the priority of things and all that.”
Medlen said any doubts he had in the spring have been eliminated with each step in rigorous rehab process, including pool workouts and recently drills with a towel that are designed to simulate the throwing motion. He said his body fat was 8.9 percent when tested last week, down from about 12 percent in spring training.
“You feel like you come into spring training in really good shape, but this is, like, the best overall that my body has ever felt,” said Medlen, 28. “Really, we just rehab, then I go home and help out at the house, help out with the kid. Bunch of family time, that’s the silver lining, hanging out with the family more.”
His son Max is 1 ½ years old now, and Medlen said his wife, Nicole, is due to have their second child, a daughter, on Thanksgiving.
Not long after the baby is due, the Braves will have to make decision whether to tender him a contract.
“I’m a little nervous about it, just because it’s not in my hands,” Medlen said. “It’s not my job to come and be a cheerleader or whatever else; I’m supporting these guys, but my job is to get myself healthy and get back. It’s a little nerve-racking going into the offseason this time, but it’s not quite on my mind yet. I’ve just got to get healthy and get feeling good. That’s where I’m at now.
“It’s exciting to be able to pick up a ball in a couple of weeks, but I’m not going to lie, the contract stuff and wanting to come back – I mean, that’s somewhat up in the air this time, so it’s a little nerve-racking, but all I can do is get healthy.”
Medlen, who played shortstop at his California junior college when he wasn’t pitching, had a dream this week about coming off the disabled list and recording the final out in an extra-innings win for the Braves. In a game this week. Oddly enough, the throw was from shortstop, not the mound. But, no, he’s not thinking about coming back as a shortstop.
“We were in extra innings, and I got activated mid-game, middle of extra innings,” Medlen said, laughing at the absurdity of the dream. “And I had to play short. I was really worried because I hadn’t even thrown a baseball yet (since surgery). So I get the ground ball, the last out of the game, and I like barely throw it and it gets there bang-bang, just in time, and we win.
“But I’ve had so many dreams of throwing,” he said, adding that he didn’t have such dreams after his first Tommy John surgery in 2010. “It’s just that I’m feeling good, knowing it’s getting closer and you feel like you can throw even though you haven’t. It’s in the back of your mind — obviously, because I’m dreaming about it.”