LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Dan Winkler has gone through more injury-rehab sessions in 2 ½ years than most pitchers endure in a long major league career. But the Braves reliever keeps plugging away, keeps believing his time will come and that his twice-surgically-repaired right elbow is going to hold together.
Winkler, 27, is coming back from a fractured elbow, a rather gruesome injury that occurred when he threw a pitch April 10 in just his fifth major league game since a year-plus rehab for Tommy John elbow surgery in 2014 – back when he was a promising strikeout machine in the Colorado Rockies organization.
Winkler had retired seven of eight batters he faced in the first week of the 2016 season, striking out four of the eight, before he threw a pitch and felt a horrible snap. A small bone on the underside of his elbow broke, and the surgery repair required a screw several inches long to re-attach the piece and assure (hopefully) it would remain stable.
Fortunately for him, the ligament wasn’t damaged again. Still, the particular fracture that Winkler had is rare and he only one or two players he was aware of have come back from a similar injury.
“Tommy John (rehab) was different,” said Winkler, who had to sit around for the rest of the season, completely resting his arm while the bone healed. “I could do more (soon after TJ surgery), I could stress it more. I could go golfing. But with this, I just had to sit and do nothing. It was driving me crazy. I didn’t even want to watch baseball. Every time I watched baseball it was like, how can I heal this bone faster?”
He began a throwing program again in early winter, and Winkler’s advanced to throwing from a distance of 120 feet. He hopes to get approval to begin throwing off a mound in one month (March 20), a timetable that could presumably have him ready to pitch in games by early summer. But there aren’t any timetables and he’s not getting ahead of himself with expectations of his return date.
Winkler just knows his arm feels good and he’s optimistic that he will be able to resume a career that has twice been abruptly halted just as it was beginning to ascend.
“We’ll see how that goes. I feel great,” said Winkler, who used his down time and first months back to make adjustments to his previously funky delivery. “I kind of changed my arm swing a little bit, shortened that up, to be more efficient. Not lose the deceptiveness, but be more connected in my mechanics. Trying to take a lot of stress (off elbow) and use my body more, not so much arm all the time.”
After talking to present and past Braves pitching coaches and physical therapists, the consensus was “that my arm swing was too long, my body was getting out in front and my arm was dragging. Just putting way too much stress on my elbow.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “That (April injury) still makes you want to cringe a little bit. It was pretty traumatic what he went through, and it was a shame because he was throwing so well.”
If he makes it back, and assuming the Braves keep him, Winkler would have to remain on their 25-man major league roster for nearly two months once he’s activated, per Rule 5 draft rules. If they don’t keep him on the 25-man roster for that length, the Braves would have to offer him back to the Rockies for half of the original $50,000 claiming price.
Before Winkler’s Tommy John surgery in 2014, he had a 1.41 ERA in 12 starts that season the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate, with 71 strikeouts and 17 walks in 70 innings. He made the Braves’ opening day roster in 2016 after totaling 17 strikeouts with no walks in 11 innings at spring training.
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