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Blue Jays’ Merryweather talks Tommy John, learning from Indians aces

TORONTO — Just one of the many texts that flooded Julian Merryweather’s phone in early September, not long after the Toronto Blue Jays shipped Josh Donaldson to the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named later: Dude, did you just get traded?

“I was like, ‘No, I don’t think so,” Merryweather remembers. “At least no one’s told me I was.”

Of course, he had been. While Merryweather, a 27-year-old starter, was in Goodyear, Ariz., rehabilitating his right arm after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March, Cleveland’s front office was agreeing to him as the return in their acquisition of Donaldson, who had himself missed much of the season with injury.

Since he’d spent the year on the minor-league disabled list, Merryweather was never passed through waivers, which is a prerequisite to being traded in August. That meant Toronto and Cleveland couldn’t announce him as part of the deal until he came off the DL following the season.

But it was an open secret across the industry that Merryweather was bound to be a Blue Jay, which quickly spread to social media, and ultimately to the right-hander’s text messages. A few days into September, a Cleveland official called to break the old news.

“They were like, ‘Hey, just so you know, you can tell your family and stuff, but maybe try to keep it under wraps,’” Merryweather says. “I just kept my head down and went about my business until it was official.”

Merryweather was at least able to make contact with his new team, and hear what Toronto’s training staff had in store for him as they took over his rehabilitation. Five months into what is commonly a yearlong recovery, he was only just beginning to throw again after completing a lengthy process to re-strengthen his arm and regain his range of motion. Four months after that, he’s now ramping back up to pitching off a mound, after a long, deliberate throwing program that progressed him in slow increments. You’d think it would be a frustratingly tedious process.

“Honestly, for me, it’s not,” he says. “When you love the game, you’ve got to love rehabbing. You’ve got to transfer that over. You’ve got to love what you do in rehab every day. That’s my mental approach to it. Obviously, some days are more monotonous than others. But, overall, I feel like my mentality has really helped me get through those tough days and get to where I am now.”

Merryweather entered Cleveland’s system as a fifth-round college pick in 2014, and after a couple of abbreviated seasons in the low minors reached double-A in 2016 when he was 24. He was bumped up to triple-A the following year, and entered 2018 with his first-ever major-league spring training invitation and a nod from Baseball America as having the best fastball in Cleveland’s system.

He’d posted strong numbers at every level he touched until reaching triple-A, where he struggled to a 6.58 ERA over 16 starts. But a 3.89 xFIP, a .388 batting average on balls in play, and a 15.7 per cent HR/FB rate strongly suggested that Merryweather suffered some extremely poor fly-ball luck in his first taste of triple-A.

(Via FanGraphs)

Of course, trying to work your way up an organization like Cleveland’s as a starting pitcher is a steep hill. The Tribe has finished with a top-10 rotation ERA four years running, and this past season featured four pitchers — Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger — who could have fronted a number of staffs across MLB.

But Merryweather looked at the crowded field as a benefit. He relished the opportunity just to share gym space with Cleveland’s big-leaguers last spring, and tried to model his own work after the arms ahead of him on the depth chart.

“It was awesome being able to watch those guys up close, seeing their routines,” he says. “It was a big factor in me learning, like, ‘Wow, that’s what it takes at the big-league level.’ All those guys really improved themselves right in front of my eyes. Just to see how much they were able to grow, even at their level, was insane.”

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But one day that spring, during a routine, low-effort side session, Merryweather let go of a curveball and felt a sharp, stinging sensation in his elbow. He didn’t think much of it at first and tried to throw through the pain. But five pitches later, he walked off the mound and immediately into the trainer’s room. The next day, as he was read the results of an MRI, Merryweather learned he had a sprained UCL, Tommy John surgery was all but an inevitability in his future, and that it was probably best to get it out of the way now.

“That was a lot to wrap my head around at first,” Merryweather says. “I was in my first big-league spring, hoping to make an impact with the Indians. And then suddenly I’m having to face the reality of losing a whole year — it was a lot to think about. It definitely tests your mental side and your love for the game, being out so long and having to grind every day to get back.”

He’s almost there. Merryweather’s rehab will likely continue beyond the beginning of the 2019 regular season, but depending on how he recovers, he could be ready to join one of Toronto’s minor-league affiliates before long. He’s already had extensive conversations with Blue Jays staff about the workload and innings total the team has in mind for him this year. Merryweather doesn’t want to share details, saying only, “there’s a good, round number that we’re looking to hit.” Of course, that’s prone to increase or decrease depending on his health.

Before his surgery, Merryweather threw his fastball in the mid-90s, ramping it up to 97-m.p.h. when he needed to, while featuring a fading change-up, a curveball, and slider as secondary weapons. According to Baseball America’s reports, he showed strong fastball command, locating heaters at the bottom of the zone to get ahead in counts and generate groundballs. And while his strikeout numbers climbed as he advanced through Cleveland’s system, topping out at a 9.0 K/9 in 2017, Merryweather’s history of limiting walks (his career BB/9 is 2.2) could be what will help him most whenever he’s challenged with major-league competition.

The Blue Jays will continue to develop him as a starter for as long as possible, no doubt. But if the day comes when the organization believes he’s better suited for a relief role, it’s not hard to envision his velocity and strike-throwing transitioning well to the bullpen. Multi-inning relievers are certainly in vogue across baseball, whether pitching behind an opener or eating middle innings. And if Merryweather returns with the same stuff he featured prior to surgery, he could also be useful in late-inning, high-leverage spots.

Time will tell. For now, Merryweather’s merely working to get back on a mound, while assimilating himself to a new environment. At this time last year, he’d just finished fighting his way up the minor-league ladder to the cusp of the majors. A great deal of adversity later, he’s ready to pick up where he left off.

“I think all those experiences helped me a lot. I figured out a lot about myself,” he says. “Once I’m healthy and ready to pitch, it’s just about earning my opportunities from that point. I really want to earn my spot, no matter what the situation is. Wherever I land, I’ll just let my game speak for itself.”

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