The Washington Nationals sent left-hander Ross Detwiler to Los Angeles on Tuesday to visit with back surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins Sr., a renowned expert in orthopedic injuries to the back and neck, to get a second opinion on the back ailment that has kept him on the disabled list since July 4.
The Nationals are concerned that Detwiler has not improved as much as they’d hoped and the left-hander struggled to get through a bullpen session on Friday.
Watkins is the same doctor who performed surgery on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“They’ve done a lot of tests,” manager Davey Johnson said Tuesday. “I think they want to get another opinion because they’re not sure why it keeps recurring.
“It’s a problem. If you have some alignment problems, it can keep causing spasms. He may have some of that. He just may need some back exercises to get strength.”
This is the second back issue Detwiler has dealt with this season. He missed 24 games from May 16 to June 13 with his first strain and after posting a 2.32 ERA in his first six starts this season, he struggled to a 6.31 mark after returning and, particularly after his start on July 3, was dealing with obvious back pain after some starts.
Detwiler was cleared to resume throwing on July 13 but on Friday he did not do his usual running before his bullpen because of the discomfort. It was after the session that the Nationals recognized it was unrealistic that Detwiler would be ready to return to their rotation as hoped on Friday.
Now it appears they must consider their contingency plans in case Detwiler is out far longer than they’d initially expected.
“That’s what we’re looking at,” Johnson said.
If that is the case, it will be a significant blow to the Nationals’ rotation and could force the Nationals to intensify their efforts to acquire a starting pitcher before next week’s trade deadline.
Taylor Jordan, a talented rookie who has filled in admirably as Dan Haren and Detwiler have dealt with injuries, is on an innings limit due to his 2011 Tommy John surgery. While the Nationals have not stated precisely what his workload limit will be, they are aware he will be cut off at some point. Traditionally, the Nationals have capped their Tommy John rehab limits around 160 innings.
Ross Ohlendorf, who will start one part of a doubleheader against the New York Mets on Friday, could also be a candidate to move into the rotation.
Right-handed reliever Ryan Mattheus will finish a rehab assignment Tuesday night with two innings at Triple-A Syracuse. He will get two days off and be activated as the team’s extra man for Friday’s doubleheader — and one reason why he could be pitching multiple innings on his rehab assignment from a broken right hand could be in case Ohlendorf does indeed move into the rotation.
In that case, Craig Stammen would return to a more traditional long relief role and Mattheus, who has been used for multiple innings in the past, could give a bit of extra innings insurance in the bullpen if he’s a bit more stretched out.
If the Nationals do turn to the trade market for help, they appear disinclined — particularly given their standing in the division and their sub-.500 record — to give up much for a two-month rental player. As has often been general manager Mike Rizzo’s preference, they’d likely look more to players with at least another season of control on their contracts. That’d put them in a pool with players like Jake Peavy, Bud Norris and Yovani Gallardo.
They’ll still have a week to figure out their plans once they hear about Detwiler’s visit with Dr. Watkins on Wednesday.
“We’re thinking about all those things and how to go forward,” Johnson said. “I’ll let you know what we’re going to do at the appropriate time.”