Hendriks, Woodruff Set Stage for 2025 Returns

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Worried that civilization is going to come to an end this year? Fear not. The Red Sox and Brewers have both made big bets that life will go on in 2025. Boston has signed reliever Liam Hendriks to a two-year, $10 million contract with a mutual option for 2026. In Milwaukee, Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff, who was non-tendered in November, will remain a Brewers ace for the time being; Jon Heyman reported Monday morning that Woodruff and the team were in agreement on their own two-year contract, the terms of which are as yet undisclosed.

Based on their performance over the past several seasons, both Hendriks and Woodruff would probably be in line to make way more money on much longer-term deals if either one were expected to pitch in 2024. Woodruff made only 11 starts in 2023 and underwent shoulder surgery in October. Hendriks underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last offseason; cancer defeated, he returned to the field in May. His comeback was as short-lived as it was widely celebrated, though; less than two weeks after his first outing of 2023, Hendriks’ elbow started barking. The dreaded forearm strain turned into the even-more-dreaded torn UCL, and the avuncular Australian had Tommy John surgery in early August.

With a highly optimistic appraisal of these injuries, both Hendriks and Woodruff are candidates to return at some point late in 2024. Back here on this planet, Tommy John surgery takes somewhere between 12 and 18 months for a full recovery. A 15-month timeline would bring Hendriks back just after the World Series, and given his age (Hendriks turned 35 a week ago Saturday; many happy returns), I’m taking the over on his recovery timeline.

Woodruff’s shoulder injury is even more severe. A damaged capsule was a death sentence in the early days of spaceflight, and the prognosis for pitchers’ shoulders isn’t that much rosier here in the 2020s. We have thousands and thousands of data points from which to draw conclusions about Hendriks’ recovery, covering pitchers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and skill levels. Shoulder injuries like Woodruff’s aren’t as common.

We do know that there is no guarantee that Woodruff will ever return to his previous form. Even if he does, the limited sample we have for this kind of injury (11 cases in an article published last year) predicts a recovery time of at least 14 or 15 months. More than that, every pitcher who’s returned to the majors was 28 or younger. Woodruff just turned 31. In fact, he and Hendriks have the same birthday, February 10. We could’ve gotten a group rate on cake and balloons if they’d signed earlier.

The benefit of these contracts is that both Hendriks and Woodruff will get steady paychecks while they rehab this season, and a guaranteed roster spot whenever they return to full strength. A pitcher’s livelihood depends on the integrity of some very small and very finicky pieces of connective tissue; I cannot imagine having tens of millions of dollars rest on whether my ligaments are all in order. Having two years’ worth of security in which to mount a comeback is a big deal for a rehabbing pitcher.

What do the teams get in return?

The Red Sox are somewhere near the bottom of the pecking order in the AL East, but it’s an unpredictable division that could wind up with all five teams scrambled into almost any combination. If Hendriks does beat the recovery timeline, a reliever of his caliber would be a huge asset in the postseason.

More likely, Hendriks is on the Kirby Yates plan from two years ago. He’ll make little or no impact at the major league level in 2024, but he’ll be a key part of Boston’s bullpen next season. Because the Red Sox are spreading his salary over two years, and they’re nowhere near the luxury tax threshold this season, they’ll get an established closer for a fraction of his normal value.

Moreover, the Red Sox are spending $25.5 million this season on two relievers in their late 30s — Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen — who’ll be free agents at the end of the year. Hendriks will slide into one of their jobs next season at a salary of $5 million, plus incentives. That leaves Boston with plenty of extra money left to upgrade elsewhere.

The Brewers’ investment in Woodruff is a bit more speculative. His injury is more severe, and potentially has a longer recovery timeline. It’s possible that Woodruff would return to his previous form, but not until after his new contract with Milwaukee is over. So why would the famously tightfisted Brewers invest in someone who’s not a sure thing?

A charitable interpretation is that Milwaukee is doing right by a player who suffered a potentially career-ending injury in service to the club. If Woodruff were healthy and on the open market now, he would command the kind of $25 million-a-year deal that Sonny Gray and Aaron Nola signed this offseason. He might never see that money now.

Under normal circumstances, athletes aren’t entitled to make-good payouts if they get hurt at work. And regardless of whether you think that should be the case, the economic structure of baseball would be markedly different if it were. So the Brewers had no legal obligation to make Woodruff whole after they non-tendered him. A moral obligation? Perhaps, but that’s a minority opinion among big league owners and executives.

The self-interested case for the Brewers keeping Woodruff around is this: He was a high-volume no. 1 starter when healthy. A workhorse, a bell cow, and all manner of other uncomfortable barnyard metaphors. You can’t just go out and get that kind of pitcher. They’re hard to develop in-house, though the Brewers have been more successful in this respect than most. They take mountains of prospects to acquire by trade. And when they do appear on the free agent market, the cost is far beyond what Milwaukee has traditionally been willing to spend.

Keeping Woodruff in the organization gives the Brewers a chance to monitor him as he does return to full health. If he’s the Woodruff of old, the Brewers will be the first to know, and will have the first chance to re-sign him to a long-term contract. Perhaps the few million dollars spent here will convince Woodruff that Milwaukee is where he wants to spend the rest of his career, and he’ll take a hometown discount in 2025.

Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve been at this too long, and need to go outside for a while, that I’ve developed attachments to certain contract structures. But the two-year deal for an injured pitcher who’s unlikely to pitch in Year 1 is one of my favorites. It shows patience and optimism, and is as uplifting as the pre-debut free agency buyout is cynical. It warms the cockles of my heart. Let’s see if it does the same for elbows and shoulders.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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2 months ago

Warms your heart cockles, sure, but not so much the ink in your pen. Given a full year and a half to rehab the shoulder, I was on the brink of applying for membership to the Milwaukee-based Optimist Club. But sounds like you really aren’t buying a >50% chance that Woody reaches solid #2 SP status in 2025, or even #3. That makes me a sad sad panda.