Why Kyle Wright Got Traded, and Brandon Woodruff Got Non-Tendered

Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

The non-tender deadline isn’t usually an event that screams star power. The players involved are pre-free agency, making them cheap and controllable — qualities that appeal mightily to big league GMs. So if there’s even a question about whether a player is worth retaining or trading, as opposed to cutting loose, that usually means the player is neither good nor particularly promising.

All that goes out the window, apparently, when it comes to a pitcher who just underwent shoulder surgery. The Atlanta Braves, who went all Marie Kondo on their 40-man roster as the weekend approached, sent Kyle Wright to the Royals in exchange for Jackson Kowar. The same day, the Milwaukee Brewers did them one better and flat-out non-tendered two-time All-Star Brandon Woodruff.

Woodruff and Wright have two things in common. First, they’re both right-handed pitchers from SEC schools. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. They have three things in common. The second thing: They were both excellent on a fairly high innings volume in 2022. Third: They both had capsule repair surgery in October and are set to miss most or all of the 2024 season.

The Brewers’ decision to cut ties with Woodruff is a bit jarring; Milwaukee had built its team around a three-headed starting pitching monster of Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta. And quite successfully, it bears mentioning, as the Brewers have won at least 86 games every full season since Woodruff debuted in 2017. Milwaukee has also made the playoffs six times in the past seven seasons with Woodruff on the pitching staff. From 2020 to 2022, Woodruff was ninth in the entire league in pitcher WAR.

But the shoulder injury popped up at the worst time. Woodruff went on the IL in April, then came back off it in early August before re-aggravating the injury in late September. The timing of Woodruff’s surgery all but wipes out his last year before free agency, leaving only a small chance of a return during next year’s stretch run.

Had the Brewers retained Woodruff, his arbitration award was projected to be $11.6 million. Given that the Brewers weren’t willing to pay Mark Canha a similar amount to, you know, actually play, it’s not surprising that Milwaukee let Woodruff go rather than hope he’d get healthy again in record time.

Wright, in addition to being almost three years younger, has three seasons of team control left. That’s more valuable than nothing, which is why he got traded. I won’t, however, disparage Kowar by speculating on exactly how much more valuable.

As opposed to Woodruff’s longer track record of success, Wright basically has one good big league season to his name. In 2022, he made 30 starts, and because the Braves were a relentless buzzsaw that season, he won 21 of them, most in the majors. Wright’s underlying numbers — 180 1/3 innings, 2.9 WAR, 16.4 K-BB%, 3.58 FIP — were a little less spectacular than his win total, but by any standard he was very good in 2022.

Unfortunately, that season comprises nearly two-thirds of Wright’s major league career in terms of innings. And across parts of five other seasons, totaling 101 1/3 innings, Wright’s ERA is 6.66. If we’re comparing Wright’s ERAs to Iron Maiden songs, 2022 was “Aces High,” but the rest of his career has been “Number of the Beast.”

Kowar, the second-best University of Florida right-hander the Royals picked in the first round in 2018 — after Brady Singer — has had a rough go of it himself. In parts of three seasons, totaling 74 innings, Kowar has a walk rate of 13.7% and an ERA of 9.12, which is the fourth-worst career ERA of any pitcher since integration (minimum 50 innings). At the risk of abusing the Iron Maiden bit: Run to the hills.

Still, Kowar had 91st-percentile fastball velocity last year, and the Braves have been better than the Royals at developing pitchers… well, since forever, so maybe they think they can turn Kowar into a decent reliever. But this is a flier for both teams.

The interesting thing about these moves, and the reason they’re grouped together here, is what it says about how the industry views serious shoulder injuries.

The way pitchers are trained nowadays, it’s almost a given that a pitcher who has any professional career worth writing about is going to suffer at least one serious arm injury. These range from the routine (UCL tear) to the career-threatening (thoracic outlet syndrome).

Across all fronts, there have been remarkable advancements in medicine, even in living memory. A torn UCL used to be a career-ender; now, it’s almost an inconvenience. And with internal bracing gaining popularity, recovery rates are only going up and recovery times are only going down. TOS is still much more serious, but where it once almost killed J.R. Richard, now pitchers return to the majors, albeit usually at reduced effectiveness. Mike Foltynewicz made an All-Star team post-TOS, though he developed other injuries and was basically done at 27.

A torn shoulder capsule is in the middle. The capsule, which does not have a window or a hatch with explosive bolts, is the bag of soft tissue that allows the shoulder to move within its socket without grinding bone on bone. Obviously, this bit of the anatomy is vitally important for anyone who throws for a living.

Generally, a torn UCL hasn’t been a career-threatening injury for years, but a torn shoulder capsule is still scary. (It’s important to mention that Wright’s injury was described in those terms, while the Woodruff announcement contained the semi-euphemistic “anterior capsule repair.”)

A 2014 article in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery pegged the recovery rate for this kind of injury at between eight and 18 months, but with a sample of just five players. Earlier this year, an article in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine followed 11 patients’ recovery from arthroscopic capsule repair surgery.

This article is fun for a few reasons: First, it’s coauthored by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, whose name is all too familiar to baseball fans after his prolific work repairing arms. Second, it features some pictures of the inside of the shoulder that will either fascinate you or make you want to barf. And third, it taught me that the scientific name for the shoulder joint is the “glenohumeral joint.” (But despite having both “glee” and “humor” in its name, shoulder injuries are no laughing matter.)

The study touts 10 successful recoveries out of 11 patients, all either college or professional baseball players, two in a time frame that would get Woodruff and Wright back on the field before the end of the 2024 regular season.

Digging down into the individual cases, things get a little fuzzier. The two players who recovered fastest were the only two position players in the sample. Of the seven professional pitchers in the study, six returned to play some form of professional baseball, but only three came back to pitch in the majors again. Those three, all of them age 28 or younger, had recovery times of 14.6 months, 17.7 months, and 18.8 months.

That sheds some light on the question of why Wright had so little trade value despite having three years of team control, and why nobody traded for Woodruff and tried to sign him to a multi-year contract with incentives and options. Pitchers recovering from Tommy John sign deals like this all the time: Germán Márquez, Mike Clevinger, Kirby Yates, Tommy Kahnle and so on.

If this were Tommy John surgery, Woodruff would be a virtual lock to be back to normal by Opening Day 2025. Márquez got two years and $20 million, while Clevinger got two years and $11.5 million for one year of rehab and another year of regularly scheduled programming. When healthy, Woodruff is way better than those guys, so if this were Tommy John, he would probably be in line for more money, more years, or both.

But rather than a one-year layoff with a high probability of recovery, Woodruff is in for an injury that — according to the very limited sample in the 2023 study — is about a coin flip that he’ll return, with the possibility that he’ll miss not one but two seasons.

I have boundless personal empathy for Woodruff, who would’ve been in line for something like $100 million if his shoulder had held together another 18 months. At best, that payday has been delayed at least two or three years. But I understand why a GM — even the GM of a better-funded team than the Brewers — would keep their distance from Woodruff, or view Wright as expendable.

Elbow injuries are routine, but shoulder injuries are still incredibly scary.

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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6 months ago

Love the Iron Maiden reference.