The Monday Baseball Column: The story behind why Alex Verdugo's debut is being delayed

Rob Bradford
February 24, 2020 - 7:17 am
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The first impressions have been hard to come by. Just snippets.

Alex Verdugo occasionally cruises through the Red Sox' clubhouse these days, distinguishing himself with the constant companion of music. No headphones, but rather a small speaker that allows for somewhat of a soundtrack wherever he wanders. Once in a while, there might be a sighting out on the field talking to some fans or lightly playing catch. That's it.

The centerpiece for the Red Sox' return on the Mookie Betts trade will have to wait and so will those who want to uncover what type of player they are truly dealing with.

"My personal thing is sometime just after the season (starts)," Verdugo told WEEI.com . "But we don’t know."

Verdugo is not only recovering from a stress fracture in his back but is also in a race against time when it comes to actually re-discovering a body that can perform at the level expected. This is what people are missing. It's not just the back, it's all the muscles that have been put on the back-burner because of the original injury. 

It's not a total surprise. The Red Sox -- while met with some surprises when evaluating Verdugo's medicals -- were warned of this sort of timetable by the Dodgers. Although what Los Angeles might not have surfaced was how this delay might have been avoided.

While it was known Verdugo was dealing with injuries, missing the final two months of the season, the descriptions were vague. Lower back. Oblique. Heading into the offseason, evidently, the Dodgers weren't overly concerned either. Hence the ill-advised approach to Verdugo's workout program.

"It was one of those things I thought when I hurt it and taking month or two off it was going to be better. I thought I was going to go into workouts," he said. "When I went back home for the offseason to workout I was just following a regular workout plan that the Dodgers would give us. It wasn’t specific for my injury. When I was at home in November I looked at the app and it was making me do goblet squats and lifting room. It felt really soon at the time. I lifted and did it and after several days of that I just woke up and I couldn’t even move. I woke up with a bunch of soreness."

This led to a November visit to noted back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who locked in on a diagnosis and plan. It was a road that didn't include Verdugo anything close to the usual preparation for a baseball season for quite some time.

Considering the pain started in late May after a series against Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, Fla, it was a much longer path than the outfielder ever anticipated.

"I still had this weird stuff in my back, but it wasn’t too weird. It was just an ache," he noted. "We went to rehab and I had three at-bats. I walked in the first one and I popped up in the second. It wasn’t a full let it eat swing. So I hit it and I was like, ‘I’m OK.’ The third one there was a 2-0 count I swung at a fastball, missed it and obviously with the miss you can’t slow it down. I felt a little something in my back and after that every time I stepped to my right it was like a knife in my back. I had never been hurt, growing up, nothing. It was it was spraining my ankle, stubbing something or pulling muscle. But even then you might have to hobble for a second but after few days I was going to be alright. The fact it is taking this long is frustrating. What keeps me positive is that all the players, the staff, the trainers, they all support me. They all want me to wait until I’m fully healthy and get back."

In his week-plus of rehabbing with the Red Sox Verdugo has made signficant strides, managing to rotate in body in a manner that wasn't possible prior arriving at JetBluePark. But there is a long way to go, longer than many realize. While it is assumed that he won't be ready for Opening Day, making his debut in May wasn't perceived as part of the deal. Now it is at least a very real possibility.

"It’s going along good," he said. "Obviously coming back from a stress fracture in my back. A certain amount of the rehab process is honestly giving it time. You have to let the bone heal. There is stuff that happens. People don’t understand that while you’re letting the bone heal for several months, a lot of other muscles you don’t use they get weak, they get out of whack. When you’re coming back from this you wait for the bone to heal and now that it’s healing and it’s good and move around and do stuff. You have to start working out, do athletic movements and to do that all the muscles that haven’t been used for several months need to be broken down, stretched and worked on and put in the right spots. I think right now the training staff here has done an excellent job of making me feel extremely good quickly. That being said we’re still going to take our time on this. We’re still going to make sure it’s not just a couple days I’m feeling good. We’re going to make sure when I get to baseball activities there are no setbacks."

JACKIE BRADLEY JR. TAKING THE MOOKIE BETTS APPROACH TO FREE AGENCY

While so much of the focus had been on the "it's a business" mantra relayed by Betts leading up to his contract year, another member of the Red Sox was digging in. Jackie Bradley Jr.'s mindset heading into free agency seems very familiar.

"One hundred percent," Bradley Jr. told WEEI.com when asked if he was looking forward to the free-agent process. "It’s what everyone wants to get to. Back in the day, you get your time, you get to make a decision where you choose. You get to finally make a choice for yourself. I knew it was a business. That’s why I don’t get emotional about it."

There are, of course, different approaches when it comes to the last guaranteed year of a contract, hence players jumping at extensions. (For the record, the Red Sox have never offered Bradley Jr. a contract extension.) But for the center fielder this isn't complicated. It takes six long years to get this opportunity, so it's OK to enjoy the moment.

"Stress? You get an opportunity to continue playing the game. I guess it depends on who you talk to," he said. "Everybody is different. You’re bringing up the stressful part but what about the exciting part? When Markus goes to free agency do you think he’s going to be stressed? When Gerrit Cole went to free agency was he stressed? Anthony Rendon, was he stressed? Certain guys are different and it depends on who you talk to. Everyone is different.

"Why not be excited about it? I don’t see anything negative about it. Things have changed. Free agency has changed."

JARREN DURAN LEARNED HIS LESSON

The outfielder has already left quite an impression on the major league staff, standing out in the second Grapefruit League game in Sarasota with a couple of spectacular catches and a pair of hits. Duran has always had a knack when it comes to separating himself.

"When I was a kid and started racing and I was always beating everyone that's when I'm like, 'I guess I'm pretty fast,'" he explained, winning the semi-prestigious Presidential Fitness Award in elementary school. "Now I'm' definitely faster than I was in college. When I go for doubles or triples I feel faster running around the bases."

But for a time last season, he found himself settling into the kind of mediocrity he wasn't used to, struggling out of the gate with Double-A Portland after tearing it up in Single-A.

"I learned to trust myself," Duran reflected. "I kind of got in my own way doubting myself a little bit. I think everyone goes through it. But believing I belong was the biggest thing for me. This was the first time in Double-A and everyone struggles. I just started trusting myself. I felt like I had to do more than I was doing in Salem and that hurt me. I was trying to do too much instead of playing my game. I thought I had to get more hits, maybe hit more home runs, drive in more runs, just do more. I ended up in a spot I was happy with."

MITCH MORELAND DIDN'T THINK HE WAS COMING BACK

Moreland had gone through this before. This past offseason the first baseman was living life as a free agent for a third time, ultimately eyeing a third contract with the Red Sox. But despite the natural fit as the team's lefty-hitting option the position, there was plenty of doubt when it came to envisioning a reunion.

"From the talks we had with the team I didn’t think it was a possibility of coming back," he said. "I had a good amount of teams call early so I was like, ‘OK, time to move on. And then as the offseason went on it got into January the team started talking to us a little bit more. I told them, ‘Listen, I’m not playing 10 more years. This is where I want to be. I want to be on a good team, be in spot I’m familiar with. Obviously, Boston is my first choice.’"

Was it close with other teams?

"Yeah," said Moreland, who ultimately signed a deal for one guaranteed year at $2.5 million with a club option in a second season for $3 million. "There were couple of teams. Some that were really close to home that were enticing. There was some other interest for sure but I wanted to be here."

So, what was delay? Predictably it had to do with juggling payroll.

"It’s funny going into it every team says they are trying to clear money or they don’t have it. It’s part of it," he said. "You expect it."

INSIGHT TO HOW ROENICKE/NARRON WORKS

The relationship between a manager and bench coach can be tricky dynamic. An extreme example was in 2012 when Bobby Valentine and his bench coach Tim Bogar barely talked for the last few months of the season.

It is why if a team can priortize familiarity and friendship when putting the two together they do so. That's exactly what the Red Sox accomplished when reuniting interim manager Ron Roenicke and new bench coach Jerry Narron.

It's a dynamic catcher Jonathan Lucroy had a front row seat for throughout the pair's five-season tenure in the dugout with the Brewers.

"They had great relationship. They were always communicating in the dugout," Lucroy said. "For me, I was actively involved working with both of them constantly throughout the game. But Jerry being the bench coach, him giving me the signs and Ron is making all the decisions. One thing I like about them is that they are standing next to each other and they are really, really good friends so that is enhances the communication they have. The level of trust there is immense. Between the two of them they probably have 60 to 70 years in the big leagues. They are very experienced in what they do. I don’t remember questioning any of the decisions they made. They made very informed decisions in-game, ones that make a lot of sense.

"Because they are such good friends they are able to be fully honest with each other and hold each other accountable, not in a bad way but in a good way. They aren’t afraid to tell the truth to each other. I think that is important in a manager, bench coach relationship because you want to be able to have discussions and sometimes they are going to disagree. You have to be able to communicate and discuss with one another so they can make the best decision possible for the team. The one thing that I always liked about Ron and Jerry’s relationship is they have that. They can be honest with one another and make the best decision for everyone."

SOME OTHER STUFF ...

- Much as been made of the almost-acquisition of Brusdar Graterol by the Red Sox. Well, it turns out the Betts deal wasn't the first time the Sox made a run at the former Twins reliever. Dave Dombrowski tried prying Graterol away from Minnesota last year only to get word that the hard-throwing righty was not available.

- It was only one inning, but there was something that stood out about Brian Johnson's spring training debut Saturday. He threw exactly one more changeup than he had in the entire 2019 season. The lefty -- who his fighting for a spot as a non-roster invitee -- was unable to throw the pitch previously because of how long his delivery was. "I threw it to (Manuel) Margo the second pitch of the game. I'm 100 percent more this year than I was last year," he explained. But after working on a modified version of the Driveline throwing program Johnson has shortened his approach, not only opening the door to a new pitch but also resulting in less soreness between throwing sessions.

- A year ago Colten Brewer lived in a mobile home. The perks of a full-year in the majors have allowed the pitcher to sell his home on wheels actually buy a house. This spring? He is renting a real house at the same mobile home site his vehicle was parked at a year ago.