One of Detroit Tigers most intriguing prospects tells all about Tommy John surgery recovery

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers left-handed prospect Joey Wentz remembers feeling devastated. So, just to make sure, he went to see a couple of doctors.

The 23-year-old received numerous opinions on his injured throwing elbow. And each doctor responded with the same words as the one before: You need Tommy John surgery.

"It was honestly terrible," Wentz told the Free Press on Sunday, recalling his emotions from about nine months ago. He arrived at the team's spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida, in mid-February. Soon after, he learned the reconstruction of his ulnar collateral ligament was inevitable.

"I was pretty upset about it," he added.

Pitcher Joey Wentz practices during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020.

But Wentz isn't upset, nor is he angry, anymore. He is at peace with what happened, even amid a grueling 14-16-month recovery. After his March 17 surgery, his mindset shifted: He wanted to make sure he never repeated these events. A few weeks later, his psyche changed once again. He was determined to survive his journey back to the mound, and with each day, Wentz knows he is inching closer.

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"You have your tough days," Wentz said, "but for the most part, I've felt like I've gotten better. ... Right now, I'm throwing at 100 feet. That distance will get greater and greater. I think I'll be in bullpens by at least late spring, mid-spring. Throwing arm feels really good, body feels really good. It's exciting. It's really fun to throw."

The Tigers are banking on Wentz's recovery. They added the No. 9 prospect in their organization, according to MLB Pipeline, to the 40-man roster in late November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. They're anticipating that Wentz — acquired from the Atlanta Braves at the 2019 trade deadline — will return and make an impact in the majors, possibly as soon as 2022.

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Wentz is one of many pieces needed to complete the organization's rebuild, along with fellow top pitching prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo. After the trade in 2019, the 6-foot-5 lefty posted a 2.10 ERA in Double-A Erie with 37 strikeouts and four walks in 25⅔ innings.

For the time being, the only thing the Tigers can do is hope for a revival.

"He's been down in Lakeland rehabbing and is doing very well," Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield told the Free Press in November. "We're very pleased with his progress."

"Obviously, we're hoping for a bounce-back with him coming off the Tommy John, but a lot of guys nowadays are coming back from that pitching effectively. ... Everything's always individualized, so it's hard to say exactly when it'll be."

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'Stronger than I've ever been'

As spring training began, Wentz threw a couple of bullpen sessions in Lakeland and felt superb. But on Feb. 17, he was shut down (expected to be 10 days) after his left arm tightened up during live batting practice.

It's just forearm soreness, he told himself. Nothing to worry about, he assumed. The MRI showed no structural damage.

"We just got to let him get healed and let the trainers do their thing," former manager Ron Gardenhire said at the time. "We don't want it to be one of those things that lingers on."

His arm never healed.

"After that, I was just never able to get it going again," Wentz said. "Ended up figuring out that I would need surgery. It was really tough, tough news to hear. I gained respect for anyone that's ever gone through it. It's mentally more challenging than physically. Everyone who has done it has told me that."

Pitcher Joey Wentz practices during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.

Wentz got an up close look at what the end of this rehab looks like. He was one of three Tigers players — with right-hander Michael Fulmer and Taiwanese righty Shao-Ching Chiang — to stay in Lakeland this spring after the COVID-19 pandemic halted baseball activities.

Fulmer was putting the final touches on getting back to full health. He had Tommy John surgery in March 2019.

In Lakeland, Wentz plugged away with rehab coordinator Corey Tremble, physical therapist Duncan Evans and strength and conditioning coach Steve Chase. He returned home to Kansas for three months in the summer, working with Kyle Veazey, a physical therapist for the University of Kansas Health System. Veazey was a left-handed pitcher for Truman State from 2008-11.

Wentz has bounced back-and-forth between locations and, as of Sunday night, is at the Tigers' spring training facility. But don't worry, Kansas, he will be back in time for Christmas.

"From a strength standpoint, I'm stronger than I've ever been right now," Wentz said. "In terms of the actual pitching side, I haven't thought too much about it. The ball is coming out good. Obviously, not throwing any off-speed pitches yet, but those will come along.

"The biggest thing with a long rehab is as long as your mindset isn't timid or you're not afraid to get on it, I think I'll be at least as good as I was or, you know, hopefully even improve a little bit."

Ready for a new regime

A lot has changed since Wentz's surgery, but one constant is that the Tigers are struggling to win games. They lost 114 of them in 2019, the worst year of the prolonged rebuild.

It was during that year they acquired Wentz.

"We liked him when we saw him with Atlanta, and then he came over and pitched really well for us in Erie," Littlefield said. "He was a high (draft) pick, as well. Big, tall lefty that has got some deception. He's looked very good for us when we had him in a short time in Erie."

Pitcher Joey Wentz during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

General manager Al Avila gave a similar message on July 31, 2019, when the Tigers made the trade, shipping closer Shane Greene to the Braves for Wentz and outfielder Travis Demeritte: "Wentz is a highly competitive left-handed pitcher with a three-pitch mix, who we see as a great addition to our already formidable stable of young arms in the player development system."

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The Tigers weren't much better in 2020 with a 23-35 record in the shortened campaign; of the team's esteemed prospects, only Mize, Skubal, Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron made their debuts. Needing to pick up the pace, which relies on player development, the franchise hired AJ Hinch as its new manager.

"Anytime you interject new people into a situation, there's some energy and buzz around it," Wentz said. "People will be excited, especially working toward next year. ... Hopefully, not after too long, I'm playing up there with everyone and for him. Looking forward to trying to do that."

Once Wentz gets to the majors, he will have a pitching coach who is only 11 years older than him. Chris Fetter, 34, mixes new- and old-school techniques with his analytical and individualized approach to teaching.

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They spoke last week for 10 minutes. Fetter is going to watch Wentz's film and, in December, give his perspective on the left-hander's pitch selection. He throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. 

"Someone new comes in, and you get to learn from them and see their point of view," Wentz said. "Especially someone so accomplished, so I was happy about it. Pretty excited about it, for sure."

There will come a time, barring another injury, when Wentz will showcase his talents for Hinch and Fetter to prove he belongs in the majors.

Yet Wentz doesn't want to think too far ahead.

Not when there's an elbow to continue rehabbing.

"It's all based on how I feel," Wentz said. "Right now, I feel great, and I feel confident it'll be sooner rather than later. In terms of the actual timeline, I just try to go day-by-day, week-by-week. Once I get down there for spring training, I will be throwing bullpens by the end of spring or extended spring. Then you just got to build up, which takes time coming off surgery.

"To be on the mound again will be great. It'll feel awesome."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.