Rays' Garvin aiming for rebound season

Left-hander primed for breakout after 2012 Tommy John surgery

Grayson Garvin will begin 2014 with Double-A Montgomery. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

By Jake Seiner | March 11, 2014 3:21 PM

There's plenty for baseball people to say about Grayson Garvin. That they always rave first about his makeup is a testament to the left-hander's personality.

The qualities that draw those reviews -- the work ethic, enthusiasm, positivity and intelligence -- have been useful tools over the past year and a half.

"If anybody can overcome Tommy John [surgery], Grayson Garvin can," Tampa Bay director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics said. "No doubt in my mind."

That theory is being put to the test this season, as Garvin -- the 59th overall pick in the 2011 Draft -- attempts to come back from an elbow surgery that was actually years in the making.

A 45th-round pick by Houston in 2008, Garvin passed on signing a pro contract and instead took a roster spot at Vanderbilt. In 2009, the Suwanee, Ga., native began having pain in his throwing elbow, prompting a visit to Dr. James Andrews.

What Andrews found was unusual, and the surgeon was faced with a quandary. The pain in Garvin's elbow was being caused by a stress fracture in an abnormal bone growth, and the growth happened to be right near Garvin's ulnar collateral ligament -- the same ligament fixed when doctors perform Tommy John surgery.

It was possible that time would heal the stress fracture, but the growth was not going to disappear on its own. Andrews gave Garvin the option to either have Tommy John and remove the bone growth at the same time or spend six weeks resting the stress fracture and risk letting the growth cause further damage to his UCL.

"[Andrews] said I may be able to throw the rest of my career with it, or I may not be able to," Garvin said. "At that point, I was willing to sit out and take that little extra rest and see if that would be the way it would go."

Early returns on Garvin's decision to rest and rehab were promising. The 6-foot-6 left-hander earned the BFC Whitehouse Top Pitcher Award in the Cape Cod League in 2010, going 5-0 with a league-leading 0.74 ERA. The next summer, the Rays selected him in the first round of the Draft and signed him for a reported 70,000 -- a below-slot deal penned after the Rays' reportedly expressed concerned over Garvin's medical records.

The left-hander made his pro debut in 2012 with Class A Advanced Charlotte, and it didn't take long for the elbow issues to resurface. Garvin said the elbow bothered him on and off from 2009-12, but around his third start with the Stone Crabs, a pain developed in his elbow and never went away. 

He tried to pitch through the discomfort, as he had in the past, but as his ERA ballooned and the pain never dissipated, it became clear Garvin would have to have Tommy John.

Garvin's elbow received a full cleanup in that surgery -- doctors repaired his UCL and also removed the bone growth believed to have caused the UCL damage. Taking advice from offseason workout buddies and Tommy John survivors Kris Medlen and Jonny Venters, as well as Rays' pitching coordinator Kyle Snyder, Garvin felt confident in the rehab process.

"Going through it the first time, you don't know what to expect," Garvin said. "Being able to talk through the process and the throwing program was helpful on the front end to have realistic expectations of what it would be like when you go through it yourself. 

"It's definitely been valuable for me, for nothing else, to have the peace of mind to know and see guys healthy on the back end."

Garvin returned to game action late in 2013, splitting 11 starts between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Charlotte. He managed a 1.08 ERA in five starts in the Florida State League, posting a 12-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 2/3 innings.

Tampa Bay sent the then-23-year-old to the Arizona Fall League to get some more innings. He logged 26 frames, posting a 3.76 ERA with a 25-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Baseball America reported the left-hander's velocity was back in the 91-to-93 mph range, even touching 95.

"It was definitely a tough process getting back," Garvin said. "I think going out there at the beginning, you want to be back in midseason form like when you felt healthy before the surgery. That's not a realistic expectation.

"Once I got to the FSL and once I got to Arizona, I really started to feel more like myself. I wasn't fully back at all, but there were signs of the things I wanted to see. It was rewarding to go back out there and have success and see the fruits of the labor that I'd put in through 12, 13, 14 months of rehab."

Garvin said his body feels good this spring. Minor League Spring Training games begin Wednesday, so he's yet to see action beyond intrasquad scrimmages, but he's encouraged by the throwing he's done.

The left-hander will start the season with Double-A Montgomery, where he'll attempt to recapture the stuff that, in combination with his makeup, made him a first-round Draft choice almost three years ago.

The Rays, like Garvin, are bullish about the results.

"Grayson's the epitome of a professional," Lukevics said. "[Tommy John] set him back, but no one has better intangibles than Grayson Garvin.

"If he had to be injured, we're happy it's Tommy John. There's a pretty good success rate with pitchers coming back from Tommy John and having the same stuff. Maybe they get a little stronger, a little better. We're encouraged by the way he's throwing the baseball."

Jake Seiner is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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