Arodys Vizcaino hasn’t pitched in the Major League’s since 2011. He has spent a good chunk of his time on the disabled list since then, either injured or rehabbing. The former top-40 prospect has been a tease for Chicago Cubs fans, flashing top-tier velocity and control but the young right-handed pitcher just couldn’t seem to stay healthy.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of 2012, Vizcaino was traded a few months later from the Atlanta Braves to the Chicago Cubs in a deal centered around Paul Maholm. The Cubs bought low on the injured top prospect. He was initially expected back at the beginning of 2013 but that turned quickly into mid-2013, then finally he was to miss the season indefinitely due to a calcium buildup in his throwing elbow. He is now healthy and expected to pitch this spring and compete for a spot on the 25-man roster.
Vizcaino has a great history in the minor leagues as he has never posted a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) above 3.50. In the Majors, this streak was broken when he posted a FIP of 3.54. It is also worth noting that he did not last long in the minors, having made his big league debut at age 20. He began the 2011 season in High-A and finished it in the Major Leagues. He started in 50 of his 65 games in the minors and while he fills both roles well, a strong rotation and a strict innings limit will likely keep him battling for a bullpen spot, which is how he was used with the Braves.
Vizcaino is a true power arm. In his brief stint with the Braves in 2011, he averaged a fastball velocity of over 95 MPH and topped out at 98 MPH. His curveball was his out pitch, he was able to throw it for strikes consistently. It is a hard curveball with sharp late break, he consistently threw it above 80 MPH. His changeup had great separation as he averaged 85 MPH, a difference of 10 MPH. He has a tendency to come over top more on his curveball, which might tip off good hitters. His control is impeccable, never walking more than 9% of batters at any stop in the minors.
Now the question becomes will he become the same pitcher he was? Will he get hurt again? A common misconception is that Tommy John surgery increases velocity. Doctors get asked every year by patients to have the surgery performed on their healthy arm as they believe it increases velocity. The velocity gains that you do sometimes see depend on the rehab process more than the surgery itself. In most cases, an average player actually loses velocity. Jon Roegele of Beyond the Box Score attempted to use various databases to make a single list of how many players have had Tommy John surgery, by organization. Although he admits it isn’t a complete list, of the data he found the Atlanta Braves actually lead the league in Tommy John surgeries, while the Cubs had approximately 42% fewer surgeries.
What does this mean for his future with Cubs? Perhaps the change in scenery may also mean a break from the disabled list stints. The Cubs already have a plan to keep his arm healthy. Vizcaino recently said “They told me they’re going to be easy with me, throwing one inning, then two days off.” As for whether or not he will be the same pitcher, Theo Epstein reported that his fastball topped out at 98 MPH earlier this winter. Cubs’ manager Rick Renteria saw Vizcaino pitch just recently and he had this to say: “The ball comes out of his hand pretty easy. He snapped off some really strong breaking pitches and stayed below the zone.” The only real warning flag is the number of curveballs he throws. He threw 33% curveballs in 2011 and, while a small sample size, it shows that he has likely relied heavily on his curveball throughout his career. A Fangraphs article by Jeff Zimmerman shows that starting pitchers throwing over 25% curveballs have a 51% chance of hitting the disabled list the next season. While he is likely a reliever, I feel the article still applies considering Vizcaino made 17 starts in 2011 before being moved to the pen.
For a guy to be listed on a teams’ top 10 prospect list after not pitching an inning in two years shows how good he can be. The 23-year-old pitcher has shown nothing but great signs since starting to throw bullpens at the end of 2013. While most people have him crossed out, when healthy he has proven to be a top pitcher. While he may have a future as a starter, the Cubs are likely going to use him in the pen– for now. While he is no lock to make the 25-man roster, it’s hard to imagine him not coming up in some capacity during the season. Although Vizcaino and his body have gone through a lot, I wouldn’t count him out. This spring will be a test, but one the healthy 23-year-old is ready for. With his rare mix of control, secondary stuff and velocity, he will be an arm to watch.