Woodruff has right shoulder surgery; next season in doubt

October 13th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers right-hander Brandon Woodruff underwent surgery on Friday to repair the anterior capsule in his right shoulder. He is expected to miss most, if not all, of next season, according to the club, raising the real possibility that the 30-year-old has thrown his final pitch for Milwaukee.

“Brandon is not only one of the best pitchers in our franchise’s history, but is also a valued member of our organization off the field,” Brewers general manager Matt Arnold said in a statement. “He and his wife, Jonie, have gone above and beyond here in the community. Brandon's health is our top priority at this point in time.”

In parts of seven Major League seasons, Woodruff is 46-26 with a 3.10 ERA and 788 strikeouts over 680 1/3 innings. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 600 innings in a Brewers uniform, Woodruff’s ERA and WHIP (1.05) are the best marks in franchise history, and his 28.9 percent strikeout rate is second-best all-time to Corbin Burnes’ 30.4 percent.

Dr. Keith Meister performed Woodruff's surgery in Dallas after delivering a second opinion on the extent of the injury, which was first revealed on the eve of the Brewers’ NL Wild Card Series matchup against the D-backs. Meister performed a similar surgery on Atlanta right-hander Kyle Wright earlier this week, and the Braves said Friday that they expect Wright to miss the entirety of 2024.

It has far-reaching consequences for the Brewers and for Woodruff, starting with the reality that he may have thrown his final pitch for Milwaukee. The Brewers drafted Woodruff out of Mississippi State in 2014 and developed him into a frontline starter who was the first in a series of pitchers, with Burnes and Freddy Peralta behind him, who helped the franchise reach the postseason five times in the past six seasons, winning three division titles along the way. Woodruff, like Burnes, has only one more season of contractual control before free agency, and Woodruff would continue to accrue service time even were he to spend all of 2024 on the 60-day IL.

With that ticking clock in mind, there are a couple of scenarios in play for the coming weeks:

1. The Brewers could tender Woodruff a contract as usual -- this year's tender deadline falls on Friday, Nov. 17 -- and go through the arbitration process, then cross their fingers that he's able to beat the odds and pitch at some point in 2024 to lay the groundwork for re-signing for '25 and beyond. It would be a risky and expensive bet; Woodruff earned $10.8 million this season, and given the way the arbitration system works, he could actually earn more next year even though he missed four months of 2023 with an injury behind his right shoulder that the Brewers don't believe was related to the current injury. 

2. The Brewers and Woodruff's agent, Bo McKinnis, could negotiate a multi-year contract now with the idea that he'd rehab in 2024, then have a chance to re-establish himself in '25 and possibly beyond. Since the sides have occasionally talked about a contract extension during Woodruff's time with the Brewers, those talks wouldn't exactly be starting from scratch, although the circumstances have dramatically changed. 

3. If the Brewers and Woodruff cannot reach terms on a multi-year deal, the Brewers could conceivably trade him to a club willing to attempt such an arrangement. 

4. Or, the Brewers could non-tender Woodruff on Nov. 17, which would make him a free agent. Under that scenario -- perhaps the likeliest of these four choices -- the Brewers would be responsible for the cost of Woodruff's medical care until he either signs with another club, or re-signs with the Brewers at a price agreeable to both sides.

What Friday's development means for the rest of Milwaukee's offseason remains to be seen. It's notable that the Brewers led the Majors with a 3.71 ERA despite getting just 67 innings from Woodruff, but still, his absence leaves a big hole to fill in a rotation that already had some question marks.

Peralta is sure to be back in '24 as he enters the final guaranteed season of the five-year contract he signed back in 2020. Left-hander Aaron Ashby is also signed for next season, but his availability and role are up in the air after he missed 2023 with his own shoulder injury. Arnold didn't commit to specifics when asked earlier this week about Ashby's availability for Opening Day.

“That is another tough injury that he sustained," Arnold said. "The reports I've gotten just recently, from him throwing are actually really, really positive. The velocity was trending up in a really good way. He's in great spirits. He's a great kid. I know he's working his tail off and all he wants to do is throw the baseball forward. That’s all that guy cares about and I'm excited about him for what he can do for us next year."

Beyond that, veteran left-hander Wade Miley has a $10 million mutual option for 2024 that must be decided following the World Series. Colin Rea is a free agent after delivering valuable innings when needed last year. Burnes, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer are all entering their final cycles through arbitration, making Burnes in particular a trade candidate. Whether the club's thinking on Burnes has changed in light of losing Woodruff is a great unknown.

In the Minors, the Brewers have left-hander Robert Gasser on the cusp of the Majors after winning the Triple-A International League's pitcher of the year award in 2023, as well as right-hander Janson Junk coming off a 4.18 ERA in 140 innings in Triple-A plus two appearances in the Majors. Also pushing toward the big leagues is Double-A Southern League pitcher of the year Carlos Rodríguez, who earned a promotion to Triple-A Nashville for one start at the end of the season.

To understand the challenge of coming back from a torn shoulder capsule, one can look to the north side of Chicago, where Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks was shut down in July 2022 with a shoulder injury and diagnosed with a capsular tear during the third month of August. His tear was small enough that, unlike Woodruff, it didn't require surgery, but Hendricks was still sidelined until the final week of May 2023.

With surgery, the timetable for a return to competition is often 12-14 months.

Woodruff, who turns 31 next February, was left off the Brewers' NL Wild Card Series roster because of the injury. He dealt with inflammation behind the same shoulder in April after just two starts and wound up missing four months with a subscapular strain. He returned in early August and was as good as ever, going 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA in eight starts from his Aug. 6 return through Sept. 17, a stretch that included the Brewers' first shutout in more than two years on Sept. 11 against the Marlins. But in a rematch in Miami on Sept. 23, there were signs of trouble.

Pitching the night after the Brewers clinched a postseason berth, when one more victory would clinch the NL Central, Woodruff allowed four runs on six hits in five innings. He worked with such diminished velocity that it drew a mound visit from the athletic trainer. Woodruff insisted he felt fine and chalked it up to bad mechanics.

The problem wound up being much more serious than that. In a tearful press conference, Woodruff expressed regret about not being able to help against the D-backs, who dispatched the Brewers in a two-game sweep by erasing deficits against both Burnes and Peralta.

"It just popped up at the wrong time," Woodruff said before the start of the Brewers' brief playoff run. “It sucks, man. We've got a good clubhouse, and I want to be a part of that."