Lynn taking on mentor role in 2016

Righty pitched through pain, underwent Tommy John surgery in November

February 29th, 2016

JUPITER, Fla. -- Though he has started more games than any Cardinals pitcher since 2012 and has more postseason appearances than anyone in franchise history, Lance Lynn has spent the first two weeks of Spring Training trying to feel out his fit.

It's awkward, Lynn acknowledges, showing up to work every day knowing that there will never be a 2016 season on the back of his baseball card and that the team goals being scripted now will be absent his contributions. He no longer arrives at the Roger Dean Stadium complex, as all the starting pitchers do, before the sun rises because, though he is still part of that group, he doesn't really feel so right now.

"You try to do anything you can to help guys, but you still don't feel like you're giving anything because you're not playing," said Lynn, who's recovering from November right elbow surgery. "I've never missed a season. It's going to be a weird year for me to try to stay positive."

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Lynn had hoped it wouldn't come to this. He pitched (pretty well, in fact) with a compromised elbow ligament last season, but he eventually ran out of rehab options in the fall. Weeks after the season, when he still couldn't reach to scratch his head with his right arm, doctors told him surgery was the only way to get right.

The timing of the procedure wiped away the upcoming season. Pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery typically need 12-18 months to do so, meaning that even a push to be on the short end of that won't get him back in time to contribute.

Lynn will make $7.5 million this year without throwing a pitch, but he doesn't intend to be entirely absent. Lynn will rehab at Busch Stadium and plans to travel with the team during the second half of the season, once he has begun mound work again. In the meantime, he's taking time to teach.

Since turning a corner in his own career midway through the 2014 season, Lynn has become more comfortable in taking on the role of an extra instructor. Now, it's the most impactful use of his time.

"Once you figure out what you're trying to do, it's easier to help out other people," Lynn said. "I think that's when it really started to click that, 'Hey, I can really help other people because I kind of have a clue what I'm trying to get done now.' That's just the learning process of figuring out who you are."

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When Lynn has not been engrossed in his rehab work, he has been roaming the back fields of the Cardinals' complex, observing and advising. He has been offering Kevin Siegrist suggestions about how to throw his new breaking ball, and he spent a session working with Luke Weaver on his release point. Whenever he sees something notable, he speaks. His hope is that he helps.

"He's been involved more, which I think comes with being a guy who understands that with time comes more expectation," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's no longer this young guy who is walking around soaking it all in. He's got to be on the other side. He's done a nice job. Really, it's a long process that he's in the middle of. We want to keep him engaged. We also don't want to burn him out. It's a tough balance, but he's handling it really well so far."

The 28-year-old has already reached out to former teammates Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook to learn how they navigated seasons of recovery. Their best piece of advice? Stay patient.

Lynn remains proud of what he was able to accomplish in 2015 despite pitching at less than full strength. It was as early as last June, when Lynn was briefly sidelined with a flexor strain, that he sensed reconstructive elbow surgery was on the horizon.

Lynn pitched anyway, believing that with Adam Wainwright out, Jaime Garcia sidelined and Marco Gonzales ailing at the time, his club couldn't afford another hole in the rotation. Some days he pitched with only his fastball. Other starts, he didn't even know where that pitch was going. He struggled to get full extension as he released, calling it "too painful."

Nevertheless, his results -- a 12-11 record and 3.03 ERA over 31 starts -- hardly suggested anything was wrong.

"It was worth it when all was said and done because we were able to have a really good year," Lynn said. "I didn't feel like I was putting the team at risk. Putting myself at risk, maybe, but I knew how to handle the pain and how to pitch through it. Heck, who knows what I would have done if I had been healthy?"

Lynn will have to wait until 2017 to find out.