Winker 'feeling strong' after serious spinal surgery

February 14th, 2023

PHOENIX -- Jesse Winker figured that, if the surgery was good enough to get mixed martial artists back on the mat, it could help a baseball player seeking a bounce-back.

Spring Training hasn’t even formally begun for Brewers pitchers and catchers, but outfielder, designated hitter and comeback candidate Winker has already been knocking around American Family Fields of Phoenix for more than a month after being cleared to resume activities following two offseason surgeries. The first repaired the meniscus in his left knee. The second was more ominous, a disc replacement surgery that left a scar across his neck.

Winker, who used to torment the Brewers when he played for the Reds, heard stories about hockey players, NFL players and MMA fighters coming through similar spinal surgeries. It was rarer for baseball players, but after dealing with discomfort and mobility issues in his neck for parts of three years -- especially as he grinded through the least productive year of his career with Seattle in 2022 -- it was time to try something.

“[The doctors] told me the numbers, they told me the success rate. And I was very encouraged,” Winker said. “I mean, when you're hearing about the neck, it's pretty scary. But after talking to my surgeon and doing the research on my own, I felt confident in it. And it was something that was [either] deal with what I was dealing with or get the procedure. There was no other option that I was comfortable with.

“I was happy I did it, because it's crazy how it all worked out. You kind of wake up from it, and you can already feel a difference.”

Gone, he said, were years-long symptoms like trouble looking to his right or upward, weakness in his arms, diminished grip strength and tingles running down his arms.

“That's what's scary,” he said. “It was hard, man.”

Winker was already more than a month post-op when the Brewers acquired him with infielder (and fellow bounce-back candidate) Abraham Toro from the Mariners in a Dec. 2 trade for Kolten Wong. The Brewers want the Winker who made the All-Star team for the Reds in 2021 while slashing .305/.394/.556 with a career-high 24 home runs, and the Winker who has a lifetime 1.032 OPS at American Family Field, fourth-highest among active players with at least 100 plate appearances there.

They hope not to see the Winker who posted a .688 OPS in 136 games for the Mariners last season, who was put on the injured list in October and unable to take part in Seattle’s first postseason appearance in two decades.

Health will play a big part in what happens in Winker’s final season before free agency. Brewers manager Craig Counsell has said he sees Winker serving as the designated hitter early in the year to get a foundation before Milwaukee plays him regularly in the outfield.

“I'm feeling strong,” Winker said. “I'm feeling healthy. It's the first time I can comfortably say that in a minute. So, I'm thrilled about that.”

The timing of his Cactus League debut remains to be determined, Winker said. He’s relying on the Brewers’ medical staff to find the right time. And that will determine his readiness for Opening Day against the Cubs. The plan, Winker said, is that he will be a go.

Will he head into 2023 with a chip on his shoulder?

“I think as a player it's your job to always kind of keep that, no matter what,” Winker said. “Winning is a ton of fun, and this team here has already done a ton of winning. They've been in the playoffs a lot since I've been in the big leagues, and they've won a ton of baseball games. So, I'm looking forward to helping any way that I can.”