He's new to Crew, but not to comebacks

January 5th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Adam McCalvy’s Brewers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MILWAUKEE -- In signing a one-year deal with the Brewers last month, right-hander  secured not only an opportunity to crack a big league starting rotation for the first time in nearly two years, but to pitch for a familiar manager.

Brewers skipper Pat Murphy was at the helm of the Short-Season Class A Eugene Emeralds when Ross arrived in 2012, the year after the Padres made the pitcher the 25th overall pick in the MLB Draft. A decade later, Murphy is getting his first shot to manage a full season in the Majors and Ross is looking to re-establish himself after completing a comeback from his second Tommy John surgery.

“A tough guy, no B.S.,” Ross said of his memories of Murphy. “I really enjoyed playing for him. I’m definitely an uber competitor when I’m on the field, and he coached that same way. So I appreciated that.

“It’s good to see familiar faces. But more than anything, it’s good to be back on the field, to have a good opportunity to make some starts and go into Spring Training feeling good.”

It has been a while since Ross went into Spring Training feeling good. Every one of his seasons since his Major League debut in 2015 has been shortened, either by injury, or in the case of 2020, by the pandemic, when Ross elected not to play. His most significant setbacks were the elbow reconstructions, one in 2017 and another in ’21, each followed by a year-plus of rehabilitation.

But after Ross got back on the mound late last season in the Giants’ chain, this winter has been a normal, healthy offseason. The 30-year-old product of Oakland now resides in greater Phoenix, where he spoke to MLB.com via telephone on his way home from a workout.

“I don’t want to settle for just being back,” Ross said. “I want to be back at the highest level.”

Once considered among the top pitching prospects in baseball, Ross went from the Padres to the Nationals via a three-team mega trade in 2014 and made his Major League debut the following season. He held the Brewers to two runs over eight brilliant innings in Milwaukee in his second career start.

But then there was shoulder trouble in 2016 and elbow trouble in ’17. Surgery cost him most of 2018, and he bounced between the rotation and bullpen for the Nationals when they won the World Series in ’19. Near the end of ’21, Ross’ elbow failed again, and he required another repair.

Ross missed 2022 before signing with the Giants for ’23. In eight abbreviated outings across three Minor League levels, he logged a 5.14 ERA but featured an improved shape on his two-seam fastball along with a four-seamer that touched 99 mph.

Going into free agency, it was enough to show other teams that Ross had something left.

He got a $1.75 million, one-year deal with the Brewers, whose rotation is led by Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Wade Miley and Colin Rea. Right-hander Adrian Houser was traded to the Mets last month, and left-hander Aaron Ashby is still trying to get back from last season’s shoulder woes. The only other starter on the 40-man roster is righty Janson Junk, who started a game for the Brewers last April, then didn’t make it back to the Majors until a relief stint during the final series of the regular season.

That means Ross has a real shot. While he has experience as both a starter and a reliever, the Brewers are looking at him this spring as a rotation option first.

“I feel like every year, in my mind, I’m competing for a spot, whether my spot is secured or not,” Ross said. “I don’t see myself taking it easy this Spring Training.”

Any pitcher who works back from multiple injuries develops some perspective, as Ross says he did. He had help along the way from other pitchers who have endured similar trials, including former Nationals teammate Daniel Hudson, another member of the multiple Tommy John club. When Hudson reached out to offer encouragement, Ross said. “It was like a ray of light.”

“The whole process definitely made me more grateful,” Ross said. “When things are going well and you’re feeling good, it’s not always something you think about. You’re more focused on results. But as you get worn down or you miss time, you think about all of the stuff you didn’t appreciate in real time. …

“You kind of set your goals for weeks and months at a time. The day-to-day soreness doesn’t bother you as much. You see the big picture. It’s always good to have some gratitude in your life, whether it’s baseball or otherwise.”