Burrows driven toward debut a year after surgery

March 8th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- At this time last year, Mike Burrows looked to be on the verge of breaking through to the Majors. Regarded as one of the team’s top pitching prospects, he seemed positioned to be one of the Pirates’ first options when they needed to go to the Minors for a starter.

Instead, his Minor League season was cut short after just two outings, and he underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of April.

The worst was the first six months after the procedure. The season was in full swing, and all he could do was watch. He couldn’t throw, let alone play, so it was tough for him to stay involved when all he could do was rehab and wait.

“I hadn’t had a period of time like that when I was out of baseball and out of the game,” said Burrows, who was optioned after the Pirates' 6-3 win over the Twins. “It was definitely a weird time, trying to figure out who I am off the field as a person, as an individual that’s not a baseball player.”

What followed were months of conversations with friends and family as he tried to answer that question. What he discovered through that self-reflection is that he is, at his core, a hard worker. That’s driven him through his rehab process, which is nearing a major milestone soon. He’s throwing from flatground up to 120 feet, and in two weeks, he’ll throw off of a mound for the first time.

“When I started throwing again, that’s when I started seeing the light here,” Burrows said.

Despite missing a year due to injury, things still look bright for Burrows’ future with the team. The Pirates’ pitching talent pool has certainly gotten deeper of late with the drafting of Paul Skenes and the emergence of top 100 prospects Jared Jones, Anthony Solometo and Bubba Chandler. Burrows dropped to No. 11 on Pipeline’s rankings of the Pirates’ top prospects, but he still has upside and could very well be part of their future rotation.

According to MLB Pipeline, all three of his primary pitches (four-seamer, curveball and changeup) are graded at MLB average or better, and he boasts a mid-90s fastball and serious spin on the curve. He also started experimenting with a slider, which will be a fourth offering when he returns.

“The goal is to come back better, always,” Burrows said. “Whether that’s an offseason or an injury. The work is to not just get back to where we were, but better.”

It’s that type of attitude that made Burrows so liked by the organization and why they added him to their 40-man roster last winter. That gives him a leg up on Chandler and Solometo in terms of when he can debut, but he still has some waiting to do.

Burrows had Tommy John surgery two weeks after JT Brubaker did, so Brubaker is naturally a little further along in his rehab. Brubaker is aiming for a return around the All-Star break. Assuming his rehab continues to go well, Burrows could pitch in live games around late July.

Mix in Skenes, who will likely make his debut at some point this season, and the Pirates are in a rare position where their starting pitching pool will get deeper as the year progresses. There are questions surrounding the group now, but Burrows should be part of the stability that is added in the coming months.

"The easy answer [is] when you think you have enough pitching, get more,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “That would be a great problem to have where we've got more really good options than we have room for. That'll be a really good problem to have. Trying to build towards that. Michael and JT are working their tails off to be part of that conversation as we get to the middle of the season.”

Burrows is continuing to work towards being part of that conversation. There’s a difference between a lost year and being hurt for a year. A player can still learn and get better in the latter scenario.

He can’t wait to show how much he’s grown since then.

“It’s exciting, knowing I’ve got a brand new ligament in there,” Burrows said with a smirk. “It’s ready to go.”