BRADENTON, Fla. -- Two years ago, Tom Koehler entered the Dodgers’ Spring Training camp with the promise of playing a prominent role for the reigning National League champions. A back-end starter with the Marlins for most of his career, he had parlayed a strong finish in the Blue Jays’ bullpen into an opportunity to pitch high-leverage innings in front of closer Kenley Jansen.
Major shoulder surgery robbed Koehler of that chance.
Now, the veteran right-hander -- the oldest pitcher in the Pirate City clubhouse at just 33 years old -- is back on the mound, fully healthy and aiming to claim a spot in the Pirates' bullpen.
“I’m happy to be back in uniform again, just having a chance to see where it goes,” Koehler said. “I just wanted to get back out there, because I’m well aware that, regardless of how this goes, there’s more in the rearview mirror than there is in front.
“I know that I have a short window to show that I still can do this and a short window to go out and play, so I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”
Koehler's journey to Pirates camp effectively began in Toronto’s bullpen. The Blue Jays -- with current Bucs GM Ben Cherington in their front office and manager Derek Shelton as their quality control coach -- acquired the longtime, durable starter on Aug. 19, 2017, and moved him into a relief role.
Koehler's fastball velocity ticked up. He threw his curveball more, and opponents hit it less. In 15 appearances for Toronto, Koehler posted a 2.65 ERA with 18 strikeouts and only six walks in 17 innings. The Dodgers, in search of a late-innings replacement for Brandon Morrow, took notice and signed him.
Before his second Spring Training appearance on March 2, 2018, Koehler didn’t feel right warming up in the bullpen. He’d been pitching through some physical issues since 2016, though, so he had no reason to believe it was something he couldn’t handle. But Koehler's pitches had no finish, he couldn’t get extension on anything and his breaking balls didn’t spin. He left the game after facing four batters and recording one out.
Initially, doctors diagnosed Koehler with biceps tendinitis. As he was leaving the ballpark, though, Dr. Neal ElAttrache called him back in after reading the results of his MRI exam. The new diagnosis: an anterior capsule sprain in his right shoulder -- or, as Koehler put it, “whatever fancy word they use to say ‘tear’ without scaring everybody.”
“From everybody I spoke to, that’s usually caused by trauma -- falling off a bike or something,” Koehler added. “You see a lot of middle linebackers trying to make one-armed tackles getting it, not a lot of pitchers. I had enough instability in the shoulder that I was throwing through it.”
Koehler held out hope that he would pitch for the Dodgers that year, but at 31 years old, he knew he was facing an uphill battle. He worked through the early rehabilitation process in Los Angeles and Arizona, but during his last scheduled bullpen session before beginning a Minor League rehab assignment in June, he suffered a setback.
“It went from good, good, good to bad really fast,” Koehler said, adding that doctors said he would have “completely dislocated” his shoulder if he had kept trying to pitch through the pain.
Koehler had surgery in late July 2018, and the recovery timeline was daunting. The goal was for him to throw live batting practice by September 2018, but it wouldn’t be with the Dodgers, who released him at the end of the season. The Pirates signed Koehler to a Minor League deal on Feb. 6, 2019, with the understanding that he’d spend the entire first year of his contract getting healthy.
“There were days when I’d throw a bullpen and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m back!’ Then the next day, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t even throw 93 [mph],’” Koehler said. “It was mentally draining.”
The Bucs encouraged him to take it slow -- especially special assistant Scott Elarton, who had the same surgery multiple times -- but Koehler surpassed expectations. He threw live batting practice two months ahead of schedule and made four appearances in Pittsburgh’s Minor League system before he was shut down.
Finally, after 13 months of rehab, he was able to enjoy a normal offseason at home in Jupiter, Fla.
Cherington and Shelton weren’t with the Pirates when they signed Koehler, but they knew him from their time in Toronto. They invited him to Major League Spring Training, and Koehler started throwing earlier than usual this offseason because he wanted to report to camp ready to win a job.
“They did their part. Their training staff, strength coaches, everybody put the work in to get me to this point. Now, I feel like I have to honor my side of it,” Koehler said. “If I can, it’s going to be great for everyone. The only way I won’t be able to do it is if I just physically can’t, and there’s no way of knowing that until we keep going. I don’t see any signs of that being the case.”
Koehler believes he can offer more than just a good arm to the young club, too. He’d rather talk about experience than leadership, and his experiences range from 33-start seasons for the Marlins to high-leverage work with the Jays to the long, monotonous rehab he completed last year.
“The one thing with TK that’s really impressive is the fact of where he’s at in his career, and he’s grinded through these injuries and he wants to be out here and he wants to pitch at this level,” Shelton said. “It’s important, and it’s exciting to see.”
It’s hard to handicap Koehler’s chances of making the Opening Day roster. He hasn’t pitched in the Majors since Sept. 29, 2017. The Bucs are building for the future, and there are plenty of younger arms in camp to evaluate.
But Koehler has another chance. For now, that’s enough.