Jair Jurrjens is on the comeback trail. The 28-year-old righthander signed a minor league deal with Cincinnati in late May and is currently pitching for Triple-A Louisville. If he can approach his old form, the former Atlanta Braves stalwart could give the Reds rotation a shot in the arm.
Knee problems caused Jurrjens to spiral from solid starter to waiver-wire fodder. In 2009, he pitched 215 innings and went 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA. Two years later – despite discomfort in a surgically-repaired meniscus – he went 13-6, with a 2.96 ERA, in 152 innings. Then came the real pain. His 2012 and 2013 seasons were a velocity-challenged train wreck spent primarily in the minor leagues.
“The last couple of years have been stressful and frustrating,” Jurrjens admitted. “My arm was never a problem, I just didn’t have the strength to push off after the surgery to my right knee. I wasn’t using my lower body – I was throwing more with my arm – and wasn’t getting full extension.
“I ended up changing my mechanics so I wouldn’t feel my knee, and was never able to correct the bad mechanics. My leg also kept getting weaker and weaker. I finally found out why. It turns out I had a lot of scar tissue and a bone chip in my knee. I got that resolved over this past offseason and am feeling a lot better now.”
Louisville pitching coach Ted Power hasn’t seen a lot of the rehabbed righty – Jurrjens has made just two appearances since joining the team – but he’s mostly satisfied with his mechanics.
“They look pretty good,” Power said. “I don’t see the same flex and whip in his back leg, but the rest of his delivery is fine. He’s certainly not throwing all upper body. He’s getting help from his lower half.”
Jurrjens joined the Reds organization after almost signing with one of his former teams. The native of Curacao was originally signed by Detroit and made his big-league debut with the Tigers before being traded to the Braves for Edgar Renteria. After being waived by the Orioles last July, he re-signed with the Tigers and made seven appearances in Toledo before once again being let go.
“We did a tryout [in the spring] and six or seven teams came out to see me,” Jurrjens said. “I got an offer right away from Detroit, but then they took it back. I guess their doctors were a little scared of my knee. A week later Cincinnati gave me a chance, and so far everything is going well.”
The first of his 2014 starts was impressive. On June 2, against Columbus, Jurrjens fanned eight and allowed just one run over five innings. He wasn’t as good on June 7. Pawtucket touched him for five runs in six innings, with most of the damage coming in a four-run third. PawSox first baseman Travis Shaw, who had two hits on the evening, thought Jurrjens actually threw the ball well.
“He had a pretty decent changeup that was down for most of the game,” Shaw told me the following day. “He didn’t throw his slider much to me, but he had a few guys out front with that. I know his velocity isn’t what it was a few years ago – he was 88-91 last night – but after struggling a little bit early he settled into a good groove.“
“It seems like he got a little tricky with his off-speed stuff in that one inning,” Power said. “Instead of being aggressive with his fastball, as he was in the first two innings, he was sort of nibbling with his off-speed. After that he went to back to being aggressive with his fastball while throwing enough offspeed to make his fastball good. He shut them out after that.”
His pitching coach doesn’t think Jurrjens needs to overpower hitters to succeed.
“He has [lost velocity] but you learn to pitch without velo,” Power said. “He’s pitched in the big leagues and knows how to get people out. He reads hitters’ approaches and swings, and mixes his off-speed well. He also commands his fastball well.”
According to PITCHf/x, Jurrjens’ fastball averaged a tick under 92 mph in his healthy prime. Last season it was 88.5 mph. Thanks to a sturdier base, his velocity is slowly but surely beginning to climb. So is his confidence.
“I’m around 90 again.” Jurrjens said. “I’m still not consistently in the 90s, which is what I’m trying to get back to, but I think the velocity is going to come as I keep getting stronger. I’m waking up feeling good every day – no pain, no soreness. I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to being my old self again.”
“He getting there,” Power agreed. “He isn’t ready right now, but a few more quality starts and he may be ready to help the big-league club.”
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