By Rob Rains
As Ryan Helsley drives from his home to his college baseball field in rural Oklahoma, a thought usually crosses his mind at least once.
By this time of year, he should be in Florida, instead making the drive to the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter.
Because of the lockout, however, Helsley makes the 30-minute trip to Northeastern State University a couple of times a week to throw bullpen sessions, and where it’s likely next week he will begin throwing to some of the college team’s hitters.
“I like to go down at least a week early and get back in the swing of things,” Helsley said. “Oklahoma’s cold right now. We had eight inches of snow last week.”
In addition to getting away from the weather, another reason Helsley likely would have already been in Florida if not for the lockout is because of his rehab from two separate injuries he suffered last season.
Helsley had to go on the injured list in August because of a stress reaction in his right elbow, and knowing that the injury would keep him from pitching the rest of the season, he went ahead and tried to correct a lingering problem by having a surgical procedure on his left knee.
While neither was considered a major problem, the Cardinals normally would have been monitoring Helsley’s rehab and recovery, first at home and more closely once he got to Florida.
“The training staff definitely would have wanted to get their eyes on me and see how I responded,” Helsley said. “They probably would have put me through a few tests, but I’m feeling good.”
Before the lockout began, the Cardinals were able to give Helsley a list of exercises and a routine to follow. He was able to get physical therapy near his home, and has continued to do that while working out on his own.
“Mostly I’m just listening to my body right now,” he said. “With the lockout going on there’s no need to put too much stress on my body.”
Helsley is happy with how his body feels, and believes he will be ready to begin spring training – whenever the owners and players’ association can reach a new labor agreement.
“You don’t ever want to miss any time, but it kind of happened at a good time,” Helsley said of his injuries. “If it had happened the last day of the season I would just now be starting to ramp up and would be a little behind schedule.”
Helsley still isn’t certain exactly what was wrong with his elbow.
“We had an off day and I came in the next day and was long tossing and my arm just didn’t feel right,” he said. “I didn’t throw for a few days, and it still didn’t feel right, so I got it looked at and that (the stress reaction) popped up.”
The medical recommendation was that Helsley not pitch for eight weeks.
That was when it was decided to have the procedure on his knee, which had been bothering him for more than a year.
“The cartilage in there was fraying, so they shaved it down and let it heal on its own,” he said. “It wasn’t a major surgery; I walked out of the hospital. It was something I could deal with and go out and pitch, but since I was shut down anyway we just decided to go ahead and take care of it then.”
Helsley is now glad that he did.
“My knee has felt great,” he said. “I started running and doing some jumps a few weeks ago … Maybe it affected my pitching, I don’t really know. Maybe I changed my mechanics because of my knee and wasn’t landing as strong or following through.”
Helsley also is pleased with how his arm has recovered from the long period of rest. He has been throwing since late November.
“When I first started throwing my elbow was a little stiff but I kind of expected that from not throwing for three or four months,” he said. “I’ve felt really good for the most part and I’m excited to get going.”
When Helsley and the rest of the Cardinals, like all of the players in the majors, can “get going” is the unanswerable question right now.
Helsley has tried to monitor the progress, or lack of progress, in the negotiations on the internet or through conversations with his teammates. He knows what the union is basically asking for – trying to get more money for younger players – because it directly affects him.
With 2.1 years of service time, Helsley is not yet eligible for salary arbitration, so he basically is forced to accept whatever salary the Cardinals offer. His raise from 2020, had there been a full season, to 2021 was just $13,300, only slightly more than the minimum salary given to first-year players.
“I think the owners are going to have to give a little bit one way or the other to get this thing going, even though they don’t really want to,” Helsley said.
Whenever the two sides do come to an agreement, Helsley should be part of a Cardinals’ bullpen that returns almost everybody from 2021.
“We’ve got a lot more experience now,” Helsley said. “I’m excited.”
If the Cardinals intend to stretch out Jordan Hicks as a potential starter, or at least a multiple-innings reliever, that likely will have to happen in the minor leagues because of how much time Hicks has missed the last three seasons because of injuries.
That would open up one spot in the bullpen for somebody to join Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, Alex Reyes, T.J. McFarland, Kodi Whitley and Jake Woodford – either through a trade, a free agent signing or a promotion from the minor leagues.
One potential name to watch for in trade talks is right-hander Lou Trivino, who led Oakland with 22 saves last season. Trivino, 30, is eligible for salary arbitration and could be in line to earn more than the Athletics would want to pay.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Helsley said.
Until a labor deal is reached, Helsley knows he is going to be reminded almost daily that he isn’t in Florida, where he knows he should be.
“My memories keep popping up of photos from down there the last few years,” he said. “I just want to be ready to go when the time comes.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports