Boston Red Sox: Status report on outfielder Alex Verdugo

Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo is still injured with no clear timetable for when he’ll be ready. There were, however, some promising new developments in his rehab over the past two weeks which bode well for his return.

As the centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade, all eyes have been on Alex Verdugo from the moment he set foot in Ft. Myers last month. The former Dodger and new Red Sox outfielder missed the final month and a half of the season in 2019 with a back injury that also kept him out of the NLDS, which Los Angeles went on to lose in five games.

While most outside observers believed that Verdugo was healed enough from his ailments at the time of the trade such that he’d be ready for spring training, once Grapefruit League games began in late February it was revealed by both the player and the team that his injury was more serious than initially thought. Some estimates put him as making his debut in mid-April while some pushed it as far back as May.

While Verdugo has been ever-present at Red Sox camp this spring, he had yet to engage in any baseball activities, let alone appear in any of the team’s games. On February 25, it was reported that Verdugo had been running and throwing and was making good progress, although the one thing the report did point out was that he still wasn’t cleared to swing a bat.

“The only thing I’m missing now is the swinging, and that’s coming. It’s coming sooner than we think,” said Verdugo, per The Boston Globe. “I didn’t even think I was going to be throwing yet. The fact that we’re throwing, doing a lot of weight-room stuff, exercises, and the fact that I’m passing it is a good sign.”

Verdugo said that the contrast to how he felt when he attempted similar baseball activities last September has been extreme.

“Every time I did something, it felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife in my back — putting my shoes on, putting my socks on,” said Verdugo. “Now, I don’t have any pain, nothing like that. I maybe have some soreness.”

Verdugo and the Sox are trying to measure the pace of his buildup in activity, wanting to take a conservative approach to avoid a setback. Still, he characterized himself as “close, very close” to swinging.

As of last weekend, it was reported that Verdugo was still not swinging a bat and there was no additional clarity or updated timetable for when he’d be cleared to begin doing so. While it was disappointing that there hadn’t been any progress on that front, it wasn’t entirely surprising given the nature of back injuries in general and his in particular.

It was thus a nice surprise when it was revealed on Tuesday that Verdugo took his first swings as a member of the Red Sox and also engaged in some agility work.

This bodes well for both Verdugo and the team as the sooner he can be ready to play, the more competitive the Red Sox should be. While the team should of course prioritize his long-term health over the rush to get him into the lineup this season, it’s still a welcome development. Verdugo’s absence isn’t going to be the difference between the Red Sox contending or not in what’s shaping up to be a rebuilding year, but it would give them a chance to see up close just what they got in return for Mookie.

According to The Athletic, Verdugo also came out this week as expressing interest in being a two-way player in the same vein as the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and newcomer Brendan McKay of the Rays. Verdugo, whose arm was scouted as highly as his bat while in high school, said that once he’s played a full season healthy he’d like to try being a two-way player. He mentioned that when he first came into the league he had wanted to prove himself as a position player, but would relish the opportunity to try and do both.

While the Red Sox certainly need all of the pitching help they can get, Verdugo doesn’t appear to be a realistic addition in the near-term to either the rotation or bullpen. Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom expressed admiration for Verdugo’s enthusiasm while saying that “the focus is on helping Alex through his rehab so he can impact us at the plate and in the outfield.”

Whether or not Verdugo ever ends up pitching for the Red Sox, in any capacity, right now his main objective is to get healthy and back to full strength in order to begin his career in Boston plugging the hole left by Mookie Betts’ departure. While there hasn’t been a change to his projected return date, the fact that he’s swinging a bat can be taken as a good sign.

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The Red Sox shouldn’t rush Verdugo back this year, but if he can be ready to play by late April or early May as currently projected, if not a bit earlier, it would bode well for the Red Sox chances at being competitive in 2020.