ST. LOUIS -- Marco Gonzales and Mitch Harris, a pair of pitchers who had their 2016 seasons scrapped due to injury, are both positioned to be at or near the end of their rehab programs when the Cardinals open Spring Training next month.
Harris, who underwent a repair on his right elbow ligament in June, is closer to that endpoint and expects to be throwing uninhibited by the end of the month.
The fact that Harris is in position to nudge his way back into the bullpen conversation is the byproduct of a new procedure that team physician George Paletta performed on both Harris and Seth Maness last summer. Instead of having both relievers undergo traditional Tommy John surgery, Paletta introduced a new ligament repair that featured a shorter rehab time. The surgery does not yet have a name, though Harris is hoping that he and Maness could be the successful test cases that change how players approach elbow operations.
"If I would have had Tommy John, I probably would not be standing here," Harris said. "My whole thing is I'm going to play as long as I can play. I think a lot of people think, 'Hey, you've done good up to this point, and I think that would be a cool way to end even if it has to end now.' But my whole thing was that was never the goal, to just make it to the big leagues. I want to get here and play as long as I can."
Harris, whose career was delayed by his five years of military service, has a complicated path back to the Majors. He has to prove himself healthy first, and then pitch his way back into favor with the organization. He was removed from the Cardinals' 40-man roster in October and is not expected to compete for a Major League bullpen spot out of camp.
"I can't control any of that," he said. "I want to come into Spring Training 100 percent and healthy. Hopefully, I make a decision extremely difficult for somebody, or really easy."
Gonzales, who did need Tommy John surgery, is not as far along with his throwing program. The former first-round Draft pick could factor into the Cardinals' 2017 picture, though, if his recovery continues as planned.
Gonzales said he has stretched his throwing from a distance of 90 feet on flat ground and expects to be pitching off the mound when Spring Training begins. His goal is to be facing hitters by the time camp ends.
"That rehab process went really well, so I feel like it was just a refresh button for me, honestly," Gonzales said. "Throwing now and not having to think about my arm, my shoulder, my elbow, it's a good feeling. It's beautiful. I'm happy, and that's the most important thing."
Arm injuries limited Gonzales to 80 2/3 innings from 2015-16 and allowed others to leapfrog him on the depth chart. In fact, when asked on Sunday who ranks as the organization's top lefty, general manager John Mozeliak cited Austin Gomber, not Gonzales.
"I think Marco coming back from injury is going to have to show that he's healthy and can contribute," Mozeliak said. "Certainly when you look back at where he was a year ago, year and a half, almost two years really, where he was on the depth chart, he was extremely high. I'm still someone that thinks he's going to be a very productive pitcher at the big league level, but I do feel like this year is important for him to re-establish himself."