19. Can Blaine Boyer return next season?

Blaine Boyer missed most of the 2006 season with shoulder surgery. Can he return next year? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

When Blaine Boyer made his major league debut in June of 2005, it didn't take long for fans to realize the Braves had a pretty good arm in the tall right-hander. He immediately showed solid big league pitches and a strong desire to succeed out of the bullpen.

Boyer pitched in 43 games in 2005, and the more he pitched, the more people believed the Braves had actually developed a solid relief prospect. But when he left a game with an injury in the last week of the 2005 season, everyone held their collective breaths.

At that point, tests showed there was no structural damage to his shoulder. Boyer was instructed to simply strengthen his shoulder over the winter and try to prove he was healthy in spring training. He made his spring training debut late in spring training, on March 26th, and had a good outing. Two more solid appearances convinced Bobby Cox to place him on the Opening Day roster.

But when the bell rang, it was obvious that Boyer was not completely healthy. He struggled in his two games the first week of the season, and the Braves sent him down to AAA Richmond. But Boyer was hurt, and a quick trip to Birmingham to see Dr. James Andrews confirmed that the right-hander was going to have to go under the knife.

Boyer had arthroscopic shoulder surgery on April 18th. He was not allowed to pick up a baseball for three months, and it wasn't until late September that he actually pitched off the mound. Boyer then went down to the Instructional League in Florida for a few appearances.

The Braves are obviously going to be careful with Boyer, who will be chomping at the bit to get back out there and regain his spot in the Braves bullpen. So far, his recovery is going very nicely. He was throwing in the upper 80s at Instructs, so that's a good sign.

He will continue exercising his arm and strengthening that shoulder over the winter, and Boyer is very confident he'll be able to be ready to go in late February. At the least, he is counting on himself being in the Atlanta bullpen next season.

But is that realistic? Boyer had surgery and missed an entire season, so it's hard to imagine him just stepping right back in. There is no one that doesn't want Boyer in the bullpen, particularly with the troubles the relief corps had last season. If he can bounce back, the bullpen will be much stronger.

Boyer first has to go to camp and prove he's healthy. If he has a full spring training, and if his shoulder proves healthy, there's no reason he can't win a job on the 2007 Opening Day roster. But those are a lot of "ifs," and for a team trying to get back to the postseason, it is somewhat of a gamble.

It might be more realistic to at least consider the fact that Boyer might need a month in Triple-A to continue to prepare for his return to the big leagues. If he makes progress in March in Florida, the Braves may simply want him to get more time rehabbing before he's thrown to the wolves in the big leagues. The preference would be for him to make the club out of spring training, but don't discount the possibility that Boyer might need just a little time in Triple-A before getting back to Atlanta.

Blaine Boyer would be a perfect setup man to Bob Wickman. He and Tyler Yates could be a pretty good duo in the 7th and 8th innings. But with Boyer being a question mark, the Braves are probably going to also seek a veteran arm this winter to be in the mix next spring. That's only being cautious, and it by no means will diminish the Braves confidence in Boyer's potential.

Boyer, Joey Devine, and Macay McBride are the future of the Braves' bullpen. The team still believes Boyer has the ability to be one of the top relievers in the league. The surgery set him back a bit, but if he can prove he's ready to go in spring training, he'll regain his spot in the Atlanta bullpen.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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