Remember the above use of the word "sign". I will be back to that in a moment.
The Cardinals' fourth-round pick, taken 129th overall from Ole Miss, missed the final six weeks of the Rebels' season this summer due to shoulder discomfort. The player told me in our exclusive signing-day interview on July 3 that he had suffered a strained joint capsule.
The New York Yankees, who drafted Bittle twice, including in the second round in 2008, reportedly did not sign the right-hander due to concerns over the shoulder. In rechecking with Yankees sources, it was reconfirmed that the issue was medical, despite the player's insistence at the time that he was unhurt.
The former 2008 first-team All-American also missed the entire 2006 season due to rotator cuff tendinitis, so one might have reason to wonder if Bittle's shoulder injuries may be chronic.
The Cardinals had to know this before drafting Bittle, yet selected the player anyway. In their defense, clubs are not allowed to conduct pre-draft physicals on players, putting what seems to be an unnecessary element of risk into the draft process.
That brings me back to the choice of words above regarding the Cardinals internal debate over "signing" Bittle. To be sure, I asked a team official whether the organizational concerns surfaced pre- or post-draft.
The reply was "both".
As a result, one would have to assume that Bittle's shoulder did not pass the Cardinals' post-draft medical review with flying colors, instead placing his future in the gray area.
I asked our injury expert Rick Wilton of Baseball-Injury-Report.com his opinion as to the severity of the condition based on other similar cases.
"In simple terms, the shoulder joint capsule is soft tissue that surrounds the joint. It provides support for the underlying ligament, tendons and muscle. The word "strained" suggests he had a tear of either the muscle or tendons in the shoulder region. I am not sure if the player has the term completely accurate or not. I may be splitting hairs here.
"Based on the information you provided and the Cardinals' plans for him, once he is back he should return to normal within six to eight starts/outings. The Cards are not going to be reckless so this injury should be a non-issue by the end of the season," Wilton forecast.
Perhaps with a similar prognosis, this time the club decided to go for it, though Bittle's reported bonus of $75,000 pales in comparison to other players drafted in the same round. To be in sync with the rest of his peers, Bittle should have received somewhere between $200,000 and $225,000. This small bonus tends to reconfirm the medical-based concern.
Back in 2007, the Cardinals took considerable heat from a segment of the fan base for not signing their fourth-round pick that year, then-junior outfielder Kyle Russell from the University of Texas. When the club and player could not come to terms, Russell returned to UT. Because he had not been taken in the top three rounds, the organization received no compensation for not signing him.
As it turned out, Russell did not enjoy a standout senior season but was still taken in the 2008 draft, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the third round. At 23 years of age, Russell is experiencing a solid season in the Single-A Midwest League, with 23 home runs and 77 RBI in 382 at-bats for the Great Lakes Loons.
Here at Scout.com, we first reported Bittle's signing along with his Jupiter destination on July 3. The P-D report adds that after completing a throwing program, Bittle is penciled in to start at Palm Beach this month, which would be the highest destination in the system for any of the organization's 42 signed draftees from 2009. He has been officially placed on the seven-day disabled list in the interim.
Only time will tell how this year's fourth-round gambit will play out for the Cardinals.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.
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