No matter how many setbacks, Brett Anderson just keeps grinding

Brett Anderson (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. – During the off-season of 2013-14, Brett Anderson was on the verge of joining the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a three-team deal with the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers, who would have ended up with reliever Sergio Santos.

“I flew to Dunedin for a physical,” the left-hander recalls Wednesday, “and then it ended up not working out on my end.”

The medicals indeed scuttled that trade, leaving the A’s to eventually send Anderson to the Colorado Rockies for Drew Pomeranz and Chris Jensen. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, maintained a passing interest in him each time he hit the open market, finally bringing him into the organization this week on a minor-league deal that landed him at triple-A Buffalo with an eye toward a quick promotion to the majors.

“It’s good to be wanted by different organizations around baseball but this seems like one of the teams that has always been [interested],” Anderson says in the home dugout at Coca-Cola Field after throwing his first bullpen with the Bisons. “I’m left-handed with a pulse, so that’s a good start, too.”

Self-deprecation aside, the 29-year-old son of University of Tennessee pitching coach Frank Anderson remains a tantalizing talent whose promising career has been cut down by a relentless run of injuries.

Since bursting on the scene as a 21-year-old with the Athletics in 2009, when he led the team with 11 wins and a club-rookie record 150 strikeouts in 175.1 innings, he’s enjoyed only one injury-free season. That came during a strong 2015 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he established career-highs with 31 starts and 180.1 innings while leading qualified pitchers with a 66.7 per cent groundball rate.

The other seasons have gone like this:

• 2010: Elbow issues limit him to 19 starts.
• 2011: Made 13 starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
• 2012: Recovered from surgery to make six starts before a strained right oblique ended his season early.
• 2013: Missed four months with stress fracture in right foot.
• 2014: Limited to eight starts by broken left index finger and surgery to correct a herniated disc in his lower back.
• 2016: Missed most of season after surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back and also hit the DL with a blister on his index finger.
• 2017: Placed on the DL with a lower back strain.

It takes a special brand of determination to endure all that and persist.

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“I’m 29 going on 49,” Anderson says with his trademark sharp wit. “All the injuries are kind of whatever – it’s the back one that is the most problematic. The back thing this year is different from the ones in the past where those were disc related, and this one was more a muscular/back-fat issue. Obviously you’d like to be healthy more times than not, but you can only do so much to be proactive and try to prevent that stuff. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt and deal with some of those things and hopefully get past them.

“It’s a gift and curse that I like baseball enough to keep doing this. I’m not super old by any stretch, but I’ve been around for a while, and hopefully I’ve pushed a button and I age in reverse, got all that stuff out of the way before I’m 30, and have some healthy years going forward.”

Both he and the Blue Jays will gladly take a healthy September for now and go from there.

Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley watched Anderson’s first side session closely, often nodding his head after pitches and saying afterwards “he’s got good stuff,” a compliment in his typically understated manner.

The exact next steps are still evolving, but Bisons manager Bobby Meacham expects him to make his first start this weekend, with Anderson’s body and level of readiness to guide the next steps.

“I’ve talked to him a little bit already, like don’t feel you have to do this too early,” says Meacham. “Everybody knows there are no guarantees in this game – the older guys know it more than the younger guys – I’m going to give him all the information I have, this is what we’re looking for, this is what I’ve been told, give me some input so I can make sure I get this formula right.”

Anderson made six starts for the Chicago Cubs – who signed him to a $3.5-million, one-year deal back in January and are on the hook for all but a pro-rated portion of the big-league minimum should he be promoted to Toronto – starting off well before his back troubles flared up and landed him on the DL.

By that time, his ERA was up to a ghastly 8.18 after allowing 34 hits and 12 walks in 22 innings. He made six rehab starts at double-A Knoxville, last pitching July 20, when he held the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (yes, that’s really their name) to two earned runs over six innings of work. The Cubs released him 11 days later.

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“Body-wise I felt fine at the end, it was just honing all my pitches,” said Anderson. “My last outing I went six and everything got better, it was a good one to end on I guess.”

The current iteration of Anderson relies heavily on a sinker/slider/changeup/cutter mix, a far cry from the pitcher he was as a rookie with Oakland, when he shoved four-seamers and sliders down the throats of hitters.

That’s the way he pitched with the Dodgers in 2015, reinforcing that when he’s healthy he can be very successful with a much different mix.

“If you would have told me then the way I pitch now I would have been like, ‘You’re a liar.’ I’m a completely different person,” says Anderson. “When I came up I pitched a lot like Clayton [Kershaw] does, that was hard fastballs and sliders, and I wasn’t a two-pitch guy, but 85 per cent of my pitches were four-seam fastballs and sliders.

“Now I do a little bit of everything. … It’s evolving over time, velocity going down over time, dealing with some of the stuff I had. It was adapt or die. It would be great to go out there and throw 95 and 87 mile-an-hour sliders for 20 years, but Father Time wins out eventually.”

Until age secures a definitive victory against him, he fully intends to keep grinding, seeking enough health to perform and a team with aspirations to keep giving him a chance. Perhaps now, after previous failed attempts to land him, the Blue Jays are that club.

“I was eaten up by baseball, I can’t enough of it. It’s ingrained in my DNA that this is what I want to do and I’m meant to do,” he says. “There are going to be highs and lows and injuries to deal with, and I’ve dealt with them quite a bit. I still like coming to the field every day and doing the work. There could be worse things to do.”

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