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Entering this season, Ryan Westmoreland was considered one of the top two prospects in the Red Sox system by almost every prospect evaluator. In a limited season due to injury, Westmoreland dominated in the New York-Penn League with the Lowell Spinners in his professional debut, despite having little exposure to a high level of pitching coming straight out of a New England high school program.
The expectations for him going into this season were as high as any Red Sox prospect in recent memory, but it was not to be as he went down with a cavernous malformation in his brain during spring training. Westmoreland spoke to the media about his progress, and though he remains determined to return to professional baseball, a timetable has yet to be set.
Prior to the diagnosis, many considered Westmoreland as a top 50 prospect in all of baseball. This is a pretty impressive feat considering he just turned 20 and only played a partial season of short-season ball. Prospect-rankers generally give significant weight to prospects that have proven themselves in the upper-levels of minors.
The term can be thrown around loosely sometimes, but Westmoreland defines what a five-tool player should be. He has it all: speed, power, fielding, a strong arm, and can definitely hit. Last season, he played mostly left field and designated hitter at Lowell because he was returning from surgery on his throwing arm, but he projects to be a good defensive center fielder. He was also recruited by colleges to be a pitcher, as he has a great arm, evidenced by the fact that he pitched a perfect game while in high school. Grady Sizemore is the most obvious major league comparison, since the combination of elite speed and above-average power Westmoreland has are pretty rare.
He is obviously very young and still had a lot to prove, but going into this season, he was looked at as someone who could move through the system quickly, and possibly get a chance in majors as early as late next season. However, it was not to be.
A cavernous malformation is essentially an abnormal growth of cells in the brain. In Westmoreland’s case, the malformation was located on his brain stem. It was likely there for his whole life, but it is not until they bleed into the brain that they cause problems.
Westmoreland first noticed problems early in spring training when he had some numbness and tingling in his fingers. He consulted doctors on advice from the team, who said that it was unlikely to bleed again in the near-future because that was the first time it had done so in his life. Since it was in the brain stem, they ruled out operating on it initially because of the extra dangers connected with altering that part of the brain, including loss of motor skills, speech, vision, and coordination.
Everything changed when the malformation bled again. His vision blurred to the point where he could not read, or see much more than shapes. He lost hearing in his right ear and motor function became difficult. Doctors realized that a third bleed could be disastrous, and surgery became the only option.
“Initially, to be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on,” he said in Wednesday’s conference call with the media. “I knew it was a serious situation but before that situation, I felt great going into spring training, I felt really strong and when that news kind of hit, I didn’t honestly know what to expect and things kind of went on from there and I learned more, I gained more knowledge about the whole situation I was going through and it started out not knowing much and it really kind of went downhill just knowing everything and knowing all the risks and what was going on, but I tried to keep an even head about it and stay positive.”
Despite the fact that death was a possible outcome going into the surgery, Westmoreland has made significant progress in rehab following this surgery. He spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time and had nothing but positive things to say.
“I feel a lot better,” he said. “If you asked me three months ago, the progress has been amazing. I heard from a bunch of doctors and the progress has been remarkable. I’m just excited to keep it going.”
It is unknown at this point if he will ever play again, let alone have a timetable for doing so.
“From the doctor’s point of view, not one of them has set a time-table as to when I’m going to get back to playing,” Westmoreland said. “I can think in my head, I’m really confident. And going to see the Portland games and the minor league games and the Boston games just gives me that extra motivation and confidence that I’m going to get back again but as far as the timetable, I’m not really sure. I’m just really focused on the next day ahead and just trying to get better every day.”
The Red Sox organization has gone through a lot of these type of life-threatening injuries with prospects in recent years, including cancer with Jon Lester and current Portalnd first baseman Anthony Rizzo. General Manager Theo Epstein seemed particularly proud of Westmoreland Wednesday.
“The thing that stands out from our end is just how proud we are of Ryan, the courage he’s shown, facing the initial diagnosis and the surgery, and the determination he’s shown in his recovery,” he said. “It’s been really awe-inspiring. We got to know Ryan and his family pretty well during the signing process. We knew we were getting a great kid from a great family, we knew we were getting someone who could handle adversity, but the type of adversity we were thinking of was a long slump or something like that. You never imagine one of your players having to go through something like this.”
There is no precedent for returning to a professional sport that relies so heavily on eyesight and coordination after this type of surgery. His vision is back to near-normal after verging on legally blind following the operation, and he has excelled at the rehab process, but he still has a long way to go. One thing that cannot be accounted for is his determination and positive attitude. Westmoreland is not even considering giving up on his major-league dream yet.
“That’s always the mindset is I’m going to get back on the field and play again,” he said. “And that’s the ultimate goal. You know every day, that doesn’t change and it never will. But doing things like going to see Portland play or Pawtucket play or the big league team play, it just gives you that extra motivation you need to want to get to that point.”
He may be down, but Westmoreland is still far from out.