For most of us, and me at least, it is difficult to even imagine what it would be like to have to sit out a year or more with an injury or surgery. It must have been agonizing for Corey Seager, a 24-year-old on the cusp of stardom. Dodger fans all regrettably know about Seager’s year away from the field. Although it no doubt is small comfort, Seager had and has lots of TJ company. In fact, down on the farm there was another Corey going through the same travails as the Dodgers young shortstop, at the same time, and within six months of each other in age. Many of us were not aware of Corey Merrill’s battle with an arm injury.
Right-hander Merrill had been selected by the Dodgers in the 37th round of the 2017 First-Year Player Draft out of Tulane University. He has yet to throw a pitch as a professional after undergoing TJ surgery in March of 2018. The late selection would suggest the Dodgers were fully aware his arm issues that had crept onto the scene during the 2016 season.
Merrill was born in Lutcher, Louisiana and played his high school ball with the Lutcher High School Bulldogs. One alumnus of Lutcher that some will remember is former major league catcher Lenny Webster.
The 6’3”/210-pound right-hander committed to play baseball at Tulane although he was offered scholarships from three other universities: Southeastern Louisiana, University of Louisiana-Monroe, and Southern Miss. He chose Tulane as he was more than a bit impressed with the campus and baseball coaching staff on his visit there.
Merrill played four years with the Green Wave, three of them as a starter. Overall, he posted a 3.23 ERA with 244 strikeouts in 294 innings pitched along with 135 walks. His freshman and sophomore years went as planned, especially his sophomore year in which he posted a 2.12 ERA good for third in the American Athletic Conference in 2015 and was a prime candidate for the league’s pitcher of the year as 2016 started.
He started the 2016 season as the opening day starter and expected Friday nights starter. He held the opposition scoreless in two of his first three starts but experienced some discomfort in his arm after beating Furman on March 11. Initially thought to be a short term issue, the condition worsened and on March 18 he was shut down for over a month. Diagnosed as a forearm muscle strain and/or a dead arm Merrill was anxious to put it behind him and get back to helping the team.
“At first, I didn’t really know exactly what the injury was,” he said. “We ended up finding out
it was a muscle in my forearm, and it was just uncomfortable to pitch with. The big thing
now is trying to keep that focus. I think I’m right on the edge of being fully back. It’s all
going to come back with experience.”
Anxious to get back on the field, Merrill went to pitching coach David Pierce indicating he was ready to return to full time duty. Pierce was delighted to have him back but had a new plan for the young right-hander. He slotted him in as a relief pitcher and more importantly as a much needed closer. Since the Tulane starting corps was pitching well and a closer for the team was missing, Merrill assumed that role.
The plan worked perhaps better than expected. In his relief role, combined with his first few starts, Merrill compiled a 2.05 ERA along with a 1.14 WHIP. He picked up three saves in 10 relief appearances while striking out 63 over 52.2 innings and walking 19.
Perhaps it was the time off, the fact he wasn’t pitching in pain or simply that in short bursts his stuff played better, that his coach reported the movement on his pitches had never looked livelier. In a two inning stint against New Orleans he struck out five of the seven batters he faced.
“Our guys didn’t have a chance,” Privateers coach Blake Dean said. “He had some really good
stuff right there.”
“His stuff is so different than what you see out of a traditional type closer,” Pierce said. “He
Just doesn’t throw anything straight. His fastball is either a cutter or a slider, and he really
commanded the curveball against UNO.”
On his part, although starting had been his role in the past and most likely his personal goal for the future, Merrill just wanted to get back into the action in whatever role he could play.
“Whether it’s starting or relief I don’t care,” he said. “I just want to help the team whatever kind
of way, whenever possible. This is definitely the most talented team I’ve played with at Tulane.
We’ve got a really chance to make a run at it. I’m looking forward to it.”
Enter 2107 and Corey Merrill has his fourth coach in four years. David Pierce had headed off to Texas and Travis Jewett had taken his place at Tulane. One of his first determinations was to return Merrill to a starting role for the upcoming season.
“It was a bump in the road,” Merrill said. “The injury set me back, and the starting pitching was
rolling for us. I met with Pierce in his office, and we decided together why ruin something that
was going well [Tulane starters]. But obviously I’m looking forward to getting back into that
For whatever reason, perhaps his arm was not yet right for full time starting and Merrill did not have a year in 2017 that would catch the eye of scouts. He posted a 5.06 ERA over 14 starts and 85 innings pitched while striking out 67 and walking 46. Yet he was selected by the Dodgers in the 19th round.
He reported to the Dodgers rookie camp and he was in essence shut down hoping he just needed a rest after 200 college innings and that surgery could be avoided. It seems that rarely works and he did have TJ surgery last March.
He should return to action at some point in 2019 and certainly initially in short inning appearances. He is now 24 and relief would certainly be his best and perhaps only shot to climb in the Dodgers farm system. Perhaps with further development he can return to using his repertoire in short bursts as he did in dominant appearances with Tulane in 2016. Being successful with the Loons in 2019 would be a least performance goal and ultimately hitting Rancho Cucamonga by season’s end.