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No restrictions for Guardians' Bieber, McKenzie after 2023 injuries

Feb. 19—When the subject is pitchers coming off injuries and the setting is spring training, two words can warm a manager's heart better than the Arizona sun can: "No restrictions."

Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti gave that heartening update to reporters covering spring training in Goodyear, Ariz., when asked about Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie. Pitchers and catchers have been working out in Goodyear since Feb. 15. The first full-squad workout is set for Feb. 20. The Cactus League opener for the Guardians is Feb. 24 against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.

"We'll probably build Triston up a little more slowly than some of the other starters, but they're both without restrictions," Antonetti said.

Spring training is a time for all pitchers to "get stretched out," as managers like to say, to prepare their bodies for the grind of a six-month season.

Elbow inflammation that flared up in his last start before the 2023 All-Star break shut Bieber down for more than two months. He returned in time to start and pitch five innings against the Orioles on Sept. 22. He gave up four earned runs. He was much sharper five days later when he gave up only one earned run in six innings in a game with the Reds.

McKenzie suffered a double whammy. He suffered a shoulder injury in his final spring training start last March, started the season on the injured list, made two starts in June and then went back on the injured list with a right elbow injury.

McKenzie's elbow injury was serious enough that surgery was discussed. Ultimately, it was determined surgery wasn't necessary. McKenzie, as with Bieber, made two starts at the end of 2023. He lasted 1 2/3 inning against the Orioles on Sept. 24. He walked six batters, struck out none and gave up three earned runs. He threw 77 pitches, walked three, allowed three hits and gave up one earned run in his final start of the season when he lasted 4 1/3 innings against the Tigers on Sept. 30.

"It's just tough not being able to contribute and still having to watch the games and feeling like, 'Oh man, if only I was out there being able to put my best foot forward, or whatever the case may be,'" McKenzie said at Guards Fest last month. "It's just tough being around the guys and knowing that you could help and not being able to."

Bieber and McKenzie missed a combined 37 starts last season — 27 for McKenzie and 10 for Bieber. The injuries to the pair put Tanner Bibee, Logan Allen and Gavin Williams on the fast track to the Guardians. The three 2023 rookies combined for 65 starts. Still, Bieber and McKenzie give the Guardians a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation when healthy.

"They both look great," manager Stephen Vogt told reporters in Goodyear. "They both worked really hard this winter to get themselves in this position to come in with no restrictions. We're going to honor that by letting that progression take its course."

Bieber will be a free agent in 2025 if he doesn't sign a contract extension or isn't traded before then.