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Jose Mujica’s challenge-filled Tommy John return

Jose Mujica has only two big league appearances under his belt, and much remains to be seen

Welcome to the 2020 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2020. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

★ ★ ★

No. 32, Jose Mujica: -0.5 rWAR

September 2018 was a dismal time for Jose Mujica’s Tommy John surgery.

The 2020 calendar did no favors for Mujica after UCL reconstruction sidelined him for 2019. There were no games in Triple-A Albuquerque or Double-A Hartford for him to refine his skills this year. Mujica was instead designated to the turf field at Metro State University, and was left hoping his work at an ‘alternate training site’ would sufficiently replicate a minor league season.

Mujica’s elbow scar was 18 months old when he pitched in an abbreviated spring training. When he made his MLB debut six months later, his post-operative action was limited to his appearances in the Cactus League and game-like situations at Metro State. The competitive resemblance was minimal compared to his 453 1/3 innings in the minor leagues.

Mujica’s debut was brutal.

On September 4, he was recalled from the alternate site and joined the Rockies in Los Angeles. He pitched four days later against the Padres: just minutes after a three-run blast by Nolan Arenado, it was Mujica called upon to save the day in relief—in the first inning.

Chi Chi González walked three consecutive hitters to begin the bottom of the first. González was permitted two more batters; he recorded a strikeout and a run-scoring hit-by-pitch. With one out and the bases loaded, Mujica entered the ballgame and became the 19,860th player in MLB history.

He then became the first player in MLB history to allow a grand slam to their first career hitter.

San Diego took a 5-3 lead on his second pitch, and the damage only surmounted from there. Mujica allowed two more hits in the first. He began the second inning with a single, walk, double, single, and another home run. Two groundouts and a strikeout ended the frame.

Bud Black rolled him out again for the third. Another walk and hit was issued, and the Padres plated one more run. Mujica’s day was done after allowing six earned runs over 2 23 innings, and the Padres would go on to demolish the Rockies, 14-5.

(Keep in mind: Colorado was one half-game out of the postseason, and Mujica hadn’t seen any regular season action in two years.)

The next day, he was sent back to the alternate site.

The 24-year-old persevered and earned himself another taste of the big leagues on the final day of the regular season. It was an extremely low-leverage 1 13 innings: Colorado trailed 11-0 when Mujica came on with two outs in the 7th. He finished the ballgame while allowing two hits and no runs, but two inherited runners scored.

After a 24-month interruption to Mujica’s career, maybe we should simply disregard his limited performance this year and look ahead. He’s accustomed himself to professional baseball routines since he was 17-years-old, and he recently transitioned to the Rockies organization after being with the Rays for seven years. Some regained momentum should do him well.

If he can replicate his 2018 successes with Triple-A Durham moving forward, the Rockies could indeed be looking at a dominant right-hander for years to come.

★ ★ ★

Author’s note: Thank you to Sean of Baseball Almanac for researching—and confirming—that Mujica is the first player in MLB history to allow a grand slam to their first career hitter. The next closest pitcher is Riley Smith (Arizona, 2020) to his third career batter (Charlie Blackmon).