3/17/2014 3:55 P.M. ET
Wave of elbow injuries a quandary for teams
Tommy John surgery might be the only viable option for several sidelined hurlers
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Within 24 hours of watching his ace left-hander walk off the mound in pain, D-backs manager Kirk Gibson considered the fate of young Patrick Corbin and this spring's spate of others like him who are or could be headed to the double-edged scalpel of modern pitching: Tommy John surgery.
It's obviously an operation no pitcher wants to have, yet the revolutionary procedure -- invented by the late Dr. Frank Jobe, who passed away earlier this month -- has saved or at least kept alive the careers of hundreds of Major Leaguers since its namesake was the first to have an elbow ligament replaced by a tendon in 1974.
Asked the legitimate question of whether anything might have been done to prevent Corbin's elbow injury -- be it workload over time or within Spring Training -- Gibson was philosophical.
"I don't know if you ever know the reason," Gibson said.
In several Major League cities, they're searching for a reason, seeking an answer that may never come.
Just in the past week, two young starters in Atlanta, another in Oakland and the 24-year-old Corbin in Arizona have sustained elbow injuries that are or could be headed for reconstructive surgery. Corbin joins the Braves' Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen in having his career put in a precarious position by an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament. All are awaiting word on whether Tommy John surgery and the 12 months (or more) of rehab that follows is their only reasonable option. On Monday, Oakland's Jarrod Parker found out he's headed for his second reconstructive surgery.
Earlier this spring, the Royals' Luke Hochevar and the Padres' Cory Luebke absorbed the same news, and they headed to surgery -- Luebke for the second time, the same prospect Beachy and Medlen are facing and the fate Parker found out Monday he will endure. All they can do is hope for the best and prepare for the long road ahead.
"It's kind of like, 'OK, let's get this taken care of,'" Medlen said. "It's not like a 'woe-is-me' or 'why me?' I don't think like that."
The road is one Medlen has been down before, and one a startling number of players have traveled in recent years. In Phoenix and Atlanta and other places around baseball, the question remains: What could have been done to avoid this most difficult of scenarios?
"I think guys try to think about what it takes to minimize these injuries, and there's not an exact science about it, that's how I feel about it," Gibson said. "I think everybody did everything right. [Corbin], he's as good as it gets as far as his work habits, taking care of his body, his routine. Our medical staff's as good as they come, what they recommend, their program.
"It happens everywhere. I just think overall if you look around the game, that injury is more prevalent in the game today than it has been. I think there's a lot of people talking about it, trying to figure out why that is. I don't think there's a real clear answer, though."
Gibson noted that Parker, when he was with the D-backs and first underwent the surgery in 2009, was on a very cautious development program, yet he still sustained the serious arm injury. The same goes for Corbin, who had his innings ramped up year by year as he moved up to the big leagues, and last year was an All-Star and the D-backs' Most Valuable Pitcher.
This coming week, Corbin is headed for the doctor's appointment that sends shivers up the spine of any pitcher -- all due respect to the doctor. He's going to visit Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon, for a second opinion, hoping against hope the opinion isn't that he needs surgery, but knowing it's a likely outcome. While Parker already got the bad news from Andrews, Beachy and Medlen also are due for appointments this week with the surgeon, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
Said Beachy: "I really don't know if I can be prepared. But I will just roll with the punches."
Of course, Tommy John surgery isn't something reserved only for young players, or even pitchers. While position players such as Carl Crawford have undergone the procedure, there are many veteran pitchers who have gone through the surgery and inherent rehab process in recent years, knowing there is only so much sand remaining in the hourglass of their careers.
The Mariners, for example, have had four non-roster veterans in camp who have undergone the procedure -- Scott Baker, Joe Beimel, Zach Miner and Randy Wolf. They're among a large group of players in their 30s who have kept their pitching careers alive thanks in part to the surgery, a list that includes Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson, who has undergone the procedure twice. Wolf, too, has been through the surgery and long rehab twice now.
But it's the young, rising star that such a situation hits as hard as anyone, and that's what Corbin is facing as he awaits word from Dr. Andrews in the coming days.
Within hours of the diagnosis of a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, Corbin had two teammates with whom he could commiserate -- Daniel Hudson and Matt Reynolds. Hudson actually needed a second procedure before he made it all the way back to the Majors.
For Corbin, it's a daunting situation he's discussing with his teammates, and they're in a club he doesn't want to join, no matter how much he likes them.
"They've been through it," Corbin said. "I'm just trying to get through it."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.