D-backs, Padres hit hard by injuries requiring TJ
National League West foes soldier on without impressive list of pitchers
SAN DIEGO -- The epidemic of elbow injuries and subsequent Tommy John ligament replacement surgeries among Major League pitchers as of late has hit the D-backs and Padres particularly hard.
The two clubs have eight guys between them in different stages of rehab from the surgery. In the Padres' case, they are missing practically an entire starting rotation: Josh Johnson, Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly, who made his first Minor League start since last year's surgery on Saturday night.
For the D-backs, the spate of injuries has been no less devastating, shelving starters Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson, plus relievers Matt Reynolds and David Hernandez for the foreseeable future.
The surgeries have been the second each for Luebke, Johnson and Hudson, whom the D-backs hope to have back later in the season. Hudson is doing well throwing a series of bullpen sessions, but he reinjured his left elbow last year during his first Minor League rehab assignment.
"I love the way Daniel competes. I've told him so," Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said before Saturday night's game against San Diego at Petco Park. "He was a huge loss for us when we lost him. He's a game-changer for us."
At the start of the 2009 season, the D-backs also lost Brandon Webb to shoulder surgery. Webb, the team's workhorse and a National League Cy Young Award winner, never pitched in the big leagues again after Opening Day of that season. Add Hudson and most recently Corbin and that run of bad luck has had a debilitating long-term effect on the franchise.
Imagine if the same had happened to the core of San Francisco's rotation: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. Well, it's hard to conceive that the Giants would have won their two World Series championships in 2010 and '12.
Add to the mix that the D-backs have also traded away the likes of Brett Anderson, Dan Haren, Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, Jarrod Parker, Joe Saunders and Tyler Skaggs. It all has had a ripple effect on Arizona's current pitching staff, which general manager Kevin Towers said this weekend is void of top-of-the-rotation starters.
"There's no two ways about it," said Josh Byrnes, who was the D-backs' general manager when Webb was lost and holds the same position with the Padres now. "When one of your top pitchers goes down, it's very hard on you. Usually it torpedoes your season. Any big league roster starts with starting pitching, so when you have to go to plan B, C or D, it's hard to have the kind of season that you want."
San Diego suffered the same fate because of Tommy John surgeries. The Luebke-Kelly-Wieland trio was tabbed to be the young core of the rotation the last two seasons, but that has yet to happen.
"That's three pretty good guys," Byrnes said. "And for 24 months, they've literally barely been on the mound."
The spate of elbow injuries is causing baseball people in both organizations to re-evaluate everything from training techniques, to personnel decisions and the amount of time their pitchers throw in the offseason. One of the top theories most bandied about right now is that players put undue stress on their young arms well before they even turn professional.
"I think they throw too much when they're young. They're on all these traveling teams," said Towers, a former pitcher. "We used to be just Little League and you were done. Then you went out and played basketball. Now it's baseball all year 'round. Parents are paying 100 bucks a session to have instructors come out and work with their kids three days a week. 'Here's the video. This is how you're supposed to look.'"
"Going back to my generation, we didn't throw nearly as much as the kids are throwing now, competitively, at a young age," added Padres manager Bud Black, a left-hander who won 121 games for five teams in 15 big league seasons. "I'm not playing doctor. I've just been doing some research and reading about all this. Tendons, ligaments and muscles are stressed at an earlier age than ever before."
Dr. Frank Jobe, who passed away earlier this year at 88, devised the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery for Tommy John back in 1974 when the left-hander was playing for the Dodgers. John resumed pitching two years later, wound up lasting another 14 seasons, and logged 164 of his total 288 career victories.
Hundreds of pitchers have undergone the surgery, 15 this year.
The procedure involves the transplant of another ligament, often from the opposite forearm, to replace the one that is irreconcilably damaged. That is both a blessing and a curse, Black said.
"You're replacing a natural body part with a revision from another part of your body," Black said. "Over time, that's going to weaken. That's my fear -- that it will hold for a while and at some point, because it's not natural, it will suffer."
The Padres are reviewing every part of their process, but the injury seems to fit no pattern. How a pitcher tears the ligament seems to be a phenomenon of each individual.
"I don't want to disclose everything," Byrnes said. "Some of it we've implemented and some of it is in discussion. The notion of more injuries and how it affects the organization is almost too long to list. I've accumulated a lot of notes and I'm talking to everybody: pitchers, pitching coaches, trainers, strength conditioners, doctors, researchers, other GMs, scouts, anyone I can ask, so over time we can come up with something tangible."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.