Zumaya to have exploratory surgery after all
Joel Zumaya’s 2011 season sounds likely over before it ever began. The Tigers announced that the hard-throwing, but injury-riddled reliever will undergo exploratory surgery next Tuesday to determine what is ailing in his right elbow.
The move is expected to sideline him for the rest of the season. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand put Zumaya’s chances of pitching this year at “doubtful.”
The decision, Rand said, was Zumaya’s call. He phoned Rand a couple days ago to let him know he wasn’t feeling any improvement at all in the elbow over the last two weeks. The plan was to have him rest and rehab for six weeks before checking on how he felt.
It was the second time they were trying rest and rehab, and it basically one last shot to try to avoid surgery. But even last time, which didn’t work, Zumaya’s elbow supposedly felt better a week into it. Not this time.
“This time, he doesn’t feel any different than he did two weeks ago,” Rand said.
If Zumaya doesn’t return this summer, his 2011 season will have consisted of an encouraging preseason rehab and one Spring Training outing, during which his elbow flared up. He underwent season-ending surgery last summer to repair a fractured bone at the tip of his elbow, but hasn’t thrown off a mound since that Spring Training appearance Feb. 27.
Multiple MRI exams and other tests have shown no major structural damage in his elbow, but the pain pops back up when he tries to throw. The surgery, which Dr. James Andrews will conduct at his office in Pensacola, Fla., will figure that out once and for all.
If he doesn’t return this season, his last pitch as a Tiger might well be that fateful delivery on the mound in Minnesota last June, when his crumbled to the ground in pain with the fracture.
Zumaya is eligible for free agency this winter. His hope was that a strong 2011 season would vault him into a strong position on a reliever market that yielded big contracts for setup men in recent years. What happens with him this winter is unclear.
It’s an incredible position for someone who looked like one of baseball’s best young relievers when he broke into the Majors as a rookie in 2006. His 6-3 record, 1.94 ERA and 97 strikeouts over 83 1/3 innings played a major role in Detroit’s surprise run to the World Series that year.
Zumaya pitched in 62 games that year. He has pitched in 109 games over the last five years combined as injuries took their toll. Each time, he came back with the same 100 mph fastball. But each time, a different injury would sideline him — a ruptured tendon in his right middle finger in 2007, a damage AC joint that required reconstructive surgery that winter, a stress fracture in his shoulder in 2008 and 2009, and the elbow last year. His 31 appearances in 2010 marked his highest total since his rookie year.
The Tigers prepared themselves for not having Zumaya last winter, signing free agent Joaquin Benoit to a three-year contract and guaranteeing a contract for high-strikeout minor leaguer Al Alburquerque out of winter ball in the Dominican Republic.