Most of the time, when a pitcher learns he will need shoulder surgery, it's a major letdown. But in Devil Ray Doug Waechter's case, he sees his recent diagnosis as a relief.
The former Northeast High standout said Tuesday that he will likely need arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Recovery could take from six to 10 months, but to Waechter, it explains an emotionally tolling 2006 season in which he questioned why his velocity steadily dropped and he struggled so much at the Triple-A level.
"It was more relieving than anything to find out that something was structurally wrong," Waechter said. "The whole season I was wondering what was wrong. I don't like blaming anything else. I just thought I wasn't working hard enough, throwing hard enough or lifting hard enough."
Waechter, 25, said he pitched the entire season with a dead arm, never telling the medical staff because he "didn't want to make excuses." He entered the season as the Devil Rays' No. 5 starter but went winless in his first 10 appearances, nine starts. He was 1-4 with a 6.22 ERA before he was sent to Triple-A Durham on June 8.
Waechter continued to struggle in Durham, going 1-12 with an 8.32 ERA. He allowed 129 hits in 79 innings. After taking 2 weeks off, he went to instructional league to regroup, but after just five light throwing sessions, he still felt the dead arm.
"It just had no life," Waechter said of his arm. "I wasn't pitching with pain, but I was never 100 percent. It was a numb feeling. When I took a couple weeks off and it still felt bad, I knew there was something wrong."
Waechter received an initial diagnosis last week. The team sent results of Waechter's MRI exam to Devil Rays medical director James Andrews in Birmingham on Tuesday afternoon. If the surgery is necessary, Waechter could have it as soon as Wednesday.
Waechter has a chance to pitch next season. Had he not attended instructional league, he might not have been diagnosed until the spring, which would have ended any hope of pitching in 2007.
Waechter said he couldn't pinpoint when the injury occurred but said he believes it was more of a gradual decline of his shoulder that could have dated to 2002, when he pitched at Class A Bakersfield. He said that in that season, he began to need 20 minutes longer to warm up and felt his velocity begin to fall off, but he was diagnosed with biceps tendinitis. This past season, Waechter could throw in the low 90s.
"There were no real red flags," said Mitch Lukevics, the Devil Rays' director of minor-league operations. "He wasn't throwing at the same velocity as when we signed him, but how many guys do? A lot of times, guys come back better than they were before, so we can hope for that."
After this season's struggles, Waechter - the Rays' third-round pick in 1999 - faced a tough road back to the majors. He would likely have gone into spring training having not only to fight for a roster spot but to battle to keep his space on the 40-man roster. He owns a career 14-25 major-league record in parts of four seasons with the Rays.
"Now, I could get back to the point where I used to be," Waechter said.