Rays Tales: Pitching injuries a shocking turn of events

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Matt Moore (55), wearing a brace on his left arm, in the Trop before the Baltimore Orioles against the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Matt Moore (55), wearing a brace on his left arm, in the Trop before the Baltimore Orioles against the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.
Published May 10, 2015

For a long time, the Rays were the anomaly. Pitchers were going down, and going into operating rooms, all throughout baseball, but the Rays were relatively unscathed. Occasional soreness or a short DL stint here or there, but (aside from J.P. Howell's 2010 shoulder repair) nothing too major.

Some attributed it to the youth of their pitchers, closely held specifics of their throwing and exercise programs, proprietary research on injury prevention, general caution and conservatism in handling arms and/or hands-on work of an athletic training staff led by Ron Porterfield that is considered among MLB's best.

Nothing, but maybe their luck, seems to have changed. So, maybe, with Alex Cobb following Matt Moore on the Tommy John path and Drew Smyly hurting again, it was just that time caught up to them.

The first concern came early in 2013, when RHP Jeff Niemann needed shoulder surgery that apparently ended his career. RHP Jeremy Hellickson had bone chips removed from his elbow before the 2014 season. Moore had his Tommy John last April, the first Rays big-league pitcher to undergo the procedure in nearly five years. (Since then-36-year-old Jason Isringhausen had his third in 2009.) LHP Jake McGee had a loose body removed from his elbow in December.

Then after a brutal spring of assorted ailments, RHP Burch Smith has had Tommy John surgery, LHP Jeff Beliveau has had major shoulder surgery, Smyly just went back on the disabled list due to recurring and concerning shoulder soreness, and Cobb is heading to the operating room this week.

"It's an issue that all teams are facing," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "We were fortunate to have avoided many of these types of injuries in the past, but we certainly aren't immune from them. We have a very good pitching program, and we have a great training staff that works well with these pitchers. But injuries are a reality in this game and one that we have to help prepare for and make sure that we have the requisite depth to get through."

That depth, Silverman acknowledged, "is definitely being tested."

RHP Andrew Bellatti, called up Friday, will be the majors-most 20th pitcher they've used. LHP Enny Romero, recovered from his own spring back injury, is likely to arrive at some point, too, with LHPs Jordan Norberto and Everett Teaford (who was already up once) also possibilities. Expect a lot of shuttling, thus a premium on pitchers with options. Silverman said the Rays also will look outside the organization, though likely more for depth than established major-league help.

The Cobb conundrum

The delay in diagnosing RHP Alex Cobb's torn elbow ligament from March 17, when he left a spring game in Clearwater, until this week could cost him, and the Rays, 9-10 starts next season.

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Had Cobb known then, he could have had the surgery immediately and been seven weeks into his 14- to 15-month recovery by now.

Baseball operations president Matt Silverman said the doctors and training staff followed proper protocol. He said the original MRI exam didn't show what they say now is a full tear, the forearm strain they were treating was "masking" the more severe problem and there was no need for the more detailed and invasive arthrogram MRI exam that showed the tear until the strain calmed down and Cobb still felt the pain.

Cobb, a hard-driving bulldog type, will push to return to the Rays rotation for all of September 2016, which still would be nearly two years since his last competitive game. The Rays might take a more conservative schedule, aiming just for him to be in games at some level. But all agree it will be a significant accomplishment, nearly as much mentally as physically, for Cobb to get back and pitch in 2016, so he can go into the offseason with peace of mind and show up healthy, rested and confident for spring training 2017.

The injury costs Cobb nearly two seasons in the prime of his career, and it also costs him money. (Plus, for the second straight spring he was talking with the Rays about a long-term deal that didn't happen.) But he still will get his $4 million arbitration-driven salary this season, then close to that amount in 2016 (players can't be cut more than 20 percent) and as much or maybe a little more in 2017. Then, assuming he recovers and is pitching well, he has that $12 million banked as he heads into free agency at age 30 with pretty much a new elbow.

Short stops

. Last weekend's "visitors at home" games against the Orioles should make clear to the Rays that in terms of in-game "entertainment," less definitely can be more. Going without Screaming Mic Guy and the sponsored gimmicks, contest-draped sales pitches and blaring advertisements (some sponsored by this newspaper) made for a much more enjoyable experience where the focus was actually on, of all things, baseball. Fans even cheered without being prompted. Toning it down, and turning down the volume, would be a start.

. Another point is that price point matters. Though the Rays rank among MLB's lowest average ticket prices ($21.90 per Team Marketing Report) and offer an $11 outfield ticket to some games, they rarely discount tickets, as many other teams do (even the Yankees, with a $5 ticket through MasterCard). Sturdy response to the $15/$18 general admission lower-bowl ticket should reinforce that fans in this market respond to a bargain. Though the Rays can't repeat the open-seating option due to season ticket commitments, they should find a way to offer some kind of deal. Especially to boost the total on unattractive midweek dates, such as Thursday's announced gathering of 8,701 (lowest at the Trop since the Devil Rays days of 2007), likely more around 5,000. Assuming they want to.

Rays rumblings

RHP Grant Balfour has an opt-out clause at the end of May in his minor-league deal; if he joins the Rays, he'd sign for the $507,500 minimum, which essentially would be part of the balance of his $7 million salary anyway. … The Bovada online site lowered the Rays' odds of winning the World Series from 66-1 on opening day to 50-1; the Dodgers are favored at 6-1. … 3B Evan Longoria tweeted a draft-day offer from his Tampa restaurant to Bucs top pick Jameis Winston: "Hey @Jaboowins, lunch is on us @DuckysTampa when you arrive." … Baseball America's first mock of the June draft has the Rays taking Niskayuna (N.Y.) HS OF Garrett Whitley with the 13th pick. … Per Baseball America, scouts project Cuban OF Dayron Varona, signed to a minor-league deal, as a fourth outfielder at best, with a question if he can hit big-league pitching. … It's possible former Rays INF/OF Ben Zobrist will be recovered from knee surgery when the A's visit May 21-24. … When Craig Counsell withdrew as a candidate for the Rays' manager job, he said it was in part because he liked working as a special assistant for his hometown Brewers. It worked out pretty well as Counsell was promoted last week to replace fired manager Ron Roenicke. … Manager Buck Showalter said the Orioles were reprimanded for using walkie-talkies with the bullpen during the season-opening series.

You make the call

INF Tim Beckham

. On his favorite players: Derek Jeter and Ozzie Smith. Just how they approach the game, how they go about their business as a professional on and off the field. They were great, they were the greatest to ever do it at shortstop.

. On his favorite road city: I haven't played in all of them. I like playing in Miami, I like playing in New York. I don't have a favorite yet. And I'm looking forward to playing in Atlanta (near his hometown of Griffin, Ga.).