Remember that wave of optimism you felt when the Texas Rangers reported for spring training a couple of weeks ago? Yeah, we’re done with that now. Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels made the announcement that fans were dreading but expecting: Pitcher Yu Darvish will likely need Tommy John surgery for the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm.
This is the same elbow that caused the Rangers to shut down Darvish for the final six weeks of last season. Darvish pitched exactly one inning this spring before the injury derailed his season and, frankly, destined the Rangers to the ranks of non-playoff contenders.
Darvish has had two surgical opinions, and Daniels said a final decision would be made by the end of this week. He seemed to hedge his bets a bit, but you don’t use the words “Tommy John” and “surgery” in a sentence unless that’s the path you’re going to go.
Let’s be honest — the Rangers as a playoff team in 2015 was a bit of a stretch. But assuming the team remained healthy, and that included Darvish, it was possible to see them making a run. Darvish would have anchored a solid rotation that featured Derek Holland (who, by the way is fighting shoulder inflammation), Yovani Gallardo and Colby Lewis. The fifth guy in the rotation would have been a question mark, but that’s usually the case with most teams in spring training.
Now, with no Darvish, the short-term effects are substantial. Holland, Gallardo and Lewis all move up a spot. Now the Rangers have question marks at two rotation spots, not one. Don’t forget — there’s another Rangers pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery. Martin Perez has been out since last summer, and he’s already on the 60-day disabled list.
Darvish is 39-25 with a 3.27 earned run average in three seasons, and he’s contended for the Cy Young award twice. Who do the Rangers have that can even come close to replacing that?
Matt Harrison? Nope, still has an injured back. Tanner Scheppers? Nope. That experiment did not work last year. Nick Martinez? Went 5-12 last year with a 4.55 ERA in 29 games (24 of which were starts). Nick Tepesch? Not again (9-17 record). Ross Detwiler? One okay season as a starter (10-8 with Washington in 2012), but a 20-32 record overall. Michael Kirkman and Jamey Wright are non-roster invitees.
These are the best of untenable options. Don’t expect Daniels to wheel and deal. The Rangers are too committed to what they have coming up the minor league pipeline to package a bunch of prospects to lure a top-tier pitcher for a year. They’ll keep a close eye on the waiver wire, but that may not yield anything of consequence until the Rangers come back to Texas for their annual spring training weekend in San Antonio.
In the short term, the Rangers went from a team that could have squeezed out 90 wins to a team that will be lucky to squeeze out 80.
But what about the long term?
These are the implications that I’m far more interested in. Darvish is in the fourth year of his six-year, $56 million deal. The clock on that deal doesn’t stop because Darvish is hurt. So he’ll roll into the final two years of his deal, assuming his surgery and rehab go well, in 2016. There’s no guarantee he’s ready for spring training next year, much less opening day.
The recovery period is at least a year. It depends on how his body reacts to it. Tommy John surgery is far more common than it was 15 years ago. But will his body accept the new ligament? Most of the time it does. But what if Darvish is the exception?
Let’s assume best case and Darvish returns ready to roll midway through 2016. That gives Darvish and the Rangers a year and a half to figure out his value in the form of a new contract for the 2018 season. At least that way the Rangers know if they need to re-up Darvish long term or deal him to get something for him before the 2017 trade deadline.
Worst case? The Rangers end up with a damaged pitcher who is never the same after the surgery and that not only saps his value as a pitcher on the open market but leaves the Rangers with a commodity they can’t deal.
Now you see this isn’t just about this season. This could impact the Rangers and Darvish for years to come.