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Baker Undergoes Surprise Tommy John Surgery

Right-hander Scott Baker was set to undergo surgery on his elbow for a cleanup of his flexor pronator tendon earlier this week. Any elbow surgeries can result in complications for a big league pitcher, but considering the alternatives, Baker appeared to be rather lucky in terms of his diagnosis. As he said:

[The team doctor] said this is something that’s not going to repair itself. It’s not going to cure itself. It’s something that needs to be taken care of. Fortunately, he said the (UCL) ligament looked great, so I guess in a way, as bad as this is, the flexor pronator tendon is what needs to be repaired.

However, when the team doctor, Dr. Altchek, opened up the elbow, he determined that the UCL was damaged to the point that it needed repair. The MRI testing done prior to the surgery completely missed the UCL damage. Now, instead of missing only six months of the 2011 season, Scott Baker will not pitch again for approximately 12-18 months.

The good new for Baker is that the success rate for Tommy John surgery is now upward of 85-92 percent. The likelihood of returning to the big leagues in some capacity appears overwhelmingly positive. Most likely, though, his next big league job will not be with the Minnesota Twins. Baker has a $9.25M club option for the 2013 season, but there is almost no conceivable way Terry Ryan and the Twins exercise that option at this point.

Few people were surprised when it was announced last week that Scott Baker needed surgery on his elbow. The right-hander struggled in spring training with elbow discomfort and a lack of velocity, throwing only 83-84 MPH with his fastball after averaging 91 MPH with that pitch a year ago. The situation just screamed significant elbow injury.

Instead, the surprising part of the story lies in the fact that doctors cleared his UCL of any damage after undergoing an MRI and subsequently discovered that the entire ligament needed repair to the point that the beginning of the 2013 season is now jeopardized for Baker. This is not unprecedented, however. I know of one major league player in the last couple of seasons who underwent multiple MRIs to uncover an elbow injury that he insisted was present, yet the MRIs consistently showed no injury. It caused friction between the player and the organization. In the end, though, the player was correct and ultimately needed surgery to repair the elbow injury, despite the multiple MRI tests that showed no damage.

For the Minnesota Twins, the surprise Tommy John surgery does nothing to change their current position. Right-handers Anthony Swarzak and Liam Hendriks have both been forced into the starting rotation to begin the year due to the injury to Scott Baker and the unfortunate family emergency that temporarily pulled Jason Marquis away from the team. Both Swarzak and Hendriks are prototypical Twins pitchers: low strikeout, low walk, high contact pitchers who walk a fine line between effectiveness and ineffectiveness at the big league level due to their lack of premium stuff. ZiPS does not project either to find game-changing success this season, either, as Swarzak is projected to compile a terrible 5.36 ERA and Hendriks a modest 4.23 ERA.

Once Jason Marquis returns to the big league club — he is slated to start on Wednesday evening against the New York Yankees in Game 3 of a four-game series — the Twins will either be able to transition Swarzak to the bullpen and allow Hendriks the opportunity to grow into a young, back-end starter the organization needs, or leave Swarzak in the rotation because he possesses more big league experience and send Hendriks back to Triple-A, where he has only thrown 49.1 career innings, for further development and to keep his arm stretched out.

No matter the decision, the starting rotation for the Twins appears to be ripping apart at the seams. Scott Baker is out for the year. Francisco Liriano has more walks than strikeouts. Carl Pavano possesses a 5.23 ERA and has seen his early-season swinging strike rate drop for the third-consecutive season. Nick Blackburn has a 5.56 ERA through two starts this year and a career 4.62 FIP. Absolutely none of things are good.

It has been a rough couple of seasons for the Minnesota Twins. They have seen their two superstars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, battle their health and have seen their starting rotation slip from an organizational strength to a liability that should keep them from contending in the AL Central this season.

This surprise Tommy John surgery for Scott Baker is just another drop in the bucket at this point. More injuries. More bad luck. More struggles.