PHOENIX — After lasting 14 years in the majors without going on the disabled list and garnering a reputation as perhaps baseball’s most durable pitcher, Diamondbacks starter Bronson Arroyo now faces his worst nightmare.
Arroyo revealed Monday he will have season-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow after pitching for a month with a completely torn ulnar collateral ligament.
Arroyo, 37, broke the news to reporters, explaining that a June 16 MRI had revealed the tear, but he initially decided to try pitching without the ligament after resting his arm for a while. It eventually became clear that plan wasn’t going to work, as Arroyo’s elbow responded poorly after a recent throwing session.
"I was going to see if I could ride it without the ligament," Arroyo said. "If this was the last year of my career, I could gut through it with anti-inflammatories and different things and it would be tough. But if I want to play after this year, it’s going to be impossible.
"I don’t want to be 40 years old and possibly be a free agent and not have a ligament. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to sign me then."
Arroyo, 7-4 with a 4.08 ERA this season, said he actually made his last six starts with the UCL completely torn off the bone. Oddly enough, Arroyo pitched as well as he had all season, going 3-1 with a 3.45 ERA in the last five of those starts. Arroyo believes the tear occurred in his complete game against the Nationals on May 13.
"When I woke up the next morning it was very stiff," Arroyo said. "But I’ve had that plenty of times in my career, so I didn’t think anything alarming of it. And then every start it was just getting harder and harder to turn it back around."
Arroyo mentioned an issue with his elbow after a June 10 start, prior to which he had skipped a bullpen session due to the elbow pain. D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, general manager Kevin Towers and head athletic trainer Ken Crenshaw approached Arroyo before his next start about shutting down, but Arroyo insisted he could keep pitching.
Though Arroyo won his next start in Los Angeles, allowing just one run in five innings, the elbow swelled so much during and after the start Arroyo decided to get an MRI the next day and landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
I thought maybe I’d retire at 39 or 40, but who knows — I might pitch much further if I do come back healthy, because it’s a lot of extra work I’m having to do to try to come back now.
After consulting with head team physician Dr. Michael Lee, Arroyo opted not to go the Tommy John route immediately, instead giving his elbow time to calm down. Other pitchers — mostly relievers — have done it, and Arroyo felt it was worth a shot.
When it became clear it wasn’t going to work, Arroyo made a pretty quick decision to toss out his July 15 cutoff date and have the surgery, though a date and surgeon have not yet been decided.
Arroyo, who signed with the D-backs early in spring training for two years and $19 million, said he has given no thought to retiring in light of the injury. In fact, his desire to continue playing prompted his decision to reverse course and have the surgery. That way, Arroyo explained, he can spend a year recovering and return next season in time to show the D-backs he can still pitch as they face the decision on his third-year option, which is worth $11 million. The option includes a $4.5 million buyout.
"I don’t want to put this organization in a position where I only pitch maybe two starts in September of next year and then they’re not really sure if they want to pick up that option, because it’s a pretty hefty option," Arroyo said. "I want to give them the opportunity to at least see me throw for a few months and know that what they have here is what they had before."
Arroyo becomes the third D-backs pitcher this season to need the major elbow surgery; starter Patrick Corbin and setup man David Hernandez had it just before the start of the season. Reliever Matt Reynolds and starter Daniel Hudson are also on the D-backs’ 60-day disabled list rehabbing from the surgery.
Tommy John surgery typically requires 10-12 months of rehab, with a year being the standard. Arroyo has never been a hard thrower, which the D-backs hope could make returning easier.
"Because of the way he throws, I think maybe the hope is that he won’t need as long to rehab, that he can recover quickly," Gibson said. "In general in his career he’s been really healthy."
Arroyo was in good spirits Monday, as he has had time to digest the news, but he admitted to being frustrated after such a long history of health. Still, he says he will make the best of his year away, resting and trying to come back stronger.
Since 2005, Arroyo has made at least 32 starts each season and fallen short of the 200 innings mark only once, throwing 199 innings in 2011. This development, Arroyo says, has pushed back his timetable for retirement.