April 26, 2010

Imagine you're a major league pitcher with a busted elbow. A hotshot Los Angeles doctor comes to you with a revolutionary procedure that might save your fastball. All he has to do is replace the torn ligament in your elbow with a working tendon from your hamstring, knee or foot. Your chance for full recovery is 1 in 100.

That was Tommy John's reality in 1974. Turns out, he was the chosen one. Thanks to Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers pitcher stayed in the majors another 15 years until age 46. Today, ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (patented by Jobe as Tommy John surgery) is as common as night baseball. In fact, even non-pitchers are having it.

Recovery time is usually between 12 to 18 months with various degrees of success. Some pitchers claim to have better velocity on their fastball and with more consistency. Many have shined after the procedure (Chris Carpenter, A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster, Joakim Soria), but a few have fizzled (B.J. Ryan, Tim Spooneybarger, Jesse Foppert)

Despite a great track record for success, TJ patients are not universally loved in fantasy leagues. Many owners devalue them or stay away all together. To them, the risk is not worth the reward. However, you don't need to be afraid. Here is a list of underrated hurlers worth targeting that recently went under the knife:

Scott Feldman, SP (Rangers) -- TJ Class of 2003

Feldman was relegated to the bullpen after surgery before joining the Rangers rotation in '08. Switching from a sidearm motion to a three-quarters delivery, he struggled mightily (6-8, 5.29 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) but he bounced back in '09 with a breakout year (17-8, 4.08 ERA, 1.28 WHIP). The Texas ace is having a rough April but he still is a solid start with the right matchup.

Randy Wolf, SP (Brewers) -- TJ Class of 2005

Wolf added shoulder surgery in '07, which might explain why he often gets overlooked. Despite his ailments, the 33-year old lefty has averaged 200 innings and a 3.74 ERA over the past two seasons. Wolf shouldn't be your top dog but he's a solid second or third starter.

Francisco Liriano, SP (Twins) -- TJ Class of 2006

At age 22, Liriano was among baseball's best pitchers but a rash of injuries, including forearm inflammation and elbow surgery, forced him to miss the entire '07 season. Upon his return, the Dominican southpaw was extremely overvalued, and many owners got burned (5-13, 5.80 ERA, 1.55 WHIP in '09). His value is low right now but that will change quickly if Liriano keeps pitching well (2-0, 1.29 ERA, 1.10 WHIP in three starts). Try to get him on the cheap now before he returns to ace status.

Jaime Garcia, SP (Cardinals) -- TJ Class of 2008

The lefty prospect didn't pitch in the majors last year yet he showed promise in the minors (1.03 WHIP, 9.8 K/9 in 37.2 innings). He's got everything going for him now with pitching coach guru Dave Duncan guiding him, and MVP Albert Pujols driving in runs. After an impressive beginning (1.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in three starts), Garcia is worth nabbing in all leagues.

Billy Wagner, RP (Braves) -- TJ Class of 2008

Wagner pitched only 15 innings in '09 while splitting time between the Mets and Red Sox. Atlanta signed him to be their closer this season, but I'm skeptical he can become an elite finisher again. Wagner's arm looks good so far (11 K in 6 innings) and his job is relatively secure. At the very least, he can be a steady source of saves and strikeouts.

Shaun Marcum, SP (Blue Jays) -- TJ Class of 2008

Marcum missed all of '09, which makes every pitch he throws this year a clue about his recovery. He's already thrown three quality starts, his WHIP is great (1.00) and opponents are batting .243 against him. Yes, I like his chances.

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