It's already been a bad season for the Red Sox, who have tumbled from winning a world championship to taking up residence in the AL East basement for the second time in three years. They've traded away key veterans who were part of their winning effort, and watched highly touted prospects struggle to live up to expectations. Now they'll be without Dustin Pedroia for the remainder of the year, as the 31-year-old second baseman will undergo season-ending surgery on his left thumb and wrist on Thursday.
It's the fifth straight season and sixth time in the last eight years that Pedroia has ended his season by going under the knife. His current problem can be traced to the tearing of the ulnar collateral ligament of his left thumb on a headfirst slide on Opening Day 2013. That injury didn't become public knowledge until late May of last season, but he nonetheless set a career high in games played (160) and played every inning of every postseason game, forestalling the surgery until mid-November, after the Red Sox had won the World Series.
Pedroia’s rehab from that surgery stretched into this season, and his thumb problem was exacerbated when he fell awkwardly after a takeout slide by the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez during the team's April 4 home opener. Since then, he has experienced lingering discomfort and has aggravated the injury several times. More recently, inflammation in his left wrist near the base of the thumb has increased the pain.
The injury has taken its toll on Pedroia's offensive performance. He has set across-the-board career lows by hitting .278/.337/.376 with seven homers for a 101 OPS+, a step down from even last year's comparatively light .301/.372/.415 with nine homers and a 116 OPS+. Thanks to outstanding defense (+15 Defensive Runs Saved, +18 Ultimate Zone Rating), he's been worth 4.7 Wins Above Replacement, but even that mark is his lowest since his 75-game 2010 season; to find a lower mark in any of his full seasons, you have to go all the way back to his 2007 rookie campaign (3.9 WAR). All of this underscores just what a valuable player Pedroia has been, averaging 5.5 WAR per year despite his time missed for a variety of ailments, 6.3 WAR per 162 games and 6.5 WAR from 2011-2013, thumb injuries and all.
About those injuries, the litany — via the Baseball Prospectus Injury Database — is familiar, and the underlying theme is Pedroia's tendency to play through them. He played through a cracked hamate bone for two months in 2007, undergoing surgery in November after helping the Red Sox win the World Series. He broke a bone in his left foot via a foul ball in 2010, and served two separate stints on the DL before undergoing September surgery to implant a screw in his foot. The screw remained there even as he set a career high with 7.9 WAR in 2011; he had it removed after the season was over. In 2012, he suffered an adductor strain and then a sprain of his right thumb, and tore a ligament in his right pinkie. He needed postseason surgery on that, but not before playing the final two games of that lost season with a broken ring finger on his left hand.
By undergoing surgery now, Pedroia will have nearly a two-month head start on his recovery relative to last year, when he went under the knife on November 13, and this one is expected to be minor by comparison. Here's what he told WEEI's Alex Speier on Tuesday, before he had decided to have the surgery:
“If there was a surgery it wouldn’t be major," said Pedroia. "You know what I mean? It’s one of those things that’s kind of a release or something to get the inflammation out of there. If that were the case, I’d have a normal offseason and be able to lift weights, something that I didn’t get a chance to do very much last offseason.”
The decision for surgery came on the same day that the Red Sox were officially eliminated from postseason contention via a 10-6 loss to the Orioles that dropped their record to 63-83. The recently acquired Jemile Weeks played second base for the second game in a row, and could see more time there through the remainder of the year. A career .259/.320/.358 hitter at the major league level, the 27-year-old Weeks is still trying to recapture the form of his strong 2011 rookie season with the A's; he spent most of this year with the Orioles' Triple-A Norfolk affiliate before being acquired in a four-player deal that sent Kelly Johnson to Baltimore, and has played in just 16 major league games over the past two seasons. Also likely to see time at the keystone is super utility man Brock Holt, who has seven starts there this year. One of the few pleasant surprises for the team, he has nonetheless hit just .219/.278/.271 since the All-Star break after batting a sizzling .327/.371/.463 prior.
It's also possible the team could try 21-year-old rookie Mookie Betts at second. Blocked by Pedroia's ongoing presence — he's signed through 2021 — Betts began transitioning from second base to centerfield earlier this year, and has played the position just once since making his major league debut on June 2 (July 28, when he was back in Pawtucket). In marked contrast to the struggles of the more highly-touted Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., Betts has hit a solid .289/.363/.463 in 136 PA at the major league level. He's seen time in both centerfield and rightfield, but his future in the organization beyond 2014 is clouded by the addition of Cuban defector Rusney Castillo to a crowd of outfielders that also includes Bradley, Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino. By returning Betts to second base at least temporarily, the team could enhance his potential trade value.
As for Pedroia, the Sox aren't asking him to curb his aggressive style of play even in the wake of yet another injury, though they may rest him more next year. Via MLB.com's Ian Browne, here's what manager John Farrell had to say:
"We're really not going to ask him to change his approach, with the exception of deciding to slide head first," Farrell said. "Dustin plays the game as he's wired, and that's what makes him the great player that he is.
[H]e and I have had conversations [about more rest]" Farrell continued. I think in Dustin's case specifically, as a guy gets deeper into his career, he might need that day off prior to an off day to get him a couple of days of recovery time. All those things are being discussed and looked at."
Beyond the fact that he’ll soon be 31, Pedroia isn’t expected to have much trouble recovering his stroke following surgery, but the good news for the Sox is that even if he isn't able to do much more than he's done the past two seasons while playing through his woes, he's still a very valuable player based on his defense and his contract. Via a particularly team-friendly extension signed in July 2013, his deal will pay him just $12.5 million next year and an average of $13.8 million from 2014-2021, peaking at $16 million in 2018. For a player who's been worth nearly five wins in an injury-curtailed year, that's one helluva bargain, and it should ease the pain of shutting him down for the season.