Elbow injury is more bad news for Joel Hanrahan, Tigers' bullpen
For a good chunk of last season, Joel Hanrahan was hailed as a potential solution to the woes of the persistently shaky Tigers' bullpen, but his slower-than-expected recovery from Tommy John surgery prevented him from pitching in a single competitive game. The 33-year-old righty and the Tigers were prepared to give it another shot this season, but on Wednesday, the team released him after discovering that he needs a second Tommy John procedure, thereby further exposing a bullpen that already looks thin.
Hanrahan last pitched in the majors on May 6, 2013, when he was with the Red Sox. He managed just 7 1/3 largely ineffective innings for them after being acquired from the Pirates — for whom he had earned All-Star honors in the previous two seasons — in a six-player deal the previous December.
Indeed, Hanrahan has experienced more than his share of ups and downs since being drafted by the Dodgers back in 2000. After reaching free agency following six undistinguished seasons in their minor league chain, he caught on with the Nationals and spent time in their rotation during the second half of '07, then dabbled in closing in '08 and '09. He was largely ineffective in both roles, putting up a 5.30 ERA in 168 innings with the team over two and a half seasons before being traded to the Pirates in a four-player deal on June 30, 2009. Things clicked into place for him with the Bucs; he went from a 7.71 ERA in 32 2/3 innings with Washington to a 1.72 ERA in 31 1/3 innings with Pittsburgh in that split season. He put in a claim on the closer's job in late '10, then earned All-Star honors in '11 and '12, saving 76 games and posting a combined 2.24 ERA.
He managed just four saves with the Red Sox and was cuffed for a 9.82 ERA, serving a stay on the disabled list for a hamstring strain during the second half of April, before his elbow troubles came to the fore. A consultation with Dr. James Andrews led to the operating table, where on May 16, 2013, Hanrahan received what I've called the Deluxe Elbow Combo Platter: repair not only of his ulnar collateral ligament but also of his torn flexor muscle, as well as the removal of multiple bone spurs.
Hanrahan signed a deal with the Tigers in early May 2014, just shy of a year removed from the surgery, but the multiple injuries kept him from returning to competitive pitching on the typical 12-month timeline. He threw bullpen sessions but wasn't able to progress very far, and in late July, he was shut down for the season. The Tigers re-signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal with $2.5 million worth of incentives in mid-November, but his throwing program was suspended as of Feb. 21 due to discomfort, and he began making the rounds to the familiar medicos. Dr. Andrews drained fluid from his elbow and suggested rest, while Dr. Keith Meister, who last fall suggested a second TJ might be required, has apparently convinced him that surgery is the way to go. Via MLB.com's Jason Beck:
"He kind of basically told me the same thing this time," Hanrahan said. "At that point [last summer], I didn't believe it, because it didn't hurt that bad and I don't know what blowing out your ligament feels like necessarily. I thought there was no way that was true. I was still throwing, and some days I could throw pretty good, and some days I couldn't."
Once his arm started hurting in non-baseball activities, Hanrahan realized it was time.
…"I can't golf," Hanrahan said. "I can't pull back the strings on a bow. I can't play ping pong. I've got a 2-year-old son that I look forward to having a lot of time with. It's one of those quality-of-life things."
Those comments suggest that another comeback attempt may not be in the cards, though it's far too early to count Hanrahan out, particularly when he's bound to be at an emotional low point in facing the loss of yet another season.
Comebacks from second TJs are hardly unheard of, and as you'd expect given the recent spike in such surgeries, repeat customers have become more common. Via Jon Roegele's Tommy John surgery database, there have been 56 repeats (including minor leaguers and position players), though the database lists only Jonny Venters among the small handful of pitchers known to have undergone three procedures (Chad Fox, Jason Isringhausen, Jose Rijo and Scott Williamson are others).
Sixteen of those 56 repeats have come since the calendar flipped to 2013, among which only Daniel Hudson has returned to the majors—that for all of 2 2/3 innings last September. Among those still on the way back from their second TJ are Brandon Beachy, Josh Johnson, Kris Medlen and Jarrod Parker, with Tyler Chatwood and Cory Luebke among others worth noting.
Last March, in the wake of news regarding Medlen and Parker needing surgery, Cliff Corcoran came up with 30 pitchers who returned to the majors after their second TJ, with relievers Jason Frasor and Doug Brocail and starter Chris Capuano—well-traveled journeymen, not stars—the most successful among them; both Frasor and Capuano are still active. Notably, the jury is still out on a pair of star-level ex-closers who may be better comparisons for Hanrahan, namely Brian Wilson and Joakim Soria, who underwent their second surgeries less than three weeks apart in April 2012.
Wilson, who made a dominant showing for the Dodgers in late 2013, was so bad last season that the new regime released him in December despite owing him $9.5 million this year. All told, he has pitched to a 3.77 ERA (and 3.79 FIP) in 62 innings since returning, with his average fastball velocity falling from a pre-surgery 96.6 mph to a post-surgery 93.7 mph (data via Brooks Baseball). Inflammation of his ulnar nerve, which sent him to the DL in the first half of last April, may have been a factor in reducing that velocity.
Soria, who would have been Hanrahan's teammate in Detroit, has posted a 3.44 ERA (and 2.65 FIP) in 68 innings since returning, showing much better control than Wilson (a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.8 compared to 2.2) and a minimal velocity loss (91.9 mph pre-surgery, 91.1 post-surgery). He notched 18 saves last year, though only one came after being traded from the Rangers to the Tigers, in part because he missed a month with a strained oblique. For what it's worth, via Brooks Baseball, Hanrahan's average velocity prior to his first surgery was 96.3 mph, much closer to Wilson than Soria, but that hardly means the same fate awaits him.
As for what this all means for the Tigers, I've pointed out several times in this space what a perpetual sore spot their bullpen has been since the decline and fall of closer Jose Valverde in late 2012. Last season, the unit ranked 13th in the AL with a 4.29 ERA and 14th with a 33-percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score. Closer Joe Nathan saved 35 games in his age-39 season, but was rocked for a 4.81 ERA, and while his splits by half (5.61/3.70 in terms of ERA) made for a superficially encouraging trend, that was largely a fluke based on allowing all five of his home runs prior to the All-Star Game; his K/BB ratio slipped from 2.5 in the first half to 1.3 in the second. Nathan is making $10 million this year with a $1 million buyout on next year's option, so the team will give him every chance to show he's rebounded before they cut him loose.
Soria makes for a palatable alternative to close if he's healthy, and the re-signed Joba Chamberlain could be useful in a setup role, though his splits by half were pretty lousy as well (2.63/4.97 in terms of ERA, 3.3 /1.3 in terms of K/BB). Al Alburquerque is coming off a 2.51 ERA in a career-high 57 1/3 innings, but his 3.78 FIP and suddenly high homer rate (1.1 per nine) are causes for concern. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who pitched just 21 major league innings with the Brewers after returning from offseason shoulder debridement, can't help but be an upgrade on perennially shaky Phil Coke, but newcomers Alex Wilson and Josh Zeid are both untested. The 28-year-old Wilson, acquired from Boston in the Rick Porcello trade, has just 56 major league innings under his belt, including just 28 1/3 in 2014, and his 6.6 strikeouts per nine suggests a middle relief ceiling. The 27-year-old Zeid owns a 5.21 ERA in 48 1/3 innings at the major league level. Lefties Ian Krol and Blaine Hardy and righty Luke Putkonen are some of the familiar names who could also be in the mix, and heat-throwing Bruce Rondon could be along later this summer if his return from March '14 Tommy John surgery goes according to schedule.
While closer Rafael Soriano remains the top unsigned free agent available, nothing so far has suggested that he and the Tigers are on convergent paths, particularly with Chamberlain back in the fold. Expect general manager Dave Dombrowski to keep a close eye on the waiver wire and other teams' camps for additional options, and spare a good thought for Hanrahan as he heads for the operating table again—he'll no doubt need it.