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Mahle unlikely to pitch for Twins again as Tommy John surgery lies ahead

Tyler Mahle wore a Twins cap as he addressed reporters on Thursday. It's unlikely he'll ever wear one on a pitcher's mound again.

The veteran righthander, his career as a Twin amounting to just nine starts, 42 innings and a 3.64 ERA since being acquired for three highly regarded prospects at the trade deadline last August, will spend the final five months of his Twins contract recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, the team announced on Thursday.

"Of course it's disappointing. There's no way around the fact that it is disappointing," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "But he's making probably the right long-term decision for him."

Normally, there's not much of a decision to make when a surgeon recommends replacing the elbow ligament, a procedure that generally requires at least a year of rehabbing before a pitcher can return to action. But Mahle's case isn't a ligament tear — it's a ligament that has become worn over a decade of professional pitching and is "lax," in medical terms, or looser than it should be, causing only mild pain but greatly increasing the danger of a tear.

Mahle, who also missed the final month of the 2022 season with an unrelated shoulder injury, had the option of resting his arm for a couple of months and trying to pitch later in the season — but health questions would have severely limited his value on the free agent market this winter. Better to fix the problem — surgery is expected next week — and hope to return strong sometime in 2024, presumably for a new team.

Mahle's surgeon, Dr. Keith Meister, who also performed Kenta Maeda's surgery, told the 28-year-old Mahle that "a couple of starts after you come back, you're going to be right back in the same position right now," the pitcher said. "It was a pretty obvious decision."

The diagnosis came as a shock to Mahle, who said he was only experiencing a "pinching" sensation when he pitched, and the Twins believed it was an impingement. As he waited to meet with Meister, "I was thinking he was going to come in and be like, 'Oh, you're all right,' because I don't feel the normal Tommy John symptoms," Mahle said. "I feel good right now, able to straighten my arm and everything, so I was like, 'I don't think it's going to be that bad.'"

Still, it's bad for Mahle's potential free agency, at least until he proves he's healthy and effective again. He could have sought a multi-year deal worth $50 million or more had he pitched well for the Twins.

The Twins should be able to absorb Mahle's absence thanks to the presence of Bailey Ober and Louie Varland. But it's the second time in two seasons they've traded for a starting pitcher, only to lose him to Tommy John surgery. Chris Paddack made only five starts last April and May before suffering his injury, though the Twins later signed him to a two-year contract to keep him around.

But the loss of infield prospects Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand and pitcher Steve Hajjar, the high cost of acquiring Mahle from the Reds, may sting. Steer is already in the majors, Encarnacion-Strand is batting .364 in Class AAA, and Hajjar, later dealt to the Guardians, is injured but considered a future major-leaguer, too.

"It's a fair question, and I think about it," said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations. "My view of this is that when you're trading for anybody, particularly pitching at the big-league level, there's risk association with that."

Etc.

Royce Lewis, recovering from last season's knee surgery, began his rehab assignment for Class AA Wichita on Thursday, playing third base in a game at Frisco, Texas.