Pitching elbow injuries pile up; Patrick Corbin next likely candidate for Tommy John surgery

Tim Brown
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Patrick Corbin pitches to a Kansas City Royals batter during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game Wednesday, March 5, 2014, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The outbreak of elbow ailments in baseball, some cases of which will end in Tommy John surgery and a year's worth of rehab and Netflix, was in Arizona Diamondbacks' camp a subject of some curiosity. The game has its annual casualties, especially among the bands of ligament that keep pitching staffs together. But two in Oakland, two in Atlanta, another in Kansas City, others scattered, that seemed excessive, maybe because they've clustered so tightly, or because these are names we know on teams we expect to contend..

The news has been better than initially feared in spots. It does not, however, diminish the reality – the gnawing reality – that the elbow has a tendency to go without warning, heartlessly and catastrophically.

"I'm just disappointed," Patrick Corbin said Sunday morning, and just like that the Diamondbacks' left-hander had made the list, and so, too, had the Diamondbacks.

Hours before Corbin would board a flight to Sydney and open the season against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw, an MRI returned with dire news. He'd partially torn his left ulnar collateral ligament, the one Dr. Frank Jobe made famous.

At 24 years old and just 49 starts into his big-league career, Corbin is by accounts a fine young man, both hard working and a model teammate. The organization had been attentive in his development, gradually increasing his innings to last season's 208 1/3. There were no outward warning signs, no violent delivery, no excessive workload. Corbin admitted there'd been unusual but minor tightness – "Nothing alarming," he said – in his elbow this spring, but nothing alarming until, he said, "a small little shock in there" while delivering his 91st pitch Saturday night.

Corbin will seek a second opinion, but the faces around the Diamondbacks were almost as long as the odds Corbin would return for any other reason than to collect his pajamas and prepare for Tommy John surgery.

In general, the elbow seems not to recognize work ethic, or innings count, or age, or least of all its own value to a particular rotation. So, barring an unexpected finding by Dr. James Andrews, Corbin comes right off the top of the Diamondbacks' rotation, one week from opening day. Wade Miley will take the opener (Southern Hemisphere edition) and be followed in the second game of that series by Trevor Cahill. Brandon McCarthy and, assuming his back is healthy, Bronson Arroyo are in the rotation. The fifth spot is likely to be filled by one of Randall Delgado, Archie Bradley and Josh Collmenter, at least in the short term.

"It's going to be tough to do a lot of trade business from Australia," Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said.

While the expected loss of Corbin does not have to be a lethal blow for the Diamondbacks in the NL West, the club must now replace those very capable innings it had figured to get from Corbin, who, in his first full season, had matured into one of the better pitchers in the league. What had been a spring curiosity had landed in their clubhouse as a full-on crisis. It's the difference between a blown elbow in someone else's clubhouse and one in your own.

"But," Towers said, "we need to move on. Hopefully somebody'll step up and pick up the slack. …We'll be fine.

"It's not just us. It's happening throughout baseball. More and more guys are having this injury."

Or maybe it just seems that way when they come fast and bunched like this, and when it finds your clubhouse and your ace, and you find yourself talking about your organizational depth – how it'll be tested now – in March.

"If it's what we think it is, it sucks," catcher Miguel Montero said. "It's really bad."

But, he said, "the depth we have, we're still in good shape."

They'll know soon enough. For the moment, the news smudged up the day pretty good. The Diamondbacks were packing for Australia, for another shot at the Dodgers, for an opportunity they could either make the most of or whine about. They, for one, chose enthusiasm.

Then, this.

"I think it's just a freak incident," Corbin said. "It just kinda sucks that it happened."

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