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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 4, 2010 at 11:20 AM

Erik Bedard and his torn labrum: Can he come back?

bedard.jpg

Update: I will add my voice to the chorus reporting that this deal is close to completion, pending a physical. But considering the nature of Bedard’s injury, that might be more than a mere formality in this case.

In 2004, Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, regarded as one of the leading expert on baseball injuries — at least among non-doctors — wrote an oft-cited article for Slate Magazine on the dire nature of labrum injuries. He concluded, “If pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they’d be destroyed.”

With all the talk swirling about Erik Bedard’s potential return to the Mariners, it’s enticing to daydream about what a rotation topped by Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee and Bedard would look like. Here’s what Bedard himself said, in an interview today with Larry LaRue of the Tacoma News-Tribune: “I’d say the pressure would be off the No. 3 starter with those two guys ahead of him. You’re talking two aces.”

Bedard told Larue he’d “love to be back in Seattle,” but added, “No one’s made a firm offer.” WIth the Mariners brass, including GM Jack Zduriencik, in the Dominican Republic until Monday, it’s unlikely anything definitive would happen this week.

But my question is, what can be realistically expected in 2010 from Bedard, who is coming off surgery last August to repair a, gulp, torn labrum, as well as an inflamed bursa. By all accounts, including that of Mariner trainer Rick Griffin last week, all is going well. Griffin noted that Bedard is seven months into a process that has a 10- to 12-month recovery time. On the optimistic side, Bedard would be ready in May, as he hopes. Pessimistically, Bedard wouldn’t return until the second half of the season.

But can he come back at all? Baseball is riddled with pitchers who have never been able to recover from shoulder injuries, such as Jason Schmidt, Mark Prior, Matt Clement, Scott Elarton and Bartolo Colon. The Mariners have seen first-hand with Chad Cordero, the one-time All-Star closer still trying to come back from labrum surgery, how difficult a task it is.

Yet not all is hopeless — certainly not as bleak as it was when Carroll wrote his Slate article. In fact, Carroll has recently written a new piece for Rotowire Magazine, in which he takes a (slightly) more upbeat view of labrum injuries. He concludes in the piece, “We’re left with hope. Surgeons do a better job repairing shoulder injuries in baseball now than they did just a few short years ago. Continued improvement and inevitable experience should continue the progress.”

I talked to Carroll today by phone, and he said of labrum tears and the recovery prognosis, “It’s a lot better off. It’s not good, by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it’s not Rocky Biddle (a pitcher whose once-promising career was wiped out by a shoulder injury). We now have pitchers coming back — and a ton trying to come back.”

Besides Bedard, that list of pitchers attempting to come back from labrum issues includes Brandon Webb, Ted Lilly, Jeff Francis and Ben Sheets. They can point for inspiration to a few shining examples (the most famous case of a pitcher overcoming labrum surgery is Roger Clemens way back in 1985, but that seems to be something of an anomaly. Carroll writes in Rotowire, posing the question of why Clemens’ surgery. performed by renowned orthopedist James Andrews, was successful a quarter of a century ago while other pitchers haven’t been able to come back, “Dr. Andrews has an idea: ‘They’re not Roger Clemens.’).

More recently, Curt Schilling, who had labral surgery in 1995, and Chris Carpenter, who had it in 2002 and won the Cy Young in 2005, made impressive comebacks. Here’s an impressively detailed synopsis from Schilling — complete with grisly pictures — of the inner workings of his shoulder that will knock your bloody socks off. It gives a pretty good medical lesson on shoulder injuries.

Carroll concludes that signing Bedard would be “a reasonable risk” but worries that he’s also had elbow problems in his career, including Tommy John surgery in 2002. Carroll said that pitchers who go from elbow issues to shoulder issues, or vice versa, have a historically harder time coming back from the latter.

Yet Carroll reiterated that labrum tears aren’t the death sentence they used to be.

“The technology has changed a little, but the biggest issue is more practice,” he said. “If Jim Andrews does it 100 times, he’s going to be that much better.”

(Seattle Times photo)

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