When a pitcher’s elbow is sore enough to land him on the DL not once, but twice, there is a problem. When that problem includes the phrases “second opinion” and “Dr. James Andrews,” the worst case scenario has likely been realized. We won’t know until Wednesday afternoon at the earliest, but it is possible that Joe Blanton will require Tommy John surgery.
An athlete does not often go for a second opinion if the first was favorable. Andrews’ most common surgery is Tommy John. It is easy to make the connection, though according to Matt Gelb of the Inquirer, two tests on Blanton’s elbow have shown no torn ligaments. Either way, he will be shut down for at least a month, probably more.
If Blanton does need to have the elbow reconstruction, he will be out until around June of next season. In retrospect, his contract will not have been a finer point of Ruben Amaro’s tenure, even if it didn’t appear wrong at the time. With Tommy John, the Phillies would receive a half-season of production from Blanton next year while the righthander attempts to resurrect his value on the open market. If he can come back and pitch well, he might get a two- or three-year deal. If not, a team might give him a flier at one-year, $5.5MM or so.
Luckily, the Phillies have the best starting rotation in baseball. Losing Blanton short-term or long-term does not plague the team as much as losing Jorge de la Rosa hurts the Rockies. Oftentimes a team can maneuver through the regular season with multiple fifth starters, and Blanton was never a realistic starting option in the playoffs.
Blanton’s injury might not hurt the Phils at all, when you consider the progress Vance Worley has made. Worley did not have great command Tuesday, but that was due mostly to the fact that he had only pitched two bullpens in the last week. He admitted after the game that even going five innings, he was “gassed”
All three runs allowed by Worley Tuesday came on bloop hits to shallow right field. Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips each lunged for balls, connecting with the end of the bat to help themselves to cheap hits. This was less a sign of a team adjusting to Worley than it was Worley combining bad luck with scheduling issues. Going from Lehigh Valley to Philly back to Lehigh Valley back to Philly (who is he, Sergio Escalona?) was rigorous for the rook. If he has a poor start next time out, there may be reason for concern. As of now, though, the early return on Worley is all positive.
Vance possesses the all-important ability to miss bats. He induced nine swinging strikes in 91 pitches Tuesday, or 9.8%. League average hovers around 8.5%. Missing bats is what allowed Worley to work through a second and third, one out situation in the fifth. After Phillips tied the game, Worley got Jay Bruce to swing and miss twice (strikeout) and Chris Heisey to fan at another pitch before flying out. To understand the importance of swinging strikes, think about how Kyle Kendrick would have fared in that situation. Kendrick cannot get anyone to fail to connect with a pitch, resulting in trouble getting out of jams. (Don’t even talk to me about his low 2011 ERA, that is based solely on incredible luck and the fact that five or six flyballs have reached the edge of the warning track rather than sailing two feet further over the fence.)
If Worley were replacing Cole Hamels, there would be a significant dropoff. Replacing Blanton, though, will not be as difficult a task. Worley appears to be capable of producing similar numbers to Blanton over the next several starts…or months. Blanton has been perfectly mediocre as a Phillie: approximately 10.0 hits per nine, a 1.40 WHIP and an ERA in the 4.50 region. Those numbers would be even worse if not for an above-average 2009.
Moving forward, Blanton’s probable absence will make Roy Oswalt‘s 2012 mutual option all the more attractive to the Phillies. If Blanton needs Tommy John, he’ll be out for the first part of next year and the Phils will need another starter. If he doesn’t need the surgery, his health in 2012 will still be a major concern, making rotational depth essential.
If Oswalt wants to keep playing, paying him $16MM in 2012 maintains that depth without having to give another pitcher a multi-year deal. Aside from Worley, there are not too many able bodied starting pitchers within the organization.
Rob Dibble may disagree, but the Phillies bringing Blanton back off the DL and pitching him despite his own vocal discomfort was a terrible idea. It made things worse, resulting in what will be an extended absence.
But if there is a non-bench player the Phillies can afford to lose, it is Blanton. My apologies to our readers in Kentucky.