Veteran Baltimore Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson, once one of the most durable arms in baseball, today saw another season cut short before it could begin. And this time, it may spell the end of his eight-year Orioles career. Having failed in his attempt to pitch through a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Erickson said today he will have surgery next week in Los Angeles.
Although Erickson said he hopes to pitch again by the end of this season, labrum surgery for pitchers is among the most delicate -- and has one of the smallest success rates -- in baseball. And since Erickson's five-year, $32 million contract runs out after this season, there is a strong chance he will never pitch for the team again.
"It's just weakening by the day," Erickson, 35, said today. "It's not tremendously painful right now, but I can tell it's not going to get better. I think it's more important to fix it as quickly as possible and maybe get back by September."
Erickson informed team officials today of his decision to have the surgery, which will be performed by Lewis Yocum, the noted orthopedist who performed two elbow surgeries on Erickson in 2000, including ligament-replacement surgery that August, which kept him out the entire 2001 season.
The news of Erickson's loss has changed the Orioles' view of their pitching situation. No longer so overloaded with starters, the team may halt efforts to trade one. In fact, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie said the team may seek to add another, acknowledging interest in left-handers Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley, who remain free agents just a month before Opening Day.
"It was always in the back of our minds that [Erickson's injury] could get to this point," Beattie said. "It was never certain that his rehab program was going to strengthen the shoulder and get him back healthy."
Still, if the Orioles sign another veteran pitcher, it may just be a means of allowing them to trade a younger pitcher such as Sidney Ponson for a power hitter, which is still the team's biggest need.
The loss of Erickson also helps the Orioles' bottom line, since it is believed 60 percent of his $6.6 million salary now will be paid by insurance.
Erickson's labrum tear first came to light this winter after Erickson felt a twinge in his shoulder while playing in Ponson's charity softball game in Aruba. However, Erickson said he believes the injury dates back to last summer, when he experienced soreness that was diagnosed at the time as tendinitis.
An MRI exam taken soon after the softball game discovered the tear, but Yocum advised Erickson it might be possible to strengthen the shoulder through a rehabilitation program and thus avoid surgery. Many pitchers, including Ponson, have pitched successfully with slightly torn or fraying labrums.
After undergoing his rehabilitation, Erickson reported to spring training saying he felt healthy and vowed to earn a spot in the rotation.
Today, he said he felt fine for the first three or four days of camp, but then started "going backwards."
"I'm seriously irritated," he said today. Surgery "was the last thing I wanted. [Pitching] is something I've been doing my whole life. The last thing I want is to sit here and not be able to enjoy the main love of my life."
Erickson was one of baseball's most dependable pitchers in the 1990s, pitching at least 200 innings in every season that decade except his rookie year of 1991 and the strike-shortened seasons of 1994 and '95.
But Erickson had arthroscopic surgery in March 2000 to remove bone chips and missed the first month of the season, then had the ligament-replacement procedure (also known as "Tommy John" surgery) five months later. After sitting out the 2001 season, he returned last season and was the team's Opening Day starter. But shoulder soreness eventually ended his season in late August with a 5-12 record and 5.55 ERA.
"It's very strange," he said, "to all of sudden have all these things go [wrong] at one time."
Although modern advances in medicine have brought elbow surgery to the point where almost all pitchers come back at close to full strength, the same cannot be said for shoulder surgery. While no statistics are kept on the topic, some observers in the Orioles' clubhouse today estimated the success rate might be half that of elbow surgery.
"If anyone can come back from this, it's Scotty," Manager Mike Hargrove said. "He keeps himself in great shape, and he's a competitor."
Beattie, who pitched for the New York Yankees in the 1980s, counts himself among the pitchers who were never the same following shoulder surgery.
"The elbow is one thing," Beattie said. "The shoulder is still a tricky thing for doctors to deal with. There are a lot of questions, even if you have surgery, about how effectively you can come back from this."
Orioles Notes: Left-hander Omar Daal pitched for the first time as an Oriole, tossing two scoreless innings in a 7-6 win over the Florida Marlins at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Veteran right-hander Pat Hentgen followed with two innings, allowing one run.
Hentgen remains in competition for the one of the last two spots in the Orioles' rotation, along with Jason Johnson and Rick Helling. Hargrove said he can't fathom not having Hentgen on the team, but has not committed to naming him a member of the rotation.
"He's one of my all-time favorites," Hargrove said, "and I don't have many."