Zumaya to undergo exploratory elbow surgery

Zumaya to undergo exploratory elbow surgery

Zumaya to undergo exploratory elbow surgery
DETROIT -- Joel Zumaya's 2011 season is likely over before it began. The Tigers announced that the hard-throwing but injury-riddled reliever will undergo exploratory surgery next Tuesday to determine what is ailing his right elbow.

The move is expected to sideline Zumaya for the rest of the season. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand put Zumaya's chances of pitching this year at "very doubtful."

The decision, Rand said, was Zumaya's. The right-hander phoned Rand a couple of days ago to let him know he hadn't felt any improvement in the elbow over the past two weeks. The plan was to have Zumaya rest and rehab for six weeks before checking into how he felt.

After two weeks, Zumaya knew that plan wasn't going to work.

"Previously, the first time around, after a week, he felt like he was making progress," Rand said. "This time, after two weeks, he's had no movement -- doesn't feel any different than he did two weeks ago. He basically said to me, 'I'm not getting better. It's just not happening.' So he decided to go ahead at this point with [surgery]."

If Zumaya doesn't return this year, his 2011 season will have consisted of an encouraging offseason rehab program and one Spring Training outing, after which his elbow flared up. He underwent season-ending surgery last summer to repair a fractured bone, the olecranon, at the tip of his elbow, but he hasn't thrown off a mound since that Spring Training appearance on Feb. 27.

"He has worked very hard," Rand said. "That's what makes it so frustrating. That's what made it so frustrating for him in February, when he pitched. He got to that point in Spring Training, and obviously, everything felt good. He was progressing. Everything was going along. He never had any kind of setback. And then, all of a sudden, he had that when he pitched, and he just hasn't been able to get back to that."

Multiple MRI exams and other tests have shown no major structural damage in Zumaya's elbow, but the pain returns when he tries to throw. Noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews will look for the cause when he conducts the surgery at his office in Pensacola, Fla.

"He's resigned to the fact that he will probably not pitch this year," Rand said of Zumaya.

It isn't just Zumaya's 2011 season that could be coming to an end. If the right-hander doesn't return this season, his last pitch with the Tigers might well be that fateful delivery on the mound in Minnesota last June, when he crumbled to the ground in pain with the fracture.

Zumaya is eligible for free agency this offseason. His hope was that a strong 2011 season would vault him into a favorable position on a relief market that has yielded big contracts for setup men in recent years. What will happen with Zumaya this winter is unclear and might depend a lot on what Dr. Andrews finds next Tuesday.

It's an incredible position for someone who was one of baseball's best young relievers when he broke into the Majors in 2006. Zumaya's 6-3 record, 1.94 ERA and 97 strikeouts over 83 1/3 innings played a major role in Detroit's surprise run to the World Series that year.

Since that year, Zumaya has pitched in 109 games over five injury-shortened seasons. Each time, Zumaya came back with the same 100-mph fastball. But each time, a different injury would sideline him -- a ruptured tendon in his right middle finger in 2007, a damaged AC joint that required reconstructive surgery that winter, a stress fracture in his shoulder in '08 and '09, and the elbow injury last year. Zumaya's 31 appearances last season marked his highest total since his rookie year.

The Tigers prepared themselves for not having Zumaya last winter, signing free agent Joaquin Benoit to a three-year contract and guaranteeing a contract for high-strikeout Minor Leaguer Al Alburquerque out of winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.