The young fireballer underwent reconstructive surgery on Wednesday to repair a joint around his throwing shoulder, which he injured moving boxes for a possible evacuation from his house. If he fulfills the timetable given by doctors, the hope is that he'll be back pitching in July. However, it's an injury so rare for pitchers that all sides are approaching it with cautious optimism.
"There was no rotator cuff [damage]. That's a plus," president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But in no way do I want to say this is not a major injury. We're hopeful with the time frame, but I don't think realistically, until we get through this process and Joel Zumaya gets on a mound, do we know he'll make it back."
Zumaya was in line as the Tigers' closer of the future -- possibly the very near future. Now, Zumaya's future is very much unsettled, as is the Tigers' bullpen and their offseason plans.
If Detroit's stress level is up, it can't compare to what Zumaya has had to deal with so far this offseason.
"It's been really tough on me, man," Zumaya said Thursday afternoon from home. "When I get home, a week or two later wildfires start popping up and we have to protect the roof over our heads. It's something that I do not wish upon any 23-year-old or anybody, because right now, I'm not thinking straight. I've just woken up crying knowing that it's been tough. This whole year has just been a tough year for me, and knowing that I'm going into the next year [injured makes it tougher].
"My apologies go out to everybody. It was not something that I wanted."
Zumaya spends his offseasons at his family home in Chula Vista, Calif. It's close to where one of the many wildfires throughout the region were burning, torching homes and causing levels of damage that they're still counting.
Parts of Chula Vista -- south of San Diego -- were placed under a mandatory evacuation early last week. Other parts of Chula Vista were under a voluntary evacuation. Zumaya's agent, Don Mitchell, said last week that the 22-year-old did not suffer damage to his home from the wildfires, but that the fires crept within a couple miles of his neighborhood.
Zumaya's home was not in the mandatory evacuation area, but Zumaya said they were preparing for a possible evacuation late last week. As he explained, their home overlooks a canyon from where the fires were within a couple miles on the other side, and ashes and ember were coming down from the sky.
His father, he said, suffered a broken leg recently, so they don't want him lifting heavy items. Instead, he and his younger brother, Tigers Minor Leaguer Richard Zumaya, tried to pack up belongings.
Zumaya said he reached into the attic to grab a box that contained "a bunch of stuff from [the World Series] last year, a bunch of jerseys, a bunch of personal stuff that we wanted to get down."
"This wasn't me fooling around," he said. "I was trying to protect some valuable stuff."
When he reached to grab that box, he continued, he didn't realize there was another box sitting on top of it containing heavier items such as trophies from his career. Once he reached for the box he wanted, the heavier box came tumbling.
"Fifty, sixty pounds came straight down on my shoulder," Zumaya said.
He didn't seek medical attention right away, he said, because he didn't realize he was seriously injured until the next day, when the pain was worse.
"At the time, I knew that there was something wrong with my shoulder," he said. "Because a shoulder doesn't [normally] hang below your other shoulder by about three inches."
He also noticed a bump on his shoulder, the same type of bump he had seen from Gary Sheffield and Placido Polanco when they had their respective shoulder injuries the last couple years. At that point, he told his father he thought something was seriously wrong. The elder Zumaya called head athletic trainer Kevin Rand, who set up an appointment with Padres team physician, Dr. Jan Fronek.
"Joel Zumaya's shoulder problem, the result of moving heavy furniture in the face of the California fires, is a significant injury not normally seen in baseball. It's a football injury due to the traumatic nature, with the best known example being Brian Griese. The time frame given by the Tigers, a return at or near midseason, seems solid. Dr. Neil El Attrache of the Kerlan-Jobe clinic concurs. 'Six to eight months for a return to activity seems reasonable,' he told me. He also held out hope for Tigers fans. 'Velocity normally comes back.'"
|-- Will Carroll, senior writer for Baseball Prospectus|
Zumaya was diagnosed with a tear of his AC point, which connects the collarbone to the shoulder blade. On a scale of 1 to 5, Zumaya said, his injury was diagnosed at 5, the most severe. It was bad enough that surgery was recommended as soon as possible, rather than waiting a couple weeks for second and third opinions.
The surgery was performed in San Diego by Dr. Fronek and Dr. Heinz Hoenecke, who had performed similar surgery on former Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti when he had the same injury. It's Caminiti's case that gives doctors hope, because he came back throwing just as strong as he had before. His injury, Zumaya said, was a level 3.
The doctors told Zumaya and his family that the surgery went better than expected, and that they believed he would come back at 100 percent strength. To get there, however, is going to take some time. Zumaya will have to rest his shoulder for the next six weeks, after which he can begin a rehab program. He won't be able to begin strengthening the shoulder for three months, then start a throwing program a month later.
One of the first things Dombrowski said to him was to not rush it, advice that Zumaya plans to heed.
"I'm going to set myself to a limit," Zumaya said. "I am going to slow it down a little bit, knowing that this could be a career injury. I'm going to take my time with this one. The doctor said four months before he gets me throwing again, and seven months before I'm throwing at a good pace.
"If everything goes well, I think I'll be back throwing in July."
That's the timetable Dombrowski is going to follow, even while he has to plan for next season without him.
"I'm listening to the doctors' time perspective," Dombrowski said. "I think that, realistically, you listen to the medical people and you think he'll be back. I can't be 100 percent on that."
It'll be the second time in as many years that the Tigers have had to work up their bullpen without the young flame-thrower, who was the important contributor in their 2006 run to the World Series. He missed three months this past season after rupturing a tendon in his middle finger while warming up in the bullpen in early May. He returned to action in August, but spent the rest of the season regaining his pre-surgery velocity.
Now, he'll have to go through much of that same process again. It's not nearly on the scale a natural disaster, of course, but it's the biggest professional challenge he has faced.
"The thing that gets me," Zumaya said, "is that everybody's going to go around and say I'm an injury factor. These last two injuries are freak injuries, especially this injury. I'm pretty sure that everybody who was in my footsteps [would do the same thing]."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.