DETROIT -- When Jake Westbrook felt soreness in his right elbow after his last start May 28, the Indians were optimistic he'd still be able to make his next start. As it turns out, that next start won't come for about another year. Westbrook, placed on the disabled list earlier this week with right elbow inflammation, will undergo season-ending Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff announced Saturday.
The surgery will be performed by elbow specialist Dr. Lewis Yocum in Los Angeles in the next seven to 14 days. In the Indians' most optimistic view, Westbrook would be ready to pitch in the big leagues again in another 10-14 months. Dr. Mark Schickendantz, the Indians' medical director, discovered the tear in Westbrook's ulnar collateral ligament Tuesday and recommended surgery. Westbrook visited Yocum in Los Angeles on Friday for a second opinion that confirmed the original diagnosis. "If you pitch long enough at a high level," Soloff said, "you're going to experience some sort of arm breakdown, whether it be shoulder or elbow." The 30-year-old Westbrook's breakdown came after an outing that marked his return from the 15-day disabled list. He had missed about a month of action with a strained left intercostal muscle. After the May 28 start against the White Sox, he felt soreness but continued to play catch with the hope that he could make his start Tuesday against the Rangers. Ultimately, it was not to be. Soloff said it is difficult to determine if the elbow injury came as a result of Westbrook's comeback from the other injury. What Soloff can say with certainty is that this injury is unrelated to the elbow surgery Westbrook had performed in 2002, when bone spurs were removed and his ulnar nerve was transposed. The Tommy John surgery comes 14 months after the Indians signed Westbrook to a three-year, $33 million contract extension in April of 2007. Since signing that deal, Westbrook has gone on the DL three times. In fact, all three of the players the Indians signed to contract extensions in the last 14 months are on the DL. Starter Fausto Carmona, who signed a four-year, $15 million deal in April, is out with a left hip strain, and designated hitter Travis Hafner, who signed a four-year, $52 million extension last July, is out with a strained right shoulder. Carmona won't throw his first bullpen session since straining the hip until late next week. He is still two weeks away from his first rehab assignment. In the meantime, then, the Indians will turn to Triple-A Buffalo left-hander Jeremy Sowers, who will be promoted in time to make Sunday's start against the Tigers. The Indians also have left-hander Aaron Laffey filling in for Carmona. The Tribe will not decide which of the two youngsters will remain in their rotation until Carmona returns. "That's still a long ways off," manager Eric Wedge said. "We don't need to make any decisions just yet. We'll see where we're at when the time comes." Westbrook's season-ending injury caught the Tribe by surprise. But Wedge doesn't view it as a death knell for his club, and he doesn't think it will affect how the Indians assess their team in regard to potential trades as the midseason point creeps up. "You hope for the best, but you're prepared for everything else," Wedge said. "It goes back to starting depth again. We do have it here. You hate losing Jake. You love having him in the rotation. But that's why it's always about having more than 25 guys." The Indians expect Westbrook to be one of those 25 guys again in about a year. Soloff said the latest studies show that 80-85 percent of pitchers who have Tommy John surgery performed return to their previous level. Westbrook was pitching at a high level before the injuries of '08 set in. He didn't allow a run in 18 innings of work in Spring Training, and he was 1-2 with a 3.12 ERA in five starts in the regular season. Soloff accompanied Westbrook, who is 63-64 with a 4.31 ERA in his seven-year Major League career, on the visit to Los Angeles. "Obviously, he was incredibly disappointed," Soloff said. "He works as hard as any of our starters. His preparation is impeccable." The Indians have had almost impeccable luck when it comes to keeping their starters free of arm injuries. This is the first major arm injury to strike a member of their rotation in the last several years. "Every offseason, I tell [pitching coach] Carl Willis and Eric Wedge and [general manager] Mark Shapiro and [assistant GM] Chris Antonetti that, at some point, our luck is going to run out," Soloff said. "We have been fortunate. [Westbrook's injury] is a product of stress and time."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.