Sarah's Take: Billingsley's career at crossroads

Latest elbow injury threatens right-hander's big league future

Sarah's Take: Billingsley's career at crossroads

The Dodgers received bad news on Friday, despite having A.J. Ellis return from the disabled list. Since May 2013, the Dodgers have awaited the return of Chad Billingsley from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. But an MRI revealed on Friday a partially torn flexor tendon in the same elbow -- and not in the transplanted ligament. The Dodgers now must await Billingsley's decision about whether to have another season-ending elbow surgery.

Billingsley was a mainstay in the Dodgers' starting rotation after his Major League debut on June 15, 2006. He was the first starting pitcher that the organization had developed in years, so the expectations for him were extremely high and somewhat unrealistic.

The right-hander performed satisfactorily, but was never the star the Dodgers envisioned. He had a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a large rainbow curveball, a good mid-80s two-seam fastball, and a straight changeup that could keep the opposing batters off balance. It was believed that he could have been an annual 15-plus-game winner.

Against poor-hitting teams, Billingsley attacked the strike zone. But when he was in trouble or facing a team with a winning record, Billingsley would try to make perfect pitches on the corners of the strike zone. He didn't have great control, since his pitches had a tremendous amount of movement. This led to walks, or at least high pitch counts.

During his childhood growing up in Defiance, Ohio, Billingsley's father built a pitching mound in their backyard and helped his son study Nolan Ryan's book on pitching mechanics. After having a high school freshman football injury that required him to have his spleen removed, Billingsley devoted himself to baseball. He tried to perfect his pitching mechanics to reduce the risk of an arm injury.

Understanding that the power of a pitcher comes from his lower body, Billingsley built up his leg muscles so he wouldn't put as much stress on his arm. He was a good fielder and above-average offensive producer for a pitcher -- including being a great bunter.

Billingsley appeared to reach his enormous potential as a Major League starter in 2008. His 16 victories helped the Dodgers win the National League West title, and he pitched well in his one start against the Chicago Cubs in the NL Division Series. Like most Dodgers pitchers during the NL Championship Series that season, Billingsley struggled and lost to the Philadelphia Phillies twice.

During the 2008 offseason, Billingsley slipped on the ice at his Pennsylvania home and severely broke his left leg. With surgery and intense rehabilitation, Billingsley recovered by Spring Training and began the 2009 season well enough to earn his only All-Star selection. But after the All-Star break, he struggled with his control -- and that issue followed him into the 2010 campaign.

However, the Dodgers rewarded him with a three-year, $35 million contract during Spring Training in 2011. That 2011 season was a disappointment for both the Dodgers and Billingsley, who had the highest ERA (4.21) and the lowest full-season strikeout total (152) of his career to that point.

Hoping for a bounce-back performance in 2012, Billingsley was plagued by a groin injury. He pitched well, however, and recorded the 1000th strikeout of his career, becoming the 12th Dodgers pitcher to accomplish this feat. On August 25th, the same day as the Dodgers' mega trade with the Boston Red Sox for Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, Billingsley had to come out of the game with an injured right elbow.

An MRI revealed that Billingsley had a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. Normally, any time a player has a tear in his UCL, he has Tommy John surgery. But Billingsley, not wanting to be sidelined for at least a year, opted to have a platelet-rich plasma injection and participate in an intensive rehabilitation program.

Throughout Spring Training in 2013, Billingsley pitched well and was pain-free. The Dodgers were skeptical, so manager Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt treated Billingsley with kid gloves. But Billingsley began the season in the starting rotation. After making two starts, Billingsley felt pain in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery -- which involved transplanting a ligament from another part of his body to replace the torn UCL.

Billingsley's rehabilitation process had gone well, despite having many setbacks. This week, he experienced elbow pain again. The MRI showed the transplanted UCL was fine, but his flexor tendon was partially torn. The Dodgers and Billingsley are weighing many options, since having surgery to repair the tendon can be career-ending.

Though the Dodgers hoped that Billingsley could return to the roster to provide extra depth to the pitching staff, right now, his health is foremost on everyone's mind. Occasionally, baseball fans forget human beings play the game and not machines. Billingsley will be 30 in July and has only 81 career wins. My thoughts are with Billingsley and his family at this difficult time.

Sarah D. Morris can be reached at sarahmorris27@gmail.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.