On Opening Day of the 2016 season the Los Angeles Dodgers drew a tough assignment. Sure, they were playing the San Diego Padres, who were in the middle of a rebuild, but on the mound was their ace, Tyson Ross.
The hulking righty was coming off three years where his ERA was just a hair over 3.00 and he’d posted a 4.4 fWAR in 2015. Ross also touted a 3.49 ERA against the Dodgers in his career, which made the outcome so surprising.
The Dodgers jumped out to an early lead behind an RBI double from Corey Seager and a run-scoring single from Adrian Gonzalez in the first inning. Gonzalez drove in another run in the third, and the floodgates opened in the sixth as the Dodgers rattled off five more runs against Ross.
Something definitely wasn’t right. And it turned out to be Ross’ shoulder. Five days later, the Padres placed him on the disabled list after he felt soreness in his shoulder during a bullpen session.
Ross wouldn’t pitch again until August, where he lasted just two-thirds of an inning in a rehab assignment. That was his final game of the season.
Two months later, Ross underwent surgery to treat for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. He was subsequently non-tendered by the Padres and is now a free agent.
If the operation sounds familiar, Josh Beckett had the same surgery in 2013. Of course, Beckett went on to pitch a no-hitter against Philadelphia the following season, but retired at the end of 2014 after suffering yet another injury.
The history of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome isn’t particularly expansive in baseball, with some cases affecting pitchers in the short term, while others are career-ending.
St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Chris Carpenter had the surgery and returned in two months in 2012, pitching in the regular season and playoffs, but retired the following year.
Matt Harrison had the procedure in 2009 and, while he struggled in 2010, he was actually pretty effective in 2011 and 2012. Unfortunately, since 2012, Harrison has pitched in just nine Major League games due mainly to severe back issues.
This isn’t like Tommy John surgery, where it seems like half the pitching population has had the procedure and many came back the same as they were before they got hurt. The waters aren’t uncharted, but they are murky and it’s hard to see with any clarity how pitchers who suffer this injury recover.
Recovery time after undergoing TOS surgery is four to six months. That could place Ross’ return to the mound around Opening Day 2017. If the Dodgers wanted to gamble on him returning to his pre-injury form, they’d be dedicating millions to what amounts to an unknown.
However, the front office has scoffed at injury histories in the past and somehow, it’s worked. While the Dodgers’ rotation, as it stands today, has plenty of injury questions of its own, few pitchers under the team’s control have the upside of Ross.
If an incentive-laden one year deal is all it takes to kick the tires, why not take a chance?
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