I’d love to see Félix Bautista pitch for the Orioles in a big spot in the playoffs. I just feel uncomfortable at the idea of Bautista, with whatever amount of ligament damage he has in his elbow, doing so in these playoffs.
At least now, with three weeks to go in the regular season and perhaps just as many — if not more — of playoff baseball ahead of the Orioles, there will be plenty of time to try to come to grips with it.
That much is required of all of us after executive vice president Mike Elias outlined the team’s plan to keep Bautista throwing on a wait-and-see basis, meaning the elbow injury that seemed certain to end his season when he left injured on Aug. 25 hasn’t officially shut him down yet.
He said internal and external doctors “don’t see any irresponsible risk or loss of time” in terms of further damage or recovery period, should Bautista keep throwing. And given that we know it’s a near-certainty that Bautista would miss all of 2024 if he has Tommy John reconstruction surgery now or in two months, there’s no rush to operate and repair it now.
He referred to it as a conservative approach four times, and a “conservative non-operative approach” a fifth, and it at once is and isn’t that. It’s conservative because surgery is and always should be the last option, and there are cases of ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) damage where it’s ultimately not required, even if they’re infrequent.
It’s also aggressive, if this plan comes to fruition, to have someone whose 6-foot-8 frame makes his delivery so powerful pitching in a highly charged playoff atmosphere within two months of injuring his UCL.
Bautista is everything Elias described him as: smart, very thoughtful, and a great teammate. He spent a decade chasing this major league dream. Now he’s an All-Star, one of the most dynamic pitchers in the game right now — which by virtue of advances in modern baseball makes him one of the most dynamic pitchers ever.
He’s also still going to be making the league minimum next year as he’s presumably rehabbing this injury all year, and a season on the shelf is going to impact his earning power in salary arbitration as his career progresses. He is the only one who can truly know what’s right for himself and his career. Even knowing that, he’s probably right to put a lot of faith in the Orioles’ staff on this decision. They haven’t steered him wrong before, and the amount of useful medical knowledge I have can fit in the space between the final letter and the period at the end of this sentence.
Everyone is probably going into this with a full understanding of the risks involved, and proceeding on this path anyway, even if I don’t think it’s going to end up with Bautista pitching in a game again in 2023.
If the worst thing that can happen is another dead-silent crowd at Camden Yards mustering up the heart to cheer an injured-again Bautista as he holds his arm on his side walking back to the dugout, that’s definitely a bad thing, but really comes down to him and the team.
When asked whether surgery was an alternative if this approach didn’t work, Elias noted that he didn’t know whether the current approach “is going to head off any more invasive or more lengthy, long-term measures to get this injury behind him,” though he did so after noting it’s “very, very common” for pitchers to pitch with UCL damage.
Elias was in Houston when Lance McCullers Jr. pitched in the 2018 playoffs after two months off with elbow soreness, only to have Tommy John surgery in November. There are certainly precedents.
I just hope the stakes aren’t influencing the bets here. At the August trade deadline, the Orioles were prudent in their additions, careful not to mortgage what they believe is an even brighter long-term future for a near-term boost toward the 2023 World Series. Now, six weeks later, the conservative approach has a much different look to it: a mosey down a path that could end with Bautista back on the mound.
Playoff baseball is a heart-in-your-throat experience as it is. If Bautista comes back, hopefully it’s the version who ends games with ease. The potential for further injury in that setting is going to be plenty of anxiety already.