The Orioles are not ruling out the possibility of Félix Bautista returning to the mound this season.
The odds, though, are low.
Bautista hurt his elbow on Aug. 25, the right-hander getting diagnosed with partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. It’s an acute-on-chronic injury, meaning the tear was sudden, but he’s built up stress in his elbow due to how hard he throws. Bautista’s fastball averages 99.5 mph and can reach up to 103 mph.
Initial tests showed that immediate action — whether it be surgical or injections — was not needed. They’ve decided to take a conservative approach, general manager Mike Elias said, and will hold out on doing any procedures until they see how it responds to throwing.
“The fact that we are keeping him throwing right now speaks to the fact that this is not over for 2023,” Elias said. “It’s just going to depend on how he feels as we keep this going.”
Bautista has played light catch three times, the latest session coming on Monday before the Orioles hosted the Cardinals. If this strategy doesn’t work, surgical options — including Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery — may be needed. The recovery time for Tommy John is 12 to 18 months.
They do not have a set date for when they have to decide if he’ll be able to return this year, but will evaluate him as he continues to add stress to the elbow. Once they get to the offseason, they will take a deeper look at the situation.
Elias said Bautista will be the biggest force in determining how to proceed. Bautista has not been made available to the media since his injury.
“It doesn’t make sense to do this if it doesn’t seem like there’s any chance of him contributing the rest of the year,” Elias said. “I would still characterize this as something we can’t count on. We are going to take it very carefully. His career and his future and the team’s future are first and foremost. We are very confident that everything we are doing is not in the realm of introducing any additional long term risk.”
Elias has seen firsthand how an elbow ligament injury sidelined a pitcher yet didn’t rule him out for the rest of the year. In 2018, when Elias worked for the Astros, right-hander Lance McCullers injured his elbow in early August — a few weeks earlier than Bautista injured his. McCullers missed six weeks with what described as a forearm strain, then returned to throw three scoreless relief appearances in the final week of the regular season before appearing five more times as a reliever in the postseason.
By that November, McCullers underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2019 season.
At the time of Bautista’s injury, he was one of the most consistent closers in the league. He had a 1.48 ERA and 33 saves and was one of the Orioles’ four All-Stars this season.
The Orioles have only had two save situations since Bautista went on the injured list. Yennier Cano took the first, followed by Shintaro Fujinami. With the game on the line, Cano, who typically pitched the eighth before Bautista was injured, will likely continue to be the go-to guy for manager Brandon Hyde. Southpaws Danny Coulombe and Fujinami are also options. So is DL Hall, who spent six weeks in Sarasota earlier this season de-loading. He returned to the majors when Bautista was put on the injured list and has allowed two runs in 7.2 innings pitched.
“I’ve been encouraged by the way the group has pitched and looked since Félix’s injury,” Elias said. “Félix is arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball right now. I think that’s impossible to replace for anybody.”
Elias also did not rule out the return of Tyler Wells, who has been in the minors after suffering from arm fatigue but is now pitching high-stakes innings for Triple-A Norfolk.
John Means, who underwent Tommy John surgery to have his ulnar collateral ligament reconstructed last April, is slated to finally return to the Orioles tomorrow night; his return was delayed by a back injury suffered in spring training.
Banner reporter Andy Kostka contributed to this report.