PITTSBURGH – It might have been the least surprising news of the season to this point.
The Pittsburgh Pirates announced Friday that right-hander Vince Velasquez underwent elbow surgery in Los Angeles. While it was not the dreaded Tommy John reconstructive surgery – he had that a dozen years ago — it was serious enough that Velasquez won’t be able to pitch again this season.
Velasquez’s career with the Pirates could be over before it ever really took off. The one-year, $3.15-million contract he signed as a free agent at the end of December expires at the end of the season and there is no guarantee Pittsburgh will try to re-sign the 31-year-old next winter.
In eight starts, Velasquez had a 4-4 record and a 3.86 ERA.
“You definitely feel for him,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Anytime you lose a guy for injury, I think the easiest thing for us all to look at, because it’s our job, is the baseball player side. When you spend a ton of time with someone, the human being side of it is the side I hope we can make people feel better.”
It became abundantly clear that Velasquez was headed to the operating room after he left each of his last two starts because of what was termed elbow inflammation.
On May 4 at Tampa Bay, Velasquez made it through just three innings. He returned following an injured list stint on May 27 and threw two innings at Seattle before again feeling discomfort.
Now, the question becomes how will Velasquez’s injury affect the Pirates’ starting rotation in the long term?
“What it means for this rotation moving forward is exactly when he went out with the injury – it tests depth,” Shelton said. “We’re going to have to have different guys step up, whether it’s guys that are here or guys within the organization, just like when we’ve lost relievers or position players before, then the next guy’s gotta step up. It tests our depth a little bit.”
Rookie right-hander Luis Ortiz was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis after Velasquez was originally hurt.
Ortiz has pitched progressively better and is 1-2 with a 4.23 ERA in six games, including five starts. He had a strong long relief appearance Wednesday after Roansy Contreras’ first-inning meltdown, allowing two runs in five innings to the Oakland Athletics.
The Pirates’ pitching depth has been tested after right-hander JT Brubaker had Tommy John after being injured last in spring training. Top prospect Mike Burrows had the same procedure following two starts with Indianapolis.
“It’s a concern in the game these days. This is not a Pittsburgh Pirates thing,” Shelton said of the preponderance of elbow surgeries. “This is something within the game that we continue to look at. I don’t think there’s any magic formula, because if there was a magic formula of how you could prevent them, then we would stay away from it. It’s just the fact with today’s pitchers, they’re throwing the ball harder, they’re ripping more breaking balls and that leads to more stress on the elbow, which is going to lead to more elbow injuries.”
Now, Velasquez is out for the season and that means the Pirates might not be able to either send the scuffling Contreras to the bullpen or maybe even Indianapolis as they have considered.
The most overused sports term of the 2020s is next man up. However, the Pirates are starting to run out of next men to put on the mound.