When answering a soldier’s question about body armor in a town hall meeting in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
In no way are the contexts comparable. But Rumsfeld’s phrasing was memorable enough to cross my mind last night after we heard the sad news about Homer Bailey. This morning, the Cincinnati Reds find their baseball unit depleted. Catcher Devin Mesoraco, an emerging field general, is sidelined with a hip impingement. The announcement that Bailey has sprained his right elbow ligament means the starting rotation is down one of its best sharpshooters.
(First, a brief medical primer – and yes, I’m way past sick of learning about these. The words sprain and strain describe similar injuries, but to different parts of the body. A sprain refers to the stretching or tearing of a ligament. A strain means the tearing of a muscle or tendon.)
With gloomy news, it’s tempting to lash out and assign blame before the situation is fully known. Bailey’s exact condition is yet unclear, or at least not public. He had an MRI yesterday.
Last August, Bailey was diagnosed with a strain in the flexor mass muscle of his right arm. That injury ranges in severity from inflammation, to mild tear, to full rupture. Rest is the prescription for inflammation, a course of action that worked for Mat Latos last season. Jonathan Broxton had suffered a full tear a year earlier and had undergone surgery. Bailey’s case turned out to be moderate, but those also call for corrective surgery. At this point, it’s unclear if Bailey’s ligament injury is related to his muscle injury. It may simply be bad luck. Really bad luck.
Was Bailey rushed back? With the Latos and Broxton cases, the Reds medical staff has had plenty of recent experience with the rehab protocol. Pitchers are typically back on the mound 5-6 months after flexor mass surgery. The Reds appeared to be handling Bailey’s timetable at a conservative pace, certainly consistent with previous cases. Bailey was on the same schedule as Broxton, who had a more serious condition.
There is no point in blaming the player. The injury is no more Homer Bailey’s fault than it is Marlon Byrd’s fault that he’s 37 years old.
Pitchers are suffering severe elbow injuries at a rate that using the word epidemic to describe it has become cliché. Twenty-five percent of major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Let that number sink in. In 2014 alone, more pitchers had the procedure than in the entire decade of the 1990s, including rubber-armed Bronson Arroyo.
Those who second-guess the contract extension given to Bailey by the organization shouldn’t use his injuries as a reason. The contract was reasonable at the time. Bailey was coming off two seasons of 200+ innings pitched, a feat Johnny Cueto has yet to achieve. When Bailey’s extension was signed, Cueto was coming off a season where he had been on the disabled list three times. Given Mat Latos’ recent antics, is anyone still advocating the Reds should have paid him $100 million instead?
The final word isn’t in yet on Bailey’s health. While Bryan Price said “it looks like there are options” his demeanor belied reason for optimism. The worst case scenario for Homer Bailey is that he’ll need Tommy John surgery. Recovery rates range from 10-14 months. His crossbow stays put away for another winter. He should be back on the mound in the first half of next season.
Starting pitching is the one part of the Reds organization — maybe the only one — where they can come close to accommodating a loss like this. Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Tony Cingrani or whomever steps in for Bailey won’t fully replace him. But it’s worth remembering that Cingrani himself stood in ably for Johnny Cueto in 2013. Alfredo Simon replaced Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos last year. When Bailey was shut down last August, Dylan Axelrod and David Holmberg managed. The Reds defense is a rising tide that lowers all ERAs. That said, the Reds would still be far better off with a healthy Homer Bailey in the rotation.
But now, all the team and their fans can do is go forward with the arms they have, not the ones we might wish to have.