FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - On the first day of spring training, veteran pitcher Pat Hentgen unveiled his new right elbow and predicted that he would be back in the Orioles' rotation well before the end of the 2002 season.
Hentgen, who underwent Tommy John ligament transplant surgery on Aug. 9, threw for the first time yesterday during the Orioles' first pitcher and catcher workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. If all goes well, he hopes to make his first major-league start in late July.
"The throwing part of it begins today," Hentgen said. "Talking to other guys, they say the throwing program takes about five months, so July 15, I should be able to go five or six innings."
But then, opinions vary. The ligament replacement operation - named for former major-league pitcher Tommy John, who was the first to make a successful comeback from it - is a radical procedure that requires a long and careful rehabilitation period. By some accounts, it is a good two years before a pitcher returns to full strength, which is why the injury left reason to wonder if Hentgen would ever pitch again in an Orioles uniform.
He signed a two-year contract before the 2001 season. The deal includes a club option on the 2003 season, but it seems unlikely that the rebuilding Orioles would exercise it if the 33-year-old pitcher has not already proved his arm is sound.
The club must enter 2002 under the assumption that Hentgen will not play a significant role in their pitching plans, but he could give the team quite a lift if he came back to pitch effectively for the final two months of the regular season.
"If we got a couple months, it would be gravy," said manager Mike Hargrove.
Hentgen was expected to be one of the anchors of the starting rotation when he arrived in spring training last year, and his performance during the early weeks of the season was consistent with an impressive career that includes the 1996 American League Cy Young Award.
He helped stabilize the developing rotation that kept the Orioles close to .500 until midseason.
For now, he'll have to lead by the example he sets with his dogged rehabilitation program, which included only exercise and weight work until yesterday's opening pitcher and catcher workout.
"This is the first spring training I haven't been able to play," Hentgen said, "but just being here with the uniform on ... that feels really good."
He played catch for the first time under the supervision of Orioles trainer Richie Bancells, making 50 throws of 45 feet and participating in light fielding workouts (without throwing overhand). Nothing particularly strenuous. No problems.
The hardest thing is holding back. Hentgen said his elbow feels normal after five months of rehab.
There is no way to know just how far he will come back, but the percentages are on his side. More than 80 percent of the major-league pitchers who undergo the ligament transplant operation pitch again at the big-league level, and the track record of noted Birmingham, Ala., sports orthopedist Dr. James Andrews is very good.
"Before I had the surgery, Dr. Andrews took me into a room that had a bunch of signed jerseys and stuff," Hentgen said. "He pointed to [David] Wells and [Kenny] Rogers and said, 'Do you know how many guys have thrown perfect games?' I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'I did both those guys before they had their perfect games.' "