FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles spent the offseason preparing for life without Scott Erickson, and that became a reality yesterday, when the veteran pitcher made plans to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.
Erickson, 35, came to spring training with a partially torn labrum, or cartilage area in his right shoulder socket. He had hoped to pitch with the injury, but this week, he realized he couldn't do it.
After consulting with the team's training staff, Erickson decided to forgo forego the season and have surgery. Dr. Lewis Yokum, who originally diagnosed Erickson's torn labrum in November, is expected to perform the procedure on Friday.
Erickson said he hopes to return by September, but several team officials confirmed a news release that said he'll miss the entire season.
"This," Erickson said, "is the last thing I want."
The surgery likely means the end of Erickson's stint with the Orioles. After being acquired from the Minnesota Twins in 1995, he became the club's longest tenured player, coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery to make last season's Opening Day start.
He'll make $6.6 million this season in the final year of his contract. Club officials said insurance will cover less than half of that, so this is another financial blow for the Orioles, who still have the injured Albert Belle under contract for one more year.
From a pitching standpoint, the club prepared itself for this possibility by re-signing Pat Hentgen and plucking Omar Daal and Rick Helling off the free-agent market. Even with Erickson out, the Orioles still have six established starters vying for five spots in the starting rotation: Rodrigo Lopez, Sidney Ponson, Daal, Hentgen, Helling and Jason Johnson.
"Not that this was something we expected," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie, "but HERE it was it was an eventuality we thought could happen, so we tried to prepare for it as much as possible."
The Orioles still intend to explore trades that would package a starter - most likely Ponson or Johnson - for a run-producing bat. That's one reason they still have at least mild interest in free-agent pitchers Kenny Rogers and Chuck Finley.
"We'd probably have interest in both of those guys at the right price," Beattie said. "I don't know about that though."
In years past, the Orioles knew they could count on Erickson to be their workhorse. From 1996 to 1999, he averaged 231 innings per season. It seemed to catch up with him, however, because now he's scheduled to undergo his third arm surgery in three years.
In March 2000, Erickson underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. Five months later, he underwent the Tommy John [ligament-replacement] procedure on the same elbow.
After missing all of 2001, Erickson came back strong early last season, going 3-2 with a 3.45 ERA before his luck turned again. From that point forward, he went 2-10, ADDS UP and the club decided not to have him pitch in September.
"I think I [tore the labrum] last year in that stretch of poor pitching," Erickson said. "I was trying to lift extra heavy to try to gain some velocity on my fastball, and I overdid it."
Erickson said he thought he simply had biceps tendinitis last season. But on Nov. 2, he knew something was wrong when he played in a charity softball game with Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson in Aruba. Yokum performed a magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] exam, which showed the torn labrum.
Erickson started the spring feeling better but struggled in an intrasquad game Tuesday. Now, he estimates that his labrum is 50 percent torn.
"It's weakening by the day, basically," Erickson said. "It's not tremendously painful, but I can tell it's not going to get better. I think it's more important to get this fixed as much as possible and hopefully be back by September."
Insurance won't help the Orioles with Erickson the way it has with Belle. Each player goes through a 60- or 90-day deductible period while they are on the disabled list before a team can start collecting on the premiums.
In Belle's case, that deductible period passed in 2001, so insurance will pay 70 percent of his $13 million salary this season. The Orioles are out just $3.9 million.
Erickson went through his deductible period in 2000, covering most of his salary for 2001, but now the clock starts anew. Club officials couldn't pinpoint the amount, but they still might be out another $4 million on Erickson.
Team sources said they have no plans to try to and void the contract, even though it's been suggested Erickson's injury can be traced to the charity softball game. Erickson said that event simply opened his eyes to an injury he already had, calling it "a blessing in disguise."
For now, Erickson said he has no plans to retire.
"My body's in plenty good enough shape," he said. "Basically I have a brand new elbow, so I'd like to play four or five more years - go back to how it used use to be and finish out strongly, not go limping off like this."