Just two days before pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the start of spring training, the Orioles are facing the reality that they will likely be without one of their most reliable starters for much if not all of the season.
Kris Benson, expected to be the veteran anchor of a young Orioles rotation and either its No. 2 or No. 3 starter, will likely have surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, his agent Gregg Clifton confirmed yesterday.
"Obviously, our goal is to avoid surgery," Clifton said. "No one is more disappointed about this discovery than Kris is. We are going to get an additional opinion, just to double- and triple-check. However, the [magnetic resonance imaging test] clearly shows the tear."
The Orioles moved quickly to fill the hole in the rotation, agreeing in principle last night to a one-year deal with veteran free-agent right-hander Steve Trachsel, according to a baseball source. The deal, which is pending a physical that is scheduled today, will pay Trachsel approximately $3.2 million. Trachsel, 36, was 15-8 with a 4.97 ERA for the New York Mets last season, but saw his free-agent stock drop significantly with two poor playoff outings.
Trachsel is expected to compete for the fifth spot with prospect Hayden Penn.
"It's certainly bad timing," club vice president Jim Duquette said of Benson's injury. "There is no doubt about that, but we feel like we have enough depth to make up for it."
In his first season with the Orioles after being acquired in a trade from the New York Mets for reliever Jorge Julio and starter John Maine in January 2006, Benson went 11-12 with a 4.82 ERA.
The news of his injury, which was first reported by Fox- Sports.com, comes after the Orioles traded Rodrigo Lopez to the Colorado Rockies on Jan. 12 for two minor league pitchers, neither of whom were invited to spring training. The trading of Lopez, who lost 18 games in 2006 but was the team's Opening Day starter for three of the past five seasons, essentially amounted to a salary dump, as the right-hander was due to make about $4 million, a steep price for a pitcher who was expected to start the season in the bullpen.
"Obviously, if we had known [about Benson's health], then we may have not made the move," Duquette said. "Rodrigo would have given us a little more comfort."
Clifton said Benson felt some pain and tightness in his shoulder in late August, but it got worse when he tried to begin throwing last month. Clifton wasn't sure of the date when Benson started throwing, but said he usually begins about a month before the scheduled reporting date.
Benson notified the Orioles' medical staff and was in Baltimore for an examination the last week of January. An Orioles team doctor examined the pitcher late last month and told Benson surgery wasn't necessary, according to a high-ranking baseball source, who said that Benson has been pitching with the injury, though it has gotten worse.
Benson got a second opinion Friday from Dr. David Altchek, the medical director of the Mets who has performed rotator cuff surgery on pitchers Pedro Martinez of the Mets and Mark Mulder of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Orioles want him to get a third opinion and Clifton acknowledged that his client might see renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., as early as today. Dr. Andrews performed the ligament-transplant surgery on Benson's elbow in 2001.
"His exit physical was fine," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan on the examination Benson got at the end of the 2006 season. "Then he rested for a couple of months and when he started the throwing program up a couple of weeks ago, he felt the tightness. I am proceeding with the fact that he is not going to be ready for Opening Day, whatever the outcome is. Sure you're disappointed, but it's one of those things that you cannot control."
It's unknown whether Benson will join his teammates in Fort Lauderdale for spring training. However, it's conceivable that he has pitched his last game as an Oriole. Clifton said that Benson's goal is to pitch again this season.
"Kris' attitude is, 'Don't count me out,' " Clifton said. "Is it possible for him to pitch this year? I don't know."
Benson, 32, has a $7.5 million option for the 2008 season that he had hoped the Orioles would pick up this offseason. However, the club was intent on seeing how well Benson performed in 2007 before making a decision. If he were to have surgery, it appears unlikely that the Orioles would pick up the option for a pitcher who has had two major arm surgeries and pitched more than 200 innings just once in seven big league seasons.
"Kris' philosophy has always been that the business things take care of the business things," said Clifton, who said Benson likes playing in Baltimore. "We just want to get it fixed as soon as possible. The sooner, the better."
Rotator cuff injuries can be treated through surgery or rehabilitation. Los Angeles Angels ace Bartolo Colon, the 2005 American League Cy Young Award winner, was diagnosed with a partial rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder last year and chose an aggressive therapy program. Shut down in late July, Colon told reporters earlier this month that he is hoping to be ready by Opening Day.
Martinez also chose to rehabilitate a similar injury while with the Boston Red Sox in 2001. The next year, he went 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA for Boston. He tore his rotator cuff again last year and isn't expected to return to the mound until July or August.
Benson's injury, according to a source, is similar to the one suffered last year by Mulder, who is also represented by Clifton. The left-hander had surgery Sept. 12 to repair a partial thickness tear in his left shoulder, and Clifton said he is already doing his long-toss program and is hoping to be ready to pitch in a game again by June 1.
"Shoulder injuries in general take a long time to come back from," said Dr. William Howard, a general surgeon and the director of the sports medicine center at Union Memorial Hospital. "If you are talking about a major league pitcher, if the pain is such that he can't pitch, obviously he has to have it surgically repaired. They don't generally operate on partial tears unless it incapacitates you for what you have to do."
A former teammate of Benson's with the Mets, Trachsel is considered an innings-eater, as he has pitched 200 or more innings in a season seven times. He also has 11 wins or more in five of the past six seasons, with the only exception being in 2005, when he pitched in only six games because of a herniated disk.
Trachsel won 15 games last season, but his year is remembered more for his poor playoff performance. He gave up six hits and two earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in New York's Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series, and then surrendered five hits, five walks and five earned runs in just an inning in the Mets' Game 3 loss to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
If the Orioles are unable to finalize the deal with Trachsel, Penn, a 22-year-old right-hander, becomes the favorite to join a rotation that includes Erik Bedard, 27; Daniel Cabrera, 25; Adam Loewen, 22; and Jaret Wright, 31.
Penn went 0-4 with a 15.10 ERA in six major league starts last season and spent significant time on the disabled list due to appendicitis.
A look at the projected Orioles rotation, with last year's statistics:
Throws: Left W-L: 15-11 ERA: 3.76
Throws: Right W-L: 9-10 ERA: 4.74
Throws: Left W-L: 6-6 ERA: 5.37
Throws: Right W-L: 11-7 ERA: 4.49
Throws: Right W-L: 15-8 ERA: 4.97 * with N.Y. Yankees ** with New York Mets