FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --When news broke that Orioles pitcher Kris Benson might not need season-ending rotator cuff surgery, this is the first thing that popped into my mind:
Great! It's about time the Orioles start winning the close ones.
Dr. James Andrews, the noted orthopedic surgeon from Birmingham, Ala., broke the tie after the Orioles' medical staff prescribed a rehabilitation program to deal with Benson's sore right shoulder and New York Mets medical director David Altchek reportedly endorsed surgery.
But the 2-1 victory may turn out to be short-lived, since the Benson camp still seems convinced that the shoulder will have to be repaired before he pitches again.
In other words, this soap opera is just beginning.
That much was obvious as soon as the Orioles and Benson's agent, Gregg Clifton, turned on the spin cycle yesterday. Team vice presidents Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette came away from a conversation with Andrews convinced that he had reinforced the opinion of Orioles orthopedist Dr. Andrew Cosgarea. Clifton repeatedly characterized the projected monthlong rehab effort as a last-ditch attempt to avoid the inevitable.
To be more specific, Clifton used the terms "needle in a haystack," "against the odds" and "a small amount of hope" to describe the situation during a conference call yesterday. Duquette listened to the same information and said Andrews "felt pretty good" about the chances of a positive non-surgical outcome.
Benson is expected to arrive in camp today to begin the exercise regimen that will determine whether he'll return to the starting rotation early in the season, and Clifton - despite his obvious doubts - said yesterday that his client can't wait to get started.
Club officials expressed similar enthusiasm over the possibility - however remote - that Benson might avoid an operation that would effectively end his Orioles career, but they could not deny that he had put the club in a difficult situation when he informed them so late in the offseason that he might not be healthy enough to pitch this year.
"We certainly would like to have known sooner if it was bothering him three months ago," Duquette said. "We did not have that indication from the exit physical."
Hopefully, we'll eventually get some answers directly from Benson, because it's going to be pretty strange a month from now if the Orioles announce that his shoulder is feeling great and his agent releases a statement saying that it still hurts too much to pitch.
The $7.5 million question is when Benson began having doubts about his shoulder and whether those doubts were fueled by the Orioles' reluctance to pick up a club contract option for 2008. The timing certainly was curious enough to make some people wonder if he simply wanted to get his shoulder fixed and do the required year of post-op rehab while the Orioles are on the hook for his 2007 salary.
It probably still will come to that, since it ultimately will be up to Benson to decide whether his shoulder feels good enough to pitch. The exercise program will build up the muscles in and around the rotator cuff, but only he can determine what level of discomfort is acceptable and what level of risk he's willing to take with his pending free-agent eligibility. I'm guessing he's got a zipper on that shoulder by April 1.
The Orioles have made contingent plans for the rotation, signing veteran Steve Trachsel to a one-year, $3 million contract with an option, but they'll gladly deal with the possibility of a surplus starter if Benson's rehab goes well enough to make it a problem.
"That would be a pleasant problem," Flanagan said. "We'd be very happy to have that problem."
Chances are, Benson will not be available at the start of the season regardless, so adding Trachsel on such short notice was a smooth move that could pay off either way. If Benson rebounds and everyone else in the projected rotation stays healthy and productive through the season's first month, then the extra starting pitcher could be a valuable chip in the trade market.
Well, the Orioles can dream, can't they?
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