Toronto -- The Orioles knew closer Chris Ray probably would be out for the season, but they expected to have him back next year. However, that changed Thursday when what started as a procedure to remove a bone spur from Ray's right elbow revealed the need for more extensive ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery.
Renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews performed the procedure, commonly known as Tommy John surgery, Thursday in Birmingham, Ala., and Ray likely will be sidelined for all of 2008.
"You lose a pitcher of his caliber, it's a difficult thing to replace," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "But I think we all feel for his career and for ourselves, the sooner we know the better. We've got an offseason now to try to address it as opposed to [having] this happen in May. It really would've been that much worse. It's not good news to begin with, but that really would have been bad as well."
Ray, 25, the team's second-year closer, was sent to the disabled list July 25. Team officials were hopeful that Ray would not need surgery, and his elbow was feeling good enough for him to report to Sarasota, Fla., this week to begin a throwing program at the club's minor league complex.
MacPhail said that when Ray started throwing, his elbow didn't feel much better. That's when Ray decided to visit Andrews. After talking to Ray and Andrews, Orioles officials agreed that if the procedure to remove the bone spur revealed ligament problems, it would make sense to have the Tommy John surgery.
"The condition of the ligament was such that [Andrews] said, 'You know, you really ought to get it done now,' " MacPhail said. "They had allowed for that going in, [and] we agreed with that as well. Unfortunately, he's not going to be available for us next year."
Recovery from this surgery usually takes between eight to 12 months, meaning that it wouldn't be out of the question for Ray to be ready late next season. However, MacPhail said the club plans to be conservative with Ray, making sure he's available for 2009. Major league rosters are littered with pitchers who made the return from Tommy John surgery, and that list includes Orioles ace Erik Bedard.
"Those elbow surgeries today, it's rare when somebody doesn't come back," manager Dave Trembley said. "Shoulders can be much more problematic, but the way science has improved, it's not really as risky."
Ray's violent windup and motion had long led talent evaluators and coaches to say the pitcher could be at risk for a serious arm injury. However, until this season, Ray had avoided that fate.
"I didn't know it was going to cause that problem, but it could lead to that kind of problem because his arm action is so violent," Trembley said. "You would hope maybe that it could have been avoided, but I think there is some correlation, definitely."
In his first year as the Orioles' closer in 2006, Ray saved 33 games in 38 opportunities, amassing a 2.73 ERA. But this season was a struggle for Ray, who blew four saves in his first 16 opportunities. When he went on the disabled list, Ray was 5-6 with 16 saves and a 4.43 ERA. He never used injuries as an excuse even though he was a frequent visitor to the training room for treatment on his elbow.
"We're going to have to make different plans for next year because he won't be available," Trembley said. "It's an unfortunate situation, but we're going to have to hope for the best that he'll come back better than ever."
MacPhail said that he'll look inside and outside the organization for next year's closer. Trembley has used Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker and Danys Baez to close games in Ray's absence, but only Baez has extensive experience in that role, and he entered last night's action with a 6.02 ERA.
James Hoey, considered the club's best young reliever, totaled 16 saves in stints with Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk before he was recalled this season. However, Trembley said Hoey will remain in the setup role, rather than giving him a trial run as closer to see if he could handle the role next season.
The list of experienced free-agent closers this offseason also isn't particularly deep. It includes the Milwaukee Brewers' Francisco Cordero, the Detroit Tigers' Todd Jones, the Atlanta Braves' Bob Wickman and the Cleveland Indians' Joe Borowski, who has a club option in 2008. The Minnesota Twins' Joe Nathan also has a $6 million club option for next season, and the Twins likely will pick it up.
"You're always looking outside and inside," MacPhail said. "A lot of closers are guys that got the opportunity through a different set of circumstances and end up saving 38, 40 games. You have to find somebody that has the right makeup, and you have to find somebody that can throw strikes."