The Orioles received the bad news Wednesday afternoon that they had been hoping wouldn't come: Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy will undergo Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow Thursday morning and will be lost for at least a year.
Bundy, the 20-year-old phenom who was widely considered baseball's best minor league arm coming into 2013, has not pitched since spring training because of an injury that was originally diagnosed as forearm discomfort and later called a flexor mass strain.
"He's down, you can imagine," said Jay Franklin, Bundy's agent. "That's tough on anyone, especially someone with his level of competitiveness."
Bundy was shut down in March and received a platelet-rich-plasma injection in late April, which was supposed to accelerate the healing process. Last week, he began a throwing progression, which was halted Monday after he experienced more discomfort while throwing at 120 feet.
After being examined by team orthopedist Dr. John Wilckens on Tuesday in Baltimore, Bundy flew to Florida for a second opinion from renowned surgeon James Andrews, who administered the previous injection. Andrews confirmed a slight tear in Bundy's right elbow ligament. He'll perform the surgery Thursday morning in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
"I think the key where that's concerned is now we've got that behind us," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Bundy's torn ligament. "We know what it is. It's nothing he is doing wrong or something he's got to do differently. It's just something that happens. Pretty normal. And we're going to fix it."
After Bundy was initially examined, the Orioles said an MRI on the elbow came back clean. Franklin, however, said Bundy had a ligament tear that worsened by this week's exams.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said he wasn't positive when the tear was discovered, but regardless, the diagnosis of the flexor mass strain indicated that Bundy's elbow couldn't withstand the rigors of pitching immediately. The initial recommendation was rest and the eventual injection, but when the discomfort re-emerged, surgery became the preferred option.
"I think it's always best to try a conservative approach and try rest and recuperation. The intervention takes a longer time," Duquette said. "In Dylan's case, he gave it two chances to rest and recover. In Dylan's case, he's also very young, so he has a chance to be able to come back and pitch effectively."
The timetable for returning from Tommy John surgery is roughly 10 to 14 months — Orioles left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada had the procedure in May 2012 and is currently pitching in the minors. Given Bundy's age and his rigorous fitness regimen, Franklin hopes Bundy can be back sooner rather than later.
"The good thing is because of how young he is, he should be able to heal quickly," Franklin said. "Not many people are in better shape."
If there is any concern with Bundy, Showalter said, it's that he might overdo things in his haste to return to the mound.
"I think if anybody knows Dylan, he'll be very diligent with his rehab. If anything, we'll have to watch him being too diligent," Showalter said. "That's a big part of it: If you are willing to go through the rehab. … Where he's concerned, whether he wants to pitch for us or not. And he does."
Selected third overall in 2011 out of Owasso (Okla.) High, Bundy stormed through the club's system, posting a 2.08 ERA in 23 starts in his first year as a pro in 2012. The organization's most heralded pitching prospect since Ben McDonald in 1989, he was promoted to the Orioles in September and threw 12/3 scoreless innings.
Bundy was known to throw a lot in high school, but the Orioles were careful with him in his first year in the organization, limiting his innings and pitch counts, even when he was dominant.
Bundy entered this spring training as a long shot to make the big league team, and he struggled with his command and diminished velocity, which he thought was a result of mechanical adjustments.
"He had some roads to cross, and this might help him some in certain situations," Showalter said. "Hopefully, next year this time we'll be putting a date on when he is going to pitch again in a game."
One potential positive for Bundy is that pitchers who undergo the surgery often come back with increased velocity on their fastballs. Once considered a career-threatening endeavor, Tommy John surgery — named after the longtime big league pitcher who underwent the experimental procedure in 1974 — has become common for pitchers.
"I know guys that had it pitching in high school. They came back and had long careers, so Tommy John is not anything to really be scared of now," said Orioles reliever Darren O'Day, who has dealt with injuries to his shoulder but never his elbow. "Shoulder surgery is scary. Elbow surgery, Tommy John, has such a good success rate, a lot of guys come back even better. So I think he'll be all right."
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones echoed those statements, saying he understands that Bundy will be disappointed by not playing for a year, but he could be even more effective when he returns.
"The good part about it, and I look in the positive, is that he is 20. He'll bounce back throwing harder. It seems like now everybody's going to have it, especially the new generation. But it [stinks]. I know his competitiveness," Jones said. "I know he wants to play. Just have the surgery, and I hope he takes his time getting back. … He'll still have a bright future."
Because he signed a major league deal and is on the 40-man roster, Bundy has used two of his three available minor league options and will use the third in 2014. However, because he has used three in his first five pro seasons, under major league rules, he'll qualify for a fourth — meaning he could be optioned once more to the minors after 2014 without being exposed to waivers.
Since he did not spend any time in the majors this season, the Orioles, according to major league rules, would be able to use that fourth option in 2015 or even beyond — but once it is used in one of those seasons, it cannot be used in following years.
The Orioles were hoping to get Bundy back for this year's pennant push, but Duquette said the impending surgery does not greatly alter the club's pitching plans.
"It's unfortunate for Dylan that he had the injury. He's going to miss time for his career. Fortunately, for the Orioles, we have other pitchers," Duquette said. "We have some pitching depth. [Surgery] is just the right thing to do at this time. We have other alternatives."
What is Tommy John surgery?
* Surgery is named after former major league pitcher Tommy John, who underwent the first procedure in 1974.
* It is more formally known as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction.
* The UCL is located on the inside of the elbow. It connects the bone of the upper arm (humerus) to a bone in the forearm (ulna).
* During the procedure, a surgeon replaces the injured UCL with a tendon taken from somewhere else in the patient's body.
* Anyone can get a UCL injury from repetitive stress to the elbow or from trauma. But "throwing" athletes have the highest risk, because throwing motions that twist and bend the elbow put extreme stress on the ligament.