November 7, 2006

Liriano Undergoes Surgery

Francisco Liriano underwent what is being called "successful" Tommy John surgery yesterday, which basically just means doctors completed the tendon replacement and no one left a scalpel in his elbow. The Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, LaVelle E. Neal III, has more on exactly what took place in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Los Angeles Angels team physician Dr. Lewis Yocum performed the procedure with Twins team physician Dr. John Steubs. ... "It went very well," Steubs said. "The ligament was thinned and stretched and not completely torn. It really didn't appear to be as strong as we hoped. I'm pretty confident, based on what we saw, that he will do well."

Given Dr. John Steubs' description of Liriano's elbow ligament as "thinned and stretched" and not "as strong as we hoped," it's difficult to understand why it took this long--and required this many medical opinions--for surgery. In suggesting months ago that Liriano would inevitably need surgery and couldn't possibly pitch "through" the injury, one of the things I heard often in response was: "How can you say that if the doctors looking at him don't think he'll need it?"

A fair point, but as Dr. Lewis Yocum revealed a few days ago, he never actually looked at Liriano in person prior to this week. When he finally got a first-hand look at the elbow, he suggested surgery. And when surgery was finally performed, what he found was a ligament with some serious damage. There are a lot of intriguing subplots revolving around Liriano's elbow, not the least of which is the increasingly popular idea that Liriano deserves blame for the way he's handled the situation.

I find that notion absurd on several levels, yet many fans continue to talk about Liriano as if he's a lazy bum with no tolerance for pain. Meanwhile, we now know that if he'd followed the Twins' advice without speaking up on his own behalf, Liriano would be trying to pitch with an elbow ligament that was frayed, stretched, and not very strong. Given how this situation has played out and what we know now after the fact, I'd say if any party deserves blame--and it's likely no one does--it would be the Twins.

None of that is particularly important now, of course. Whatever stalling took place to delay the inevitable, whatever Liriano did to make the team think he wasn't a tough guy, and whatever direction the Twins tried to push this situation, it's now settled and the proper course of action was taken. Liriano will miss the entire 2007 season while he goes through a long and difficult rehabilitation process, and if things go according to schedule he has a very good chance to make a significant impact in 2008.

Here's what Terry Ryan had to say about Liriano's difficult comeback:

There is no rush and no urgency. If he does this right, there will be no questions about the player who is coming back because he will be his old self. ... We want to have 100 percent assurance of where he wants to go, and I want to make sure we are all on the same page. I would like for him to go to Fort Myers and be under our umbrella. ... He was like anybody who's never had something of this magnitude. He's aware of the responsibility, and he will be fine.

Since the moment Liriano's elbow became an issue during the season, the Twins have been dropping not-so-subtle hints through the local media regarding Liriano's perceived lack of toughness. In fact, even within today's article describing the significant elbow surgery Liriano underwent yesterday, LEN3 writes that "Liriano will need to stick to a tough rehabilitation schedule" as if he's the only pitcher for whom that would be the case.

I found the Twins' public treatment of Liriano odd months ago and, given how things have played out since, I find it downright unfair now. They've done everything they can to push him to pitch through what turned out to be a very serious elbow injury, they publicly questioned his pain threshold at every stop along the way, and Ron Gardenhire even suggested that Liriano was mistaken when he reportedly heard a "pop" in his elbow during one of several pre-surgery comeback attempts.

Losing a player like Liriano for an entire season at the early stages of what has the potential to be a Hall of Fame career is incredibly difficult to take and the natural reaction is to assign blame. I don't think there's necessarily any blame to hand out here in terms of how or why Liriano's elbow was injured, because the Twins certainly didn't overwork him. However, within the handling of the situation once the injury took place, I think the Twins were at the very least somewhat misguided in their approach.

They doubted the severity of the injury, accused Liriano of not being tough enough to handle it, and did everything possible to have him pitch through it. At the end of the day, Liriano is a 22-year-old phenom with a left arm that suddenly isn't working right. His pain was real and his injury was significant, yet at times he was treated like a boy crying wolf. He did everything the Twins asked when it came to avoiding surgery, attempting two in-season comebacks and then trying a third early in the offseason.

Liriano wasn't lazy, he was injured. Liriano wasn't a wimp, he needed surgery. I recognize that trying to convince many Twins fans that the team was potentially wrong in the way they handled this situation is a nearly impossible task, and it's not even clear to me that they were significantly at fault. However, what is clear to me is that Liriano has gotten a bum rap over these last few months. As he begins the long process of building back the strength in his elbow, it'd be nice if that nonsense was put to rest.


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