A surgeon removed and replaced a ligament in Kenta Maeda's right elbow on Wednesday. If only a similar procedure were available to Derek Falvey to heal the Twins' starting rotation.
Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery Wednesday in Dallas to restore his pitching arm, an operation that normally requires at least a year of rehab and recovery before a pitcher can resume his career. But the orthopedic surgeon, Rangers team physician Keith Meister, added a wrinkle that gives the Twins hope that Maeda could speed up his return: An internal brace around the new ligament to help it heal more quickly.
"It's a newer procedure. It's something that has been done on other pitchers," said Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations. "The early returns have been really positive around a new way of doing that surgery that helped trim that [year-or-more] timeline. Assuming everything goes according to plan, you give yourself a chance to be on the more aggressive end" of rehab, perhaps as quickly as nine or 10 months.
"I'm hopeful, for sure, based on the feedback from [Wednesday], the way the surgery went and the potential timelines," Falvey reiterated. "I'm hopeful that he's pitching at some point next year. But we won't know that for a number of months."
Meister has performed the internal-brace procedure roughly 50 times, on pitchers both professional and amateur, giving the Twins confidence that this is a long-term solution.
Maeda, 33, has pitched with minor damage to his ulnar collateral ligament for his entire six-year major-league career, but this year, the wear on the ligament, though never a complete tear, grew more pronounced. Maeda's fastball, roughly 92-93 miles per hour for most of his career, sat in the high 80s for much of this season. And on Aug. 21 in Yankee Stadium, the pain finally grew acute and Maeda was removed mid-game.
The pitcher hoped to avoid surgery, hoping his usual pain tolerance would be enough to keep him on the mound. The Twins realized that, painful as it is on a pitching staff already missing nearly a dozen pitchers because of injuries, there was little choice.
"We're better with Kenta. But I'll tell you this: We're even better with a healthy Kenta, and that's what we need to focus on," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Hopefully when he's ready, we might see a version better than anything we've seen before, because they were able to go in there and clean some things up that he's been pitching with."
That's the 2020 AL Cy Young runner-up's hope, too.
"It's been a tough grind, and if you look at the result, that kind of explains what it was like inside my elbow," Maeda said Saturday through an interpreter. "Tough season throughout. And then when I was informed of the possibility of surgery, I was really surprised and a little sad to hear it, to be honest. I might be out for a year, but that might elongate my pitching career in the long run."
Perhaps long enough to recoup the millions of dollars he will lose by not pitching next year. Maeda's contract, signed with the Dodgers when worries about his elbow were circulating, guarantees him only $3 million a year, far below his market value. He can earn up to $10 million more in bonuses based upon number of starts he makes and number of innings he throws.
The Twins made some obvious moves as rosters expanded to 28 players. Joe Ryan was called up from Class AAA St. Paul in order to make his big-league debut Wednesday, and Randy Dobnak was activated after missing 10 weeks because of a strained ligament in the middle finger of his pitching hand in order to start Friday at Tampa Bay.
The Twins simply swapped Dobnak with Maeda on the 60-day injured list to make room. They sent righthander Edgar Garcia outright to St. Paul once he cleared waivers, opening up a 40-man roster spot for Ryan.
- The Twins have Thursday off, but chose to travel to Florida late Wednesday night in order to give the players a day completely free of team responsibilities, including travel. One downside: Their scheduled arrival time at their St. Petersburg hotel was 4 a.m.
Staff writer Chris Hine contributed to this story