Right-hander Jameson Taillon, the Pirates' top pitching prospect, will have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, the Pirates announced Sunday. He will miss the rest of the season.
Dr. David Altchek, medical director for the New York Mets and an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital For Special Surgery in New York, will perform the surgery. A date has not been set.
Taillon, 22, became the latest victim of a troubling injury to a stabilizing ligament on the inside of the elbow that has claimed the seasons of several pitchers this spring. Atlanta Braves starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin, Oakland Athletics starter Jarrod Parker and Detroit Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon each needed surgery before the start this season.
Taillon was expected to join the Pirates rotation this year, but will not be ready until April 2015 at the earliest.
Taillon informed the club of pain in his elbow after an outing in mid-March. Initial scans showed that the ligament was intact, so Taillon and the Pirates sought more medical opinions. General manager Neal Huntington said the ligament was "compromised," which he described as: "It's not ruptured. It's not fully torn. But it's not a completely healthy ligament.
"When the ligament is ruptured, it's a no-brainer. He needs surgery," Huntington said. "When the ligament is compromised, now it's a gray area."
Huntington said Taillon's command suffered in spring training, but that in and of itself was not a red flag. Taillon, Huntington said, also said he felt good immediately after his most recent outing.
"This was more of an acute injury and that's where the ligament's been compromised," Huntington said. "Probably felt it more on one pitch than anything else but it wasn't like a clear rupture of the ligament where it's a no-brainer to have Tommy John. The ligament was compromised. The course of action was a conservative, aggressive rehab treatment. But his symptoms just didn't get better. He, and we, felt that it was best to go ahead and have the surgery now."
The surgery got its name from former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, who was the first pitcher to have the surgery in 1974. Created by the late Dr. Frank Jobe, the procedure involves replacing the UCL with a tendon from another part of the body, usually from the wrist or hamstring.
Recovery time takes at least a year and sometimes longer. No one thing causes UCL damage, though poor mechanics, overuse or overcompensating for an injury elsewhere can all contribute. Huntington said 25 percent of pitchers on opening-day major league rosters in 2013 have had the surgery.
"Throwing a baseball is a very unnatural motion," Huntington said. "We'll continue to study it, whether it's the biomechanics, whether it's the size, the strength, the pitch count, the pitch buildup, the stress pitch count, the effective pitch count. We'll continue to do this."
The surgery has been perfected, but pitchers must engage in a year's worth of rehabilitation, without much of a light at the end of the tunnel, to correct the muscular weaknesses or mechanical issues that caused the injury in the first place. They also must undergo a long throwing program that eventually returns them to the mound.
"If I know Jameson, and I like to think I do, he's going to be back stronger, better than ever," catcher Tony Sanchez said.
Manager Clint Hurdle said Taillon has spoken to pitchers who had the procedure, and Huntington said the Pirates stressed to Taillon the difficulty of the recovery process.
"Sometimes we hear the success stories of the surgery and we think it's going to go that well and we miss the process, and we wanted to make sure that everybody understood how hard this process is going to be," Huntington said. "He's a competitor. He's a very smart young man with a great family."
The Pirates drafted Taillon, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound right-hander, out of The Woodlands High School in Texas with the second overall pick in 2010. They persuaded him to join the organization with a $6.5 million signing bonus.
"He's a strong young man, he's a smart young man," Hurdle said. "He's very upbeat going in. I feel real good about how Jameson feels right now."
Jeff Locke, who is on the 15-day disabled list while he builds up his pitch count after an oblique strain in spring training, is scheduled to pitch Wednesday for Class A Bradenton, Huntington said. Locke will approach 100 pitches in the outing.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published April 6, 2014 1:13 PM