Just don’t expect him to be a starter.
Medlen signed with the KC Royals as a free-agent this winter from Atlanta after tearing his UCL (Ulnar collateral ligament) for the second time in spring training before the 2014 season. Kris Medlen had been the no. 1 starter for Atlanta in 2013, and the latter half of 2012. Before that, Medlen had been a key bullpen piece.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore signed Kris Medlen to a 2-year deal with $8.5 million guaranteed this winter. Some have hoped that Medlen could step into the starting rotation to replace the struggling Jeremy Guthrie or Jason Vargas. Alec Tilson at KC Kingdom compared him to a 5’10” version of James Shields.
KC Royals fans need to put a hold on those expectations.
The history of starters coming back from their second Tommy John surgery is pretty much one guy: Chris Capuano. Capuano made 109 starts after his second elbow surgery. After that, you’re looking at Hong-Chi Kuo with 14 and Darren Driefort with 10. Beyond that, are a handful of guys who only made single digit starts after their second TJ.
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That’s not a very good track record.
Where pitchers have succeeded coming back from Tommy John surgery is in the bullpen.
The KC Royals should know a little bit about that one. Current Royals reliever Jason Frasor is a two-time Tommy John surgery survivor as well as former Kansas City closer Joakim Soria. Soria returned to major-league action for the Rangers in 2013, and has now returned to the closer role for the Tigers. All Soria has done this year is rack up 11 saves with a 1.13 ERA this season.
Isringhausen first tore his UCL in 1998 while he was a starting pitching prospect for the Mets. He returned to become a top reliever for nearly a decade before injuring his elbow second time in 2008. He returned in 2009, only the tear his UCL a third time.
While Isringhausen pitched two more seasons, he was a below league-average reliever after his third surgery.
Here lies the cautionary tale. The Kansas City Royals are wise to bring Kris Medlen along slowly. They have a 19-month schedule for his return, which great. But expecting him to start might be too much.
Already we have seen the A’s push starter Jarrod Parker back from his second elbow surgery, only to see him re-injure himself. Parker was throwing 93 mph this spring, only to fracture the medial epicondyle in his throwing elbow—the place where the new ligament was anchored to his humerus bone (upper arm).
Perhaps the KC Royals would be wise to temper their expectations for Kris Medlen. Adding another piece to the bullpen would help. Asking Medlen to start might be too much for his twice-repaired elbow.
At the very least, the KC Royals need to limit Medlen to the bullpen this season before considering whether he can start in 2016.