MINNEAPOLIS — Going through three consecutive seasons with elbow problems was enough for Twins righthander Scott Baker.
“I guess the elbow has always been my Achilles’ heel,” he said Wednesday, seated next to General Manager Terry Ryan in the Twins interview room.
Baker will undergo surgery to clean up a flexor pronator tendon, which is located on the inside of the elbow. The Twins and Baker were relieved to learn that the ulnar collateral ligament, which is replaced during Tommy John surgery, is sound. Unfortunately for Baker, the recovery period following flexor tendon surgery will be about six months, which wipes out his 2012 season before it can begin.
The surgery will be performed, as soon as it can be scheduled, by Mets team physician David Altcheck, a prominent elbow specialist who has done Tommy John surgeries in recent years on Joe Nathan and Twins prospect Kyle Gibson.
According to Baker, part of the procedure includes cleaning out scar tissue.
“Obviously, it’s been a battle and, unfortunately, it’s a losing battle at this point,” Baker said. “The training staff and I have done everything we possibly could to pitch through it. There’s no way around that. We have been trying to do it the whole time. We went up there (to see Altcheck) for some clarity and for what exactly needed to be done.”
It’s a blow to a Twins team that hoped to be more competitive this season after losing 99 games in 2011. Baker might be their most complete pitcher. He went 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA last season in 23 appearances (21 starts) around two trips to the disabled list when the tendon flared up.
The Twins will move forward with a likely rotation of Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn and Liam Hendriks. Marquis, who left the team for two weeks during spring training after his daughter was in a serious bicycle accident, will join the club after making one more minor league start on Thursday for Class AA New Britain.
Anthony Swarzak is expected to start on Friday against Texas as a fill-in. Hendriks, who missed his start last weekend because of food poisoning, will start Sunday, when the Twins will need a fifth starter for the first time.
Marquis likely will replace Swarzak in the rotation, with Swarzak moving back to the bullpen.
“It gives somebody a chance to step up, whether it be Swarzak or Hendriks or whatever,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “Somebody else will have to step in and do it. Losing a guy like (Baker) … he was starting to come into his own pretty good.”
They can fill the innings but, considering his career record of 63-48 with a 4.15 ERA, can they replace Baker’s productivity?
“This isn’t good by any stretch, because we’ve got a guy in the prime of his career, and his raw numbers are about as good as we have,” Ryan said. “And now he’s not available. So we’ve got to move on, and unfortunately this will be a challenge, but we’ll get through it. I feel bad for Scott. I’ve always said he’s one of the hardest workers we’ve had. It just wasn’t happening.”
Baker battled elbow pain near the end of the 2010 season and landed on the 15-day disabled list twice last season because of the flexor pronator tendon strain.
He was able to return to pitch three innings in September after his second stint on the DL and reported to spring training confident he could move forward. But his velocity was down and he appeared to be holding back while throwing.
He was shut down during the middle of spring training. When he attempted to pitch for Class A Fort Myers in its season opener last Thursday, he lasted 11 pitches before leaving the game because the elbow wasn’t responding well.
That led to a visit with Altcheck, when the decision to have season-ending surgery was made. The timing couldn’t be worse for Baker, who’s making $6.5 million in the final guaranteed year of a four-year, $15.25 million contract. There’s a club option for 2013 for $9.25 million, but it’s unlikely the Twins will pick it up, not knowing how healthy Baker will be.
Baker was asked if he was worried that he had thrown his final pitch for the Twins.
“Honestly I can’t think about that right now,” Baker said. “The Twins are all I’ve known, and obviously I enjoy it here, so I hope that’s not the case. But I just have to really focus on getting healthy. I know the work’s going to be there. I’m going to work as hard as I can to get healthy.”