If recent news is any indication of the future, Lance McCullers Jr. may not be available to pitch next year.
Despite finishing with a top-three starting rotation in 2018, the Astros are in danger of losing sixty percent of that vaunted unit. We’re all familiar with the circumstances surrounding Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton‘s free agency, with a distinct possibility that both pitchers find themselves elsewhere next season.
For McCullers, the question was never if he would remain in Houston or not as he is still under club control through 2021. The pressing issue for his status next year was always the condition of his right elbow. Based on the somewhat vague comments by Jeff Luhnow during the first day of the annual general manager meetings, it doesn’t appear that McCullers will be throwing on a major league mound next season if surgery is required.
McCullers had arguably his most consistent season in 2018 before straining a muscle while swinging a bat in early August. Pitching in a career-high 128 1/3 innings through 25 appearances, which included 22 starts, the possibility that surgery could end his 2019 season before it begins is disheartening. When he was on the mound, the age-25 right-hander posted an effective 3.86 ERA and 3.50 FIP. He would also throw 7 1/3 innings during the Astros’ postseason run while surrendering only one earned run in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Red Sox.
Per a report from Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com, it appears that the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow is the culprit.
"Freelance reporter Joe DeMayo reported on Oct. 18 that McCullers had been pitching through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow."
Be forewarned that I am not a medical expert in any way, but here is my best attempt at an explanation for the current situation.
The pressing question, from my understanding, is whether the tear is full or partial. If partial, I’d expect it would be reasonable for McCullers to miss a portion of the upcoming 2019 season. Plenty of rest and rehab, if you will. A fully torn ligament usually results with surgery, such as Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction, also known by its more infamous name, Tommy John surgery. If the operation is required, then the timeline for McCullers’ recovery would push into next winter or early 2020. Per John Hopkins Medicine, recovery from Tommy John surgery for an athlete is routinely nine months to a year. Sometimes recovery time pushes past a full calendar year in certain situations.
The ongoing general manager meetings and the upcoming Winter Meetings may well decide how the Astros proceed to get help in the starting rotation. Regardless of the ongoing status of McCullers, Luhnow and his front office does have work to do on this front.
According to Brian McTaggart of MLB.com on Tuesday evening, McCullers will miss the entire 2019 season following Tommy John surgery.
In related speculation, the Astros are now without sixty percent of their starting rotation from last season. Let the search for replacements begin!