The Angels announced tonight that an MRI performed on right-hander Garrett Richards has revealed damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Unlike the case of Shohei Ohtani, the Angels added that Richards has already been presented with “both conservative care and surgical options to treat the injury.” Richards, it seems, is mulling those options. The Angels added that they’ll provide an update on his treatment plan “when appropriate.”
Richards, 30, exited last night’s start after three innings due to what was initially termed forearm irritation, though forearm issues are often a precursor to ligament damage in the elbow. He’s been in a similar spot in the past, having been diagnosed with a partial tear of the UCL in his right elbow back in 2016. At the time, however, he opted for stem-cell and platelet-rich plasma injections in addition to a long period of rest and rehab as a means of avoiding Tommy John surgery.
That proved effective in sparing him from Tommy John, but the rest and rehab program cost him most of the 2016 season. In 2017, he was sidelined by a biceps injury for most of the year and limited to 27 2/3 innings.
The extent of the damage to Richards’ elbow ligament wasn’t specified by the Angels’ announcement, but it’s of note that the club announced that Ohtani had a Grade 2 UCL strain, and GM Billy Eppler has persistently said that surgery has not been recommended by medical professionals. That the Angels immediately announced surgery to be an option for Richards, then, doesn’t paint an optimistic picture moving forward.
Regardless of whether he opts for surgery, this type of injury calls into question his availability for the remainder of the season at a time when the Angels can ill afford to lose one of their best arms. The Halos are 14 games out of first place in the AL West and 10 games behind the Mariners for a Wild Card spot after topping the M’s last night (despite Richards’ abbreviated start and injury). The loss of Richards makes it all the more improbable that the Halos will be able to surmount that deficit.
Furthermore, with Richards’ status as an impending free agent, he’d have been a logical and highly attractive trade chip had the Angels eventually decided to sell off pieces. The Halos won’t be fielding offers on Mike Trout anytime soon, so Richards would’ve been arguably their most appealing commodity to shop around to other teams. He’s pitched to a 3.66 ERA with 10.3 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9 and a 49.3 percent ground-ball rate so far in 2018. That’s a moot point at this juncture, however, as the injury all but eliminates the possibility of him factoring into the trade market.
And from a personal standpoint, the injury to Richards is devastating for his future earning potential. While his lengthy injury history would’ve no doubt given teams pause on the open market even if he’d pitched a healthy season in 2018, a UCL injury at this stage of his career will torpedo perhaps his best chance at a sizable multi-year deal. It’s true that some pitchers — Drew Smyly (Cubs) and Michael Pineda (Twins), for instance — have landed multi-year deals while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but those $10MM guarantees, which could be a best-case scenario, pale in comparison to what a healthier Richards would have earned in free agency.
Beyond all of that, the Angels will continue to face scrutiny for the rampant injury troubles that have permeated their rotation in recent seasons. In the last three years alone, the Angels have had Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Nick Tropeano, J.C. Ramirez, Keynan Middleton, Blake Wood and John Lamb undergo Tommy John surgery, while others such as Alex Meyer, Nate Smith and Matt Shoemaker have gone under the knife for various other reasons.
Certainly not all of those injuries can be pinned on the Angels. Meyer’s shoulder troubles, for example, date back to his days with the Twins, while Lamb has had injuries of his own and was only briefly in the organization before requiring surgery. But the barrage of pitching injuries the Angels have faced in recent years if undoubtedly something that’ll prompt a deep dive from the front office as it seeks to determine if there’s something more than sheer coincidence and misfortune at play.