Astros lefty Kent Emanuel announced on Instagram today that he’ll undergo season-ending surgery to repair an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. The southpaw is not yet certain whether he’ll be undergoing Tommy John surgery or a primary repair procedure that comes with a shorter recovery period (but is only possible with a certain extent of tearing at a specific location on the ligament). As FOX 26’s Mark Berman explains (Twitter link), that’s because the determination won’t be made until the surgery is underway and the surgeons can get a closer look at the ligament.
Regardless of the exact nature of the surgery, Emanuel, who turns 29 tomorrow, won’t pitch again in 2021. It’s an abrupt end to a promising rookie campaign for the 2013 third-rounder, who’d pitched to a 2.55 ERA with a 13-to-4 K/BB ratio through his first 17 2/3 MLB innings.
That Emanuel’s debut campaign came at age 28 is in part due to the fact that’s he’s already endured one Tommy John procedure earlier in his career. That injury limited him to just 14 2/3 innings in 2015 and 84 2/3 frames the following season.
Emanuel has also missed time with an 80-game PED suspension, though he’s among the growing number of players to raise issue following a positive test of trace amounts of DHCMT (seven picograms, in his case). The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond explored the issue at length back in August, and Emanuel himself posted an 11-minute video on Instagram discussing his bewilderment over the positive test. Many fans will be skeptical of any player claiming innocence following a positive PED test, but it’s certainly worth reading Diamond’s column and watching Emanuel’s video for those who didn’t track the story at the time.
Turning back to the present-day ramifications of the injury, Emanuel figures to eventually be moved to the 60-day injured list, where he’ll accrue a year of service time as he goes through the rehabilitation process. If he indeed requires a second Tommy John procedure, he’ll likely miss at least half of the 2022 season as well; a primary repair could potentially have him ready for 2022, though that is again dependent on the extent of the damage in his elbow. An exact timeline for rehabbing from that procedure is tougher to pin down, given the general lack of successful instances. Rich Hill is the most recent example of a pitcher to return after a primary repair, as he had the procedure in the 2019-20 offseason before eventually signing with the Twins.
For the Astros, they’ll be reduced to two left-handed bullpen options: Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor. To this point, neither has pitched well in 2021, with Raley sitting on a 6.95 ERA in 22 2/3 innings and Taylor having yielded five runs (four earned) in 5 1/3 frames of his own. Both southpaws played key roles in Houston’s 2020 bullpen and should have decent leashes as a result. Raley has punched out 30.6 of his opponents this year against just an 8.2 percent walk rate, but he’s been plagued by a historically fluky strand rate. That’s not an exaggeration, either; per FanGraphs, Raley’s 39 percent strand rate is the seventh-lowest single-season mark of any pitcher (min. 20 innings) since 1900.
Should Raley and/or Taylor continue to struggle, left-handed relief figures to be an area of focus for the ’Stros this summer on the trade market as they seek another postseason berth.