Diamondbacks lefty Caleb Smith has been a diagnosed with a ligament tear in his left elbow, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports. However, after receiving multiple opinions on the injury, he’ll first opt for a rest-and-rehab approach rather than immediately undergoing Tommy John surgery, GM Mike Hazen tells Piecoro. The team has not provided a timetable for Smith’s potential recovery.
As with any tear, the possibility of eventual surgery will linger as Smith works through the rehab process. However, given the timing of the injury — Smith pitched in the D-backs’ final game of the season but departed with a trainer — he’d have been in line to miss the entire 2023 campaign even if he’d undergone surgery right away. If the tear is minimal enough that doctors feel he has a chance for it to heal without surgery, there’s little reason for him not to try the rehab route before going under the knife. That at least leaves the door open for him to pitch in 2023, and if he has surgery in a couple months’ time anyhow, he’d still be on track for an early 2024 return.
Regardless of whether he eventually requires surgery or is successful in rehabbing the tear, it’s quite possible that the ligament issue will bring an end to Smith’s tenure with the Diamondbacks organization. The 31-year-old southpaw is eligible for arbitration for the third and final time this winter, and MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects him to receive a raise from $2MM to $2.7MM. With the specter of major surgery looming in a worst-case scenario and a presumably months-long rehab process on the docket even in a best-case scenario, Smith becomes an even clearer non-tender candidate than he already was.
Smith has had an up-and-down tenure in Arizona, splitting time between the bullpen and rotation with a few promising stretches but a general lack of consistency. He looked like a viable trade candidate for the D-backs early in the summer of 2021, pitching to a 3.08 ERA with a 26.9% strikeout rate (albeit against a bloated 11.6% walk rate) in 64 1/3 innings. Smith, however, was blown up for an ERA north of 12.00 over his next six starts, causing him to lose the rotation spot he’d seized at the beginning of June.
A solid finish out of the bullpen in 2021 (2.70 ERA in 26 2/3 innings) kept Smith in the team’s plans and set the stage for him to occupy a bullpen role full-time in 2022. He gave the Snakes 70 innings of 4.11 ERA ball this past season but did so with the worst full-season strikeout and walk rates of his career (21.5% and 12.9%). Since his Aug. 2021 shift to the bullpen, Smith has a solid 3.72 ERA but lackluster marks in strikeout rate (21.5%), walk rate (12%), ground-ball rate (30.6%), homers per nine innings (1.68), FIP (5.28) and SIERA (4.60).