Rangers right-hander Jacob deGrom will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, reports Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. Grant clarifies in a second tweet that the full extent of the surgery will be determined once the surgery begins. That leaves open the possibility of the internal brace procedure, which is slightly less severe in nature, but the righty is looking at an absence of at least a year either way.
The news is obviously terrible news for deGrom, the Rangers and the baseball world at large. deGrom, who turns 35 later this month, had established himself as arguably the best pitcher alive with the Mets in his career. From 2014 to 2020, he tossed 1169 2/3 innings with a 2.61 ERA, 29.2% strikeout rate, 6.1% walk rate and 45.1% ground ball rate. He won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019, tossing over 200 innings in each campaign with a 1.70 ERA in the former and a 2.43 mark in the latter.
The narrative since that time, however, has been dominating by concerns around his health. In 2021, he had a miniscule 1.08 ERA through 15 starts but landed on the injured list due to some forearm tightness. There seemed to be some disagreement about the nature of his injury, as Mets president Sandy Alderson said that deGrom had been dealing with a low-grade tear in the UCL in his pitching elbow, though deGrom insisted his ligament was “perfectly fine.”
That was a concerning set of statements in its own right, but especially so considering that deGrom had previously undergone TJS as a prospect. He didn’t return at any point in that 2021 season but seemed to be healthy coming into 2022. He then suffered a stress reaction in his scapula during Spring Training and missed more time but was eventually able to return in August of last year. He made 11 starts for the Mets down the stretch and another in the postseason, finishing the season healthy. He had a 3.08 ERA in those regular season starts, striking out 42.7% of opponents against a walk rate of just 3.3%.
deGrom still had one year and $30.5MM remaining on his contract, as well as a club option for 2024, but had long maintained that he intended to trigger his opt-out and test free agency. He did just that and eventually landed a five-year, $185MM deal with the Rangers. He made six starts for the club here in 2023 with a 2.67 ERA but landed on the injured list at the end of April due to elbow inflammation. He was transferred to the 60-day IL yesterday, which didn’t necessarily portend doom since he had already been out of action for over a month. But now the full truth has been revealed and it was an ominous sign after all.
The Rangers are off to a great start here this year, currently 39-20 and leading the American League West. Still, they were undoubtedly hoping to have deGrom’s elite skills back on the roster for a late-season playoff race and theoretical postseason appearance. But they will now have to proceed without him in those plans. Currently, the rotation consists of Martín Pérez, Andrew Heaney, Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray and Dane Dunning. Today’s likely increases the chances that they look for rotation upgrades this summer, though their ultimate appetite for a move like that will depend on the health and performance of the remaining members.
For deGrom, this news will have an impact on his contract, specifically related to the conditional option for 2028. The contract states that, if he undergoes Tommy John surgery or has an elbow or shoulder injury that leads to an absence of 130 days in a single season or a full calendar year absence over multiple seasons, a club option will kick in. It’s valued at $20MM but could jump to $30MM if deGrom has a top five finish in Cy Young voting at any point or tallies 625 innings over the course of the deal. It would go up to $37MM if he gets in the top five of Cy Young voting three times or gets to 725 frames. If he didn’t have a significant injury, he could have vested that $37MM figure by tossing just 160 innings in 2027 and getting a top five finish in Cy Young voting that year.
Now the major question for deGrom will be how he bounces back in 2024 and beyond. Coming back from a Tommy John surgery and succeeding isn’t unprecedented, even for a relatively older pitcher like deGrom. Just last year, Justin Verlander came back from the procedure and had Cy Young-winning season for the Astros at the age of 39. deGrom will be turning 35 in about two weeks and will therefore be about 36 when he’s attempting to come back. That makes him a couple of years younger than Verlander was but it’s not exactly the same situation since that was Verlander’s first TJS and this will be a second for deGrom, which tends to have a lower success rate at returning pitchers to their previous states.
In time, more information will surely be forthcoming about deGrom’s progress and how the Rangers plan to proceed without him. But the unavoidable fact of today is that one of the best pitchers in baseball will be out of action for at least a year and possibly even longer.