The Tampa Bay Rays’ History With Tommy John Surgery


You have likely heard the news about Alex Cobb‘s elbow injury going from minor arm tightness in spring training to Tommy John Surgery earlier this month. The surgery will shut him down for the remainder of 2015 and a good portion of next year as well. The need for surgery was troubling news for the Tampa Bay Rays organization, but Tommy John Surgeries are familiar for the Rays, just like they are for every team in baseball. More and more players are coming back successfully after this surgery and Alex Cobb isn’t the first Rays to deal with it, nor will he be the last.

Rays players have undergone Tommy John Surgeries at all times in their career. The first future Ray to undergo the surgery was Dewon Brazelton in 1996, while he was still in high school. After he attended Middle Tennessee State University, the Rays made him the third overall pick in the 2001 MLB Draft, and he made the major leagues in 2002. Admittedly, his career wasn’t successful with the Rays or anywhere else, but nonetheless he was the first Tommy John survivor in team history.

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Other players who underwent the surgery before joining the team include Jaime Schultz, who had the surgery in 2010 before the Rays drafted him in 2013, and Matt Ramsey, whose surgery came shortly before the Rays selected him in the 2011 MLB Draft. Schultz has since become an interesting pitching prospect for the Rays who is now at Double-A while Ramsey was traded to the Miami Marlins for international bonus pool money that they used to sign prospects. Four other pitchers–Juan Carlos Oviedo, Neil Wagner, Jonny Venters, and Kyle McPherson–have also been signed by the Rays after making the major leagues and undergoing the procedure while with other teams.

Several other Rays underwent Tommy John Surgery just after joining the organization. Victor Zambrano had signed with the Yankees out of Venezuela as an infielder in 1993 before he was released in 1996 after failing to hit at Rookie ball. The Devil Rays signed him and converted him to the mound, but the shift didn’t go well initially as he quickly underwent Tommy John Surgery. However, the Rays had enough faith in him to retain him despite the surgery, and he took off beginning in 1997 before making his big league debut in 2001.

Zambrano delivered one of the better pitching seasons of the Devil Rays years when he sported a 12-10 record and a 4.21 ERA in 2003. We know that Zambrano’s claim to fame is that he was traded to the New York Mets for Scott Kazmir in 2004, and we can say that the Kazmir deal was indirectly caused by the Rays’ faith in Zambrano after his surgery back in 1996. That year was the first of two where the Rays had minor league affiliates before their big league team debuted in 1998, but the wheels were already turning to get Kazmir on the team.

Three more players that needed Tommy John Surgery right after joining the Rays are Burch SmithWade Townsend, the D-Rays’ first round pick in 2005, and Jesse Hahn, a fourth round pick in 2010. Townsend was a money-saving pick that never worked out, but the Rays drafted Hahn knowing he would need the surgery and the maneuver has worked quite well. Hahn was a first-round talent who slipped because of his elbow injury, and the Rays eventually used him to acquire Brad Boxberger, Logan Forsythe, and Matt Andriese from the Padres.

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Alex Cobb falls under pitchers who had Tommy John after more extended time with the team. Cobb went down right as Matt Moore prepares to return. As we remember, Moore had a breakout 2013 campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays going 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA and earning Cy Young votes. However, he was placed on the disabled list two starts into 2015 and it became clear that he would need season-ending Tommy John surgery. Since then, he has been slowly recovering , finally throwing to live hitters on May 8th and pitching a bullpen session in the last few days. With any luck, Moore will be back in the Rays’ rotation by the end of June.

Seth McClung never truly shined as a Ray, but in 2003 he underwent the surgery as well after making his major league debut in 2002 at age 22. He returned to the team in 2004 and worked both as a starter and reliever in ’04 and ’05. For a time, he was even the D-Rays’ closer. McClung enjoyed the best seasons of his career with the Milwaukee Brewers from 2007 through 2009, delivering his best year in 2008, when he went 6-6 with a 4.02 ERA in 105.1 innings pitched.

A player who we know much better is Jake McGee. McGee needed the surgery in 2008, bringing his career as a talented starting pitching prospect to a halt. McGee struggled mightily in the year after the surgery, and the Rays decided to convert him to relief in 2010 out of concern for his health and because his secondary pitches haven’t been the same since he came back. He has since turned into an excellent reliever, but we do have to wonder what he could have been had he avoided the surgery and remained a starting pitcher.

Other examples of Rays needing Tommy John Surgery in the midst of their tenures with the organization include reliever Tyler Walker, outfielder and current first base coach Rocco Baldelli, pitching prospects Taylor Guerrieri, Grayson Garvin, and Albert Suarez, and outfield prospect Ty Morrison. Walker never pitched for the Rays again, but wound up with a lower ERA (3.58) in his three major league seasons after surgery than in his four seasons before (4.80).

Another pitcher, Dave Eiland needed one Tommy John Surgery in 2001 and another in 2002. Only him and Morrison have never played a professional game again after surgery among the players we have mentioned. Even longtime St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Insringhausen, who underwent his third Tommy John procedure in 2009 at age 36 after 9 games with the Rays, returned to pitch two more seasons in the majors in 2011 and 2012. At this point, almost everyone comes back from Tommy John, although McGee reminds us that not everyone returns at the same level.

Alex Cobb is the newest addition to the Rays’ Tommy John Surgery history, and he may also be the most notable. It is a huge blow to the organization to lose the guy that many considered the ace of the staff for the 2015 campaign, and the Rays have never lost their number one starter before. Cobb underwent the surgery on May 8th, and he will likely return next July if there are no setbacks. He is an exciting pitcher to watch, and while the Rays can endure this loss, they are a whole lot better when he is on the staff.

Tommy John surgery is becoming far more prevalent over the last decade, affecting exciting young pitchers from Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey to Jose Fernandez. Now Alex Cobb can be added to that list. However, while the procedure still comes with risk and has a long recovery, most pitchers return as strong and sometimes even stronger than before. That is certainly the hope as Cobb begins his recovery process.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: Dylan Floro Duels With Masahiro Tanaka