The left elbow of Jason Vargas resembled a time bomb to the Royals front office in recent weeks. The clock ticked as Vargas attempted, for the second time in 2015, to rehabilitate the strained flexor muscle around the joint in June and July. Time ran out just past 7:35 p.m. on Tuesday, when Vargas felt his ulnar collateral ligament sunder from the stress of pitching.
An MRI on Wednesday confirmed Kansas City’s fears, showing images of a ligament so torn “there was nothing left in there,” Vargas said. He will require Tommy John surgery, which could prevent Vargas from pitching for the team until 2017. The injury wounded the Royals, but general manager Dayton Moore framed it as a contingency they predicted.
“We’re not shocked that this happened, based on how he was trending,” Moore said, noting Vargas’ prior trips to the disabled list. “His body just wasn’t going to adapt through it. And it blew.”
With Vargas (5-2, 3.98 ERA) out for the season, the Royals reconfigured their rotation. The team recalled Yordano Ventura less than 24 hours after he was optioned to the minors. Assistant general manager Rene Francisco intended to drive with Ventura to the Class AAA affiliate in Omaha on Wednesday morning. Instead Ventura will start on Sunday against Houston.
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The team had sent Ventura (4-7, 5.19 ERA) to Omaha with the goal of regaining his confidence against lesser competition. Team officials also felt they needed a long reliever for Vargas’s start on Tuesday. So the team retained Joe Blanton, who ended up throw 3 1/3 innings after Vargas left in the second inning. The diagnosis did not surprise Yost.
“When you see that reaction coming off the field, you pretty much know what it is,” Yost said.
Vargas first experienced soreness in his left forearm after a start on May 5. He spent three weeks on the disabled list. Three starts into his return, the symptoms returned. Trainer Nick Kenney speculated the initial injury may never have healed.
On both occasions, the medical staff ordered MRIs for Vargas’s elbow. Both examinations showed no significant damage to his ligament.
“I think we did everything that we could to put ourselves in the best situation,” Vargas said. “Unfortunately, when we went out there to compete at the highest level, it ended up giving out. There was really nothing else we can do.”
A front office cannot afford to ignore the possibility of surgery. The knowledge of Vargas’s potential doom played into the team’s approach to the upcoming trade deadline. Rival executives say the team has shown obvious zeal for adding a starter pitcher, while speculating about their interest in outfielders like Oakland’s Ben Zobrist or Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce.
Moore indicated the injury to Vargas would not significantly alter his goals before the July 31 trade deadline.
“We’re doing our best to improve our team with the things that make sense,” Moore said. “We’ll see how that goes. There’s a lot of things still up in the air.”
Vargas will receive a second opinion on his condition in about two weeks. The outcome is not in doubt. He will require surgery. The rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery generally lasts 14 to 15 months. Vargas could return by next September, if he experiences no setbacks.
“The way they take care of things now, they seem to have a pretty good response rate,” Vargas said. “Guys seem to do very well coming back. So I’m definitely optimistic. Just ready for the challenge ahead.
The Royals possess insurance on Vargas’s contract, according to people familiar with the situation. The sum is based on how many days he misses. If Vargas does not pitch in 2016, the insurance policy covers about $6 million of his $8.5 million salary.
The financial coverage does not defray the loss on the field, at least in 2015. The team continues to experience injuries. Alex Gordon hopes to return from his strained groin in September. Ventura, Danny Duffy and Alex Rios have also spent time on the disabled list.
“This team’s usually a pretty healthy team,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “To see Gordo go down the way he went down, and now for Vargy to go down, those are two key pieces for this team. You hate to lose any one of those guys. But at the end of the day, we’re going to have to go out and find a way to win a game without those guys.”
Kansas City deemed Ventura as their best choice to start Sunday. So they had to recall him in conjunction with Vargas’s injury. Otherwise, Ventura would be forced to spend 10 days in the minors.
The return of Ventura, who gave up six runs in four innings on Monday, will not cease the clamoring of fans for left-handed prospect John Lamb. Lamb has a 2.75 ERA for the Storm Chasers. But he has never pitched in the majors leagues.
Yost referenced Ventura’s experience in the World Series and his importance to this club in the coming months as part of an explanation for why Lamb remains in the minors.
“John Lamb’s doing fine,” Yost said. “John Lamb’s going to be a big-league pitcher. But we need Ventura to get going.”