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Updated: April 11th, 2012 11:41pm
Mackey: One faulty flexor tendon likely alters career paths for two

Mackey: One faulty flexor tendon likely alters career paths for two

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- At the start of spring training, it appeared as if Minnesota Twins right-hander Liam Hendriks was destined for Triple-A seasoning to start the season.

The Twins already had five starters slotted in -- Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis.

It became apparent near the end of March, however, that the Twins would need a spot-starter for the opening series against Baltimore, with Marquis gone from the team for two weeks and Baker trying to fire his elbow back up.

Hendriks impressed Twins decision-makers this spring with his ability to pump strikes and record outs, so he was pegged as the next man in line.

But general manager Terry Ryan necessarily didn't see Hendriks, 23, as just a fill-in spot-starter.

"Once you give that guy the ball, and they keep getting people out, you keep giving him the ball," Ryan said on March 31. "You see where it takes us. He may throw so good that you don't have to worry about it."

As it turned out, Hendriks never made his spot start. Or his non-spot start. Or whatever it would have been.

He came down with food poisoning and Baltimore and caught a later flight back to Minneapolis on Monday after spending time in the hospital.

But now that Baker is out for the season, Hendriks might be a mainstay in the rotation before he even throws a pitch.

"We'll see," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We like him. We like the way he came up last year. He's got courage, he changes speeds, he spins the ball. He adds and subtracts really well. He's just got to continue to do that, but we like what he's done."

In one calendar year, Hendriks has gone from not even being invited to major league spring training to making his major league debut to earning Twins minor league pitcher of the year honors.

He owns a career minor league ERA of 2.78 with 343 strikeouts and only 60 walks and 12 home runs allowed in 375 2/3 innings. He struck out 16, walked six and allowed three home runs in his first four major league starts last year.

"I definitely feel bad for Bake. Surgery's not a fun thing a tall, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," Hendriks said. "But at the same time it opens the door for me, and I'm looking forward to showing them what I can do and hopefully stay up here for the rest of the year. ...

"I feel like I'm ready for six months. I had a good spring training, I really worked hard this offseason to be ready for this six months."

Hendriks pumps strikes, and in the minor leagues he did so without allowing much damage offensively.

Now he's about to be thrown in the fire -- likely on Sunday against the Texas Rangers.

Progressively worse

The demise of Baker's elbow, or flexor tendon, played out over parts of three seasons.

After undergoing cleanup surgery in October of 2010, Baker's elbow appeared to be fresh through the first three months of 2011 when he was on pace to post career numbers in multiple categories.

That tune changed slightly when Baker left his July 5 start after only five innings with some discomfort.

"I think I almost didn't say anything (to the trainers) to be honest with you," Baker said after that game, "and I was going to continue to pitch with it, but it just was a little more discomfort then I would have liked to continue to pitch with. I think it's just a precautionary thing. ... There's no doubt in my mind that I could continue to pitch tonight but I just, I'm just trying to be smart about it."

An MRI the next day showed a minor strain of Baker's flexor tendon, and he was back on the mound 18 days later holding the Tigers scoreless over five innings.

But three starts later, the discomfort returned. And Baker's level of concern clearly rose.

"It's tough getting the work in between (starts), and obviously we've got to talk about it. ... But you really have to be, physically, 100% to compete. At least I do. I'm going out there and giving it everything I've got. ... I'm OK with it being a little sore, but if you're not effective because of it, then that's a different story. So we've got some things to talk through and work through, and I guess we'll have to make a decision."

At the time, Baker's elbow was believed to be caught in a gray area -- not injured severely enough to operate on, but not comfortable enough to pitch regularly.

He wound up rehabbing for a few weeks and pitching three innings of relief at the end of September, just to prove he could get back on the mound heading into the offseason.

Baker called his elbow a "non-issue" upon reporting to spring training. The elbow was "so far so good" one week into March as well. But following a 'B'-game start in Bradenton against the Pirates on March 10, Baker developed inflammation that sidelined him for more than a week.

With Jason Marquis away from the team and the regular season approaching quickly, Ryan and Gardenhire expressed frustration that Baker -- healthy enough to pitch in minor league games -- was not cutting it loose. Most of Baker's fastballs sat in the mid-80's during the second half of March.

"He never let it go," Gardenhire said Wednesday. "He kept telling us, 'It's just not right. It doesn't feel right.' ... He never could really let it go. At one point we thought he was getting better. He said, 'I feel better this time than I did the last time,' but obviously there was pain in there."

The last straw came in a Single-A start last week when Baker left after only 11 pitches. He was scheduled to throw 75.

"Now he has finality to it," Gardenhire said. "We were just on hold waiting to see what happens. We can't do anything about it, as far as myself and (Rick Anderson). We had to wait and find out what happened to him. For Scott, it's been driving him crazy obviously. He's been trying to work his way through this thing. For him, this is a good situation -- not that he's having surgery, and not that he's going to have to get his arm fixed, but at least he knows what he's got."

Twins career could be over

It's likely a tough pill to swallow at the moment.

But for Baker, 30, the revelation that his right flexor tendon will require surgery not only ends his 2012 season, it might also put an end to his eight-year Twins career.

Baker signed a four-year, $15.25 million contract prior to the 2009 season that included a $9.25 million team option for 2013.

It's almost a certainty that the Twins will not pick up that option.

"Honestly, I can't think about that right now," Baker said. "The Twins are all I've known, and obviously I enjoy it here, so I hope that's not the case. But I just have to really focus on getting healthy. I know the work's going to be there. I'm going to work as hard as I can to get healthy. It's just like I said earlier, if I get healthy, those things will take care of themselves."

When healthy, Baker has actually been one of the more underrated pitchers in the American League over the past few seasons. He has consistently posted FIPs between 3.79 and 4.08, along with a 3.45 mark last season when able to pitch. His career ERA to this point is 4.15, and he strikes out more than seven batters per nine innings while limiting walks.

It's possible the Twins could decline his team option and find a way to re-sign him at a lower cost, if they feel that he'll be healthy and productive.

That decision is several months of rehab away.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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