BALTIMORE — The Orioles’ worst fears about the injured Felix Bautista may not yet be confirmed, but they could be rapidly moving in that sobering direction.
Less than 24 hours after the All-Star closer left Friday’s game due to arm discomfort, general manager Mike Elias announced the 6-foot-8, 285-pound right-hander sustained “some degree of injury” to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow throwing a final pitch clocked at 102.3 mph. Depending on the severity, such an injury can require Tommy John surgery, which is UCL ligament reconstruction that typically requires a year or more of rehabilitation before a pitcher returns to game action. Elias said the organization will continue to run tests and seek additional opinions before formulating a plan for the recovery process, so he didn’t want to speculate whether Bautista had any chance to return to pitch again in 2023 as the AL-leading Orioles remain on track to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2016.
“I think anyone can go on Google and find the spectrum of outcomes or possibilities that [a UCL injury] might entail,” Elias said. “I really am not informed or confident enough yet at this point to add to that if somebody’s interested. That’s all we really have or know.”
On Saturday afternoon, Bautista was placed on the 15-day injured list with what was officially labeled “a right UCL injury” as left-hander DL Hall was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to take his place on the 26-man roster.
As for who will take over Bautista’s role trying to close out games, manager Brandon Hyde is likely to use much more of a committee approach for the time being, but All-Star setup man Yennier Cano headlines the list of logical candidates to receive those ninth-inning opportunities. Even before Bautista’s injury, the organization was also excited about the prospects of adding Hall — who pitched well in relief for the Orioles last September — to the bullpen as the 24-year-old struck out 18 batters and pitched to a 2.35 ERA in 7 2/3 innings at Norfolk this month after an extended stint rebuilding his strength and velocity in Sarasota.
The Orioles will also have the option of recalling right-hander Tyler Wells — who has transitioned to a bullpen role for the remainder of the season — and activating left-hander John Means for additional pitching reinforcements in the near future, giving them some appealing options for the final stretch. But no one can fully replace Bautista, whose 1.48 ERA, 16.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and 33 saves in 39 opportunities were garnering some AL Cy Young Award consideration in the eyes of many around baseball.
As Hyde acknowledged in his pregame comments, news of losing Bautista indefinitely made for “a tough day” for the Orioles as they aimed to move to a season-high 33 games above .500, which would be their highest mark in any season since 1997.
“It’s something that you try not to imagine throughout the season just because of the impact he was having and the dominance that he was exhibiting,” Elias said. “But this is baseball; this is pitching. We are far from the only team and far from the only AL East team to face adversity in the form of injury to star, impact players. The group’s going to rally around itself, and we’ll figure out ways to do the best that we can for however long his absence is.
“I’m most sad for Felix himself because this was just a dream season that he was having — he made the All-Star team and the numbers he was putting up. But it’s all temporary.”