Detroit Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull out for season, will have Tommy John surgery

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull will have Tommy John surgery on his right arm and is out for the season, manager AJ Hinch announced Tuesday at Comerica Park before the game against the Texas Rangers.

Turnbull, 28, is scheduled to have the surgery toward the end of July in Birmingham, Alabama, to reconstruct his ulnar collateral ligament.

Medical tests revealed chronic damage in his right elbow.

“There’s always the tweener of should he rehab for a while or not,” Hinch said Tuesday. “Spencer came to the conclusion it was in his best interest, and quite honestly our best interest for him, to have it done now. It wasn’t an abrupt injury to his UCL, but when he came back and failed in the throwing program, as he got retested, that was the recommendation.”

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Turnbull last pitched June 4 against the Chicago White Sox, throwing four innings of one-run ball. He removed himself from the game after four innings and was diagnosed with a right forearm strain. He was placed on the 10-day injured list June 5.

He reported “no problems” after a 38-pitch bullpen session in Lakeland, Florida on July 3. “Things are progressing nicely,” Hinch said at the time. But Turnbull was moved to the 60-day IL on July 7, indicating a setback had occurred.

“He’s still feeling symptoms,” Hinch said that day. “They’ve re-emerged. We’ve got to go back through the battery of tests.”

Hinch explained Tuesday how Turnbull’s status changed: “It wasn’t a singular event. Usually, when you see a guy walk off the mound and he’s in a ton of pain, there’s this obvious injury. He had a little bit of soreness when we put him on the injured list to begin with. It wasn’t the UCL, so we didn’t really know what the extent of it was. When he came back and threw, it revealed itself as more and more inflammation. The damage that had been done to the UCL over time was enough to warrant the surgery.”

Turnbull went 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA in nine starts over 50 innings this season, throwing a no-hitter May 18 against the Mariners in Seattle. Through four MLB seasons (three full seasons), Turnbull has a 4.25 ERA in 271⅓ inning across his 54-game career.

The Tigers drafted Turnbull in the second round of the 2014 MLB draft from Alabama.

“Chronic damage, to me, means he’s had damage before,” Hinch said. “I think if you go into any of these guys’ arms, they probably have some form of damage. … He’ll bounce back and be really good. He’s got a long career ahead of himself, but he’s got a long rehab ahead of him.”

Estimates say nearly a third of big-league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery — though it’s not always successful. Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered the surgery, a reconstruction of the torn ulnar collateral ligament in the throwing elbow, on John after the 1974 season. The recovery process usually takes 12-18 months.

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Most recently, Tigers prospect Alex Faedo underwent the surgery in December 2020. Fellow prospect Joey Wentz had the surgery in March 2020 and appeared in his first official game 14 months later. He is now pitching in Double-A Erie.

The rest of the starting staff

Turnbull is one of several Tigers pitchers recently injured, including starter Matthew Boyd, starter Jose Urena and reliever Michael Fulmer, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019. Urena exited Saturday’s Game 1 of a doubleheader vs. Minnesota with right groin tightness.

The Tigers are also limiting starter Casey Mize’s innings, an ongoing strategy to reduce risk and keep him in the rotation all season. A similar plan has been used for fellow young starter Tarik Skubal.

“The injuries have been very tough,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said Tuesday. “Thank goodness we’ve got enough depth to cover ourselves, but … that’s a lot of injuries. That’s been really tough, not only for this year to continue to win games throughout those injuries, but obviously as you look forward to next year and we look forward to the trade deadline. It affects everything.”

Fulmer threw a “pretty aggressive” bullpen Tuesday, Hinch said. As long as everything goes well the rest of the day, Hinch thinks Fulmer could join Triple-A Toledo “in the next few days” to begin a rehab assignment.

Hinch expects Boyd to return before the season ends, as well.

“Boyd is doing well,” Hinch said. “We’re hopeful that he’s going to get off the mound here next week and begin the bullpen ramp up. It’s a little more difficult with him than Fulmer, just given the volume that we’re going to want to build him up to get him back here, but he’s passed all the long toss tests.

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The Tigers have been without Julio Teheran, who made one start in early April before suffering a strained shoulder.

“I would say there’s a possibility (of Teheran returning in 2021),” Avila said. “If it is though, it’s going to be late in the year. I’m not going to hold my breath to that, but I’m hopeful.”

The Tigers (44-51) are 4-0 post All-Star break with three shutouts. They are 35-27 since May 8 and sit 9½ games out of a wild-card spot.

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Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter. 

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