Tigers left-hander Tarik Skubal underwent surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his left forearm this week, manager A.J. Hinch announced to reporters (Twitter link via Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press). Skubal was already known to be out for the remainder of the 2022 season after being shifted to the 60-day injured list last week, but a surgery of this nature is significant and calls into question his readiness for the 2023 campaign. The Tigers have not provided a timetable for his recovery.
It’s a rather alarming escalation of events regarding Skubal, who just three weeks ago was at least a long-shot trade candidate in the midst of a breakout season. He exited an Aug. 1 start against the Twins after five excellent innings — three hits, no runs, no walks, four strikeouts — due to what the team termed as arm fatigue. At the time of his removal, Skubal downplayed the injury and voiced confidence that he could make his next start. As such, the subsequent trip to the 15-day injured list was viewed as something of a precautionary measure at the time.
Concern began to mount, however, when the Tigers abruptly shifted him to the 60-day injured list on Aug. 12. Hinch told reporters that day that Skubal was meeting with renowned surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache to get an additional opinion on his elbow and forearm. The Tigers definitively shut him down for the season at that point.
Flexor tendon surgery doesn’t necessarily come with as lengthy of a recovery period as the typical 12 to 14 months for Tommy John surgery, but it’s hardly a short-term outlook in most cases. Every procedure and recovery process is different, but it’s worth noting that a pair of high-profile lefties — Danny Duffy and Skubal’s former teammate, Matthew Boyd — underwent similar procedures last year and have not yet made it back to the mound. Boyd (September surgery) and Duffy (October) were both targeting June returns but have since encountered setbacks that have impeded their progress.
Again, there are plenty of instances of pitchers returning from this injury more promptly, and the Tigers haven’t provided specifics on Skubal’s surgery. There’s no sense in attempting to speculate on a specific return date with incomplete information. That said, we’re about six months out from the start of 2023 Spring Training already, so simply looking to other flexor surgeries in recent years, it’s fair to wonder whether Skubal’s availability early in 2023 might be impacted.
It’s another blow to what’s been an astonishingly snakebitten Tigers pitching staff in 2022. For the past several years, the tantalizing trio of Skubal, Casey Mize and Matt Manning — all of them former top-100 prospects — was heralded as the foundation of Detroit’s pitching staff for years to come. Instead, that trio has been beset by injuries, two of which have now resulted in major surgeries. Skubal will face a months-long recovery from his flexor procedure. Mize underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this year. Manning hasn’t gone under the knife but has dealt with a notable shoulder injury this year and a forearm strain of his own back in 2020. At the very least, Manning is healthy at the moment; he came off the injured list earlier this month and has made three solid appearances — though those are just his third, fourth and fifth starts of the season.
Detroit’s struggles extend well beyond injuries to that promising group of arms, however. Top outfield prospect Riley Greene missed the first two-plus months of the season with a broken foot and has been overmatched by MLB pitching since returning (.228/.287/.330 in 244 plate appearances). Both Greene and first baseman Spencer Torkelson were ranked among the game’s top five overall prospects heading into the season, but Torkelson endured similar struggles (.197/.282/.295) before being optioned to Triple-A earlier in the summer.
The Tigers have also had notable injuries to expected contributors (Austin Meadows, Michael Pineda), seen established 2021 contributors regress (Jeimer Candelario, Akil Baddoo) and received nowhere near the help they expected from their top two free-agent signings. Javier Baez is hitting just .227/.269/.378 on the year, while lefty Eduardo Rodriguez has pitched just 39 innings due to injury and to time spent away from the team while dealing with a reported marital issue. Rodriguez is expected to return this weekend (Twitter link via Evan Woodbery of MLive.com), but the team’s season has clearly already gone off the rails.
Any of these woes, in isolation, would perhaps be manageable for a team to overcome. Taken in totality, however, there’s no reasonable way to expect a team to withstand that type of strain on the roster. The dam finally burst last week when the Tigers fired general manager Al Avila.
The Tigers will have a new general manager within the coming months, but it’s not yet clear just how said executive and how owner Chris Ilitch envision fixing the mess that has been the 2022 season. That much was true even before the Tigers learned that their top young starter required surgery to repair a flexor tendon. Skubal made 21 starts this season and pitched to a solid 3.52 ERA with an above-average 24.5% strikeout rate, a strong 6.7% walk rate and a quality 45.7% grounder rate.
Prior to his injury, Skubal’s development was one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise calamitous Tigers season, but he’ll now add to the daunting sense of uncertainty that permeates the roster. The Tigers control Skubal and Mize through the 2026 season. Manning is controllable through 2027. Torkelson and Greene can be controlled through at least 2028.