Bautista has partial UCL tear but could pitch again in '23

September 11th, 2023

BALTIMORE -- It’s been a little more than two weeks since the Orioles lost their All-Star closer, as Félix Bautista sustained an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on Aug. 25 and then went on the 15-day injured list the following day.

Since then, there hadn’t been a ton of clarity regarding Bautista’s situation. But on Monday afternoon, general manager Mike Elias met with the media at Camden Yards and dove deeper into the status of the 28-year-old right-hander.

Let’s get into the finer details of Bautista’s ailment, his outlook and more regarding his future.

What exactly is Bautista’s injury?
When Bautista went on the IL, Baltimore classified it as a “right UCL injury” without any further details. On Monday, Elias confirmed there’s a partial tear to Bautista’s ligament.

“That would be an accurate description of it,” Elias said. “He’s a guy who’s been pitching, and pitching hard, for a while. It’s probably best characterized as an acute-on-chronic injury to his ligament.”

It’s far from the worst-case scenario, as a full tear would have likely led to Bautista immediately undergoing Tommy John surgery. Instead, there are other paths for the Orioles to take before deciding whether he’ll eventually need to get the complete reconstructive procedure.

Could Bautista pitch again in 2023?
As of right now, yes. Bautista has been playing catch on flat ground in recent days, and Baltimore is hopeful his right elbow will continue to respond well to that, which has been the case thus far.

“I think the fact that we’re keeping him throwing right now speaks to the fact that this is not over for 2023,” Elias said. “It’s just going to depend on how he feels as we keep this going. But right now, this is our approach.”

It’s a “conservative” approach, as Elias later called it. But with three weeks to go in the regular season -- and a potentially long postseason run to follow -- the Orioles aren’t ruling out Bautista’s return or planning to shut him down in the immediate future.

What is the short-term plan for Bautista?
Bautista will continue to throw, but if he’s going to eventually pitch again for Baltimore, he’ll need to progress from there.

“Eventually, if we were going to continue to receive solid results or a lack of interruption or a lack of resistance to stretching him out, at some point, we would get him on the mound,” Elias said.

While Elias said it would be desired for Bautista to pitch again in the regular season rather than having his return come in the heart of October, nothing is being ruled out at the moment.

What is the long-term plan for Bautista?
Even though Bautista isn’t planning to undergo an operation right now -- Tommy John surgery or any other procedure -- that doesn’t mean he may not need one in the future. It’s also possible he could have surgery as soon as this offseason, depending on how the next month-plus unfolds.

In meeting with doctors, the Orioles have been told that their current plan isn’t putting Bautista’s health in jeopardy. But there is some “significance” to the ligament tear, per Elias, who said the team will continue to discuss potential options with the righty into the winter.

“His career and his future and the team’s future are first and foremost in that,” Elias said. “So we’re very confident that everything that we’re doing is within the realm of not introducing any additional long-term risk to him or to his recovery or to his skill level.”

Why are the Orioles taking this approach?
Bautista is Baltimore’s best relief pitcher and one of the game’s elite closers. He had a 1.48 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP in 61 innings over 56 appearances this season, recording 33 saves and 110 strikeouts. He makes the Orioles’ bullpen considerably stronger at the back end.

So if the O’s can get Bautista back and have him pitch at close to that level, it boosts their odds of making a deep postseason run.

The Orioles are also at a point on the baseball calendar in which they can afford to take this approach. For example, if Bautista underwent Tommy John surgery either now or in November, he’d still miss the entire 2024 season and wouldn’t be in a position to return until ’25. So there’s no harm in trying to see if he can pitch through the partial tear, as long as no further damage is incurred.

“Right now, the medical advice that we’re getting and that we’re comfortable with is that this is a smart way to go right now,” Elias said. “If it leads to something else or it doesn’t work, we’ll still have those other options on the table and we’ll be no worse for the wear.”