The positive news for J.A. Happ is that he will accompany the Phillies to Atlanta, and the team is confident enough in his sore left elbow that it has announced plans for him to throw off the mound in a bullpen session on Thursday afternoon.
Beyond that, his status is like that of many an injured pitcher -- to be determined.
An MRI today revealed a "mild flexor pronator muscle strain" in Happ's elbow, the Phillies said in a statement this afternoon.
"J.A. has been progressing and improving since then, but we will take a conservative approach and skip his next start," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a statement. "He is scheduled for a bullpen session on Thursday.”
After that bullpen session, the Phillies will presumably decide how to proceed. Because the team would not need a replacement until Saturday, they can afford to wait to decide whether to put Happ on the disabled list. Even if the Phillies decide after his bullpen session on Thursday to DL him, they will be able to back-date the move to Thursday, when Happ last appeared in a game. Such a move would enable the team to activate him on or after Saturday, May 1.
In other words, even if Happ does end up needing some time on the DL, the Phillies will be able to play with a full roster until Saturday. If Happ is unable to make the start on Saturday, the team could call on long reliever Nelson Figueroa, although a more likely call would be made to Lehigh Valley, where righthander Andrew Carpenter is available to make a spot start. Whoever starts Saturday, the Phillies would not need him to make another start until Tuesday, May 4 at the latest.
So the Phillies could get Happ 18 days of rest (April 16-May 3), and only start one game with a pitcher who was not in the Opening Day rotation. They also expect righthander Joe Blanton, who is making his first rehab start tomorrow, to re-join the rotation by then.
History suggests that the Phillies will play it very, very safe with Happ. Although manager Charlie Manuel said he wasn't aware of his elbow soreness until Friday, Happ admitted after his performance Thursday that there were times dating back to spring training when the ball didn't seem to be coming out of his hand as well as it had in the past. During the last two innings of his first start of the season, when he held the Astros scoreless for 5.1 innings but threw 103 pitches in doing so, there were several times when he could be seen subtly shaking his arm and flexing his fingers after a pitch.
Manuel said Sunday that Happ is the type of player who will keep quiet about an injury. It wasn't until well after his 2007 debut that the Phillies found out that he was battling soreness in his elbow. He pitched the entire year in the minors, but finished with a 5.02 ERA and walked a career-high 4.7 batters-per-nine-innings.
After his performance Thursday, he said he wasn't hurt, and that he did not have any long-term concerns about his arm.
But even though the Phillies have described Happ's muscle strain as "very mild," mild elbow injuries have a tendency to turn into major elbow injuries.
Just last April, Blue Jays starter Jesse Litsch went on the disabled list with what was described at the time as a "mild flexor pronator muscle strain" and wound up missing the rest of the season after undergoing elbow surgery.
In a previous post, we detailed various pitchers who missed varying amounts of time after being diagnosed with the ubiquitous "forearm tightness" that was initially given to Happ.
The flexor muscle is different than the flexor tendon, which J.C. Romero strained last season en route to elbow surgery (his was described as a mid-grade strain), and which Brad Lidge battled during spring training and ultimately had repaired during the offseason.
Two young pitchers who have made recent successful returns after short absences from a strained flexor pronator muscle include Ian Snell and Felix Hernandez.
Snell missed 15 days in 2008, but returned to start 15 games with a 4.81 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 78.1 innings.
Hernandez spent close to a month on the DL in April and May of 2007, but returned to go 12-6 with a 4.16 ERA in 27 starts and 173 innings the rest of the way.
As it stands now, here is the Phillies rotation for the next three days, plus a projection for the rest of the road trip.
- Tue - ATL - Kyle Kendrick
- Wed - ATL - Roy Halladay
- Thu - ATL - Jamie Moyer
- Fri - ARI - Cole Hamels
- Sat - ARI - Spot starter/Happ
- Sun - ARI - Kendrick
- Mon - SFG - Halladay
- 4/27 - SFG - Moyer
- 4/28 - SFG - Hamels
- 4/29 - OFF - OFF
- 4/30 - NYM - Kendrick/Blanton
- 5/1 - NYM - Halladay
- 5/2 - NYM - Kendrick/Blanton/Moyer
- 5/3 - STL - Hamels
- 5/4 - STL - Kendrick/Blanton/Moyer