Has The Hard Road For Joel Zumaya Finally Reached Its End?

Will Joel Zumaya decide to call it a career after his latest serious elbow injury? Five years of failed comeback attempts may have taken a physical and mental toll on the fireballing reliever.

It may not have been a surprise, but that doesn't make it any less sad.

Yet again, Joel Zumaya's right arm couldn't withstand the effort it takes for him to ramp up his blazing fastball. His first spring training with the Minnesota Twins lasted only 13 pitches, as he felt pain in his right elbow while throwing a curveball and cut his throwing session short.

Initial hopes were that Zumaya just broke up scar tissue in the elbow, much as the Twins saw with Joe Nathan last year. But anyone who's followed Zumaya's career over the past five years knows that he's never that fortunate. The injury bullet always seems to have his name on it, and this latest incident was no exception.

An MRI exam revealed a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of Zumaya's right elbow, an injury that will end his 2012 season before it really had a chance to begin. At this point, you have to think this could be the end of Zumaya's major league career, as well.

That question was already being asked after last season, when Zumaya couldn't complete a comeback from his previous elbow injury. After the season ended, the Tigers finally decided that they couldn't invest any more time and money in a pitcher who spent the majority of the past five seasons recovering and rehabbing from one injury or another with little success.

So Zumaya decided to shop his services elsewhere and as you might expect, virtually every team in baseball was interested in someone who can throw as hard as he can. But given his injury history, potential suitors didn't want to commit to a major league contract until he could get through spring training healthy. Only the Twins seemed willing to take that chance.

Maybe the proverbial change of scenery, along with a new set of doctors, trainers and coaches could yield different results. Unfortunately, we now know that this story turned out the same way it did with the Tigers. The way Zumaya throws may ramp up 100 m.p.h. fastballs, but it also places extreme stress on his arm. Maybe a human arm just wasn't meant to throw a baseball that hard. At least not the way Zumaya does it.

After so many comeback attempts that fell short, you can't help but wonder just how much longer Zumaya wants to put himself through this. He admitted those doubts last year, acknowledging that perhaps it was time for him to look for another line of work if his elbow didn't recover. But as long as a major league team is willing to pay the kind of money that really can't be made doing anything else (the Twins signed him to a one-year $850,000 deal, with $400,000 guaranteed), who could blame Zumaya for continuing to try pitching?

Unfortunately, the wear and tear on that right elbow is proving to be too much to overcome. If Zumaya wants to try yet another comeback next year, his torn UCL will require reconstructive (Tommy John) surgery. The procedure could make his arm as healthy as it's been in years.

But is Zumaya willing to slog through another grueling year of rehab, just to get to the point where he might be able to pitch again? And even if Tommy John repairs his arm to full strength, does Zumaya still have to address the way he throws a baseball? (Twins Daily does a nice job of showing the problem.) Otherwise, couldn't this same ordeal take place all over again?

From reports out of Twins camp on Monday morning, these are exactly the questions Zumaya is pondering right now.

"That's going to be a family decision," Zumaya said. "Right now, perspective is probably not. I know I'm young, but I'm going to probably be going on six surgeries if I get another one. I'm only 27 years old and I've taken a lot of wear and tear on my body, especially my arm, and then rehab -- it's a lot out of you. So I have a little 2 1/2-year-old; maybe it's time to move on. I'm a pretty dang good fisherman, so I might pursue professional fishing."

Maybe he and Jeremy Bonderman can start a show together, soon to be broadcast on NBC Sports Network Saturday mornings this summer. Check your cable and satellite listings.

Zumaya sure doesn't sound like someone who's ready to dust himself off and get back on the bull. In fairness, he's probably feeling pretty down after this latest injury. But over the past couple of years, his demeanor has changed noticeably. We weren't seeing the brash, bold gunslinger from 2006 who strutted out of the bullpen to Jimi Hendrix. In his place was a far more subdued player who seemed to have a sadness in his eyes.

Maybe that was Zumaya growing up. So much can change in six or seven years. But if we were also witnessing a player wrestling with some serious doubts, it would be understandable.

No player has captured the imagination and adoration of the Tigers fanbase in recent years like Zumaya did. (Justin Verlander might be there now, and maybe Prince Fielder will find his way there someday soon.) The desire to see him overcome his injuries and become the reliever (and eventual closer) so many of us dreamed of makes the fall that much more disappointing.

This might not be the end for Zumaya. Tommy John surgery could revitalize his career. But even if he manages a comeback, it will never quite live up to the promise Zumaya originally showed. We'll always have 2006, Tigers fans.

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