Reliever Gregg Olson may need radical surgery to repair or replace the torn ligament in his right elbow, a frightening possibility for a young pitcher who has had an outstanding first five seasons in the Orioles bullpen.
It also presents a difficult situation for the Orioles, who may have to decide Olson's future with the team without knowing what the future will bring.
Olson said earlier this week that one of the treatment possibilities presented to him over the past six weeks is a "Tommy John" tendon transplant, a surgical procedure that would figure to put him out of action for the 1994 season and put his career as one of the game's top closers in jeopardy.
"There are two possibilities," Olson said, "the Tommy John surgery or just sewing up the ligament. From what I understand, sewing up the ligament would give me only a 50-50 chance of coming back. The Tommy John surgery . . . I've heard mixed reviews."
The tendon transplant, which was developed and refined by Los Angeles orthopedic specialists Dr. Robert Kerlan and Dr. Frank Jobe, is a procedure in which a tendon is removed from the non-pitching arm and used to replace the torn elbow ligament. It first was used successfully on longtime major-league pitcher Tommy John nearly 20 years ago and has been performed on dozens of pitchers since then.
Olson visited Jobe last month in Los Angeles, and also has been under the care of Orioles orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein. Neither doctor was available for comment yesterday.
For the moment, Olson has chosen to try to rehabilitate the injury without surgery, following a course successfully employed by Nolan Ryan after he suffered a partial ligament tear in 1986. That strategy, however, has left the situation open-ended at a time when the Orioles need to know whether Olson will be able to pitch in 1994.
His contract situation was complicated even before Olson was forced out of action by the elbow soreness in early August. He is coming to the end of a two-year contract that leaves him eligible for arbitration and one year short of free agency. The team would have had to decide whether to sign him to a long-term contract or allow him to go to arbitration and risk losing him after next year.
Now, the decision is even more difficult. The Orioles have to weigh several factors before deciding whether even to offer Olson a contract for 1994.
Here's the deal: Olson will make $2.3 million for this season and stands to get a substantial raise in arbitration even if the outlook for a healthy 1994 season is not good. If the Orioles tender him a contract by Dec. 20, they must offer him a minimum of $1.84 million and easily could end up paying him more than $4 million for a lost season. If they don't tender him -- making him a free agent -- it would be a public relations disaster.
Those really are the only two choices the club has. Olson could agree to sign a lesser contract that is laden with performance incentives, but it seems more logical that he and agent Jeff Moorad will force the team to make a difficult decision.
Olson can't really lose. He will come away from the 1993 season with some brilliant numbers despite the injury, so his chances of earning a major payday in arbitration still are very good. Arbitration focuses entirely on past performance, so the injury should not have a significant effect on his 1994 salary.
"The injury, in a sense, only shortened the statistical record," Moorad said recently. "The 29 saves and his ERA [1.60] will set him up nicely for arbitration."
Since that is the case, the Orioles almost have to leave him untendered on Dec. 20 and then try to persuade him to come back under an incentive-laden contract.
That is not an attractive alternative for the team, because Olson has saved more games at 26 than any other pitcher in major-league history. He has made more than $4 million during his career with the club, but it likely still wouldn't sit well with fans if he were discarded the same way that the team disposed of Randy Milligan and several other players last December.
There is one other option. The club could go to arbitration and try to release Olson if he cannot pitch effectively next spring, but that would be risky. The collective bargaining agreement forbids clubs from releasing a player because he is injured.
Club president Larry Lucchino said he doesn't want to look that far ahead. The tender date is nearly three months away, and a lot can happen over that time.
"It's premature to reach any kind of medical conclusions," Lucchino said. "It's more appropriate for us to give the rest and rehabilitation some time."
Olson continues to shy away from talking about his contract status, but he says the situation is as confusing and complicated for him as it is for the club. He doesn't want to have surgery, but he is weighing all of the possibilities.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "Right now, my focus is on trying to get back as well as I can myself. I'm not that far off on my fastball, and my breaking ball is a step away. I feel with another three months of rehab, it's going to be fine."
There have been some encouraging workouts, but there remains the risk of severing the ligament completely. If that happens, the tendon transplant would be the only option.
The non-surgical option is the only one that leaves open the possibility that Olson will be able to pitch next spring. In the best-case scenario for a tendon transplant, Olson might be able to pitch late next season, but his recovery could take as long as two years, and there is no guarantee he will be the same pitcher he was before the injury.