Commentary

Carl Crawford had no choice

Tommy John surgery was inevitable, but timing could be debated

Updated: August 21, 2012, 12:49 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There is no second-guessing Carl Crawford's decision to undergo Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. David Ortiz nailed it Sunday night when he said, "Nobody has Tommy John because it's fun. Tommy John is a tough process."

There is more room to debate whether the Boston Red Sox erred in taking the more conservative route instead of opting for surgery earlier, since it now means Crawford for the second straight season will not be healthy in spring training and could open the 2013 season the way he did 2012, on the disabled list.

[+] EnlargeCarl Crawford
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesCarl Crawford worked extremely hard to make 2012 a success, but ultimately was limited to 31 games.

But remember, it was only late April when Crawford sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow, and with significant precedent of players who were able to play with the injury -- including Albert Pujols -- it was a calculated risk, but one worth taking, to see how Crawford would respond to treatment short of season-ending surgery.

The conspiracy theorists already are in full throat, saying that the team held off on surgery to perpetuate the illusion that they were still in contention, but that is (1) dismissing the player's own sense of commitment to his teammates and employers and (2) overstating the importance the team ascribed to Crawford in assessing their postseason chances. Remember, the Sox had the best record in baseball for the better part of four months in 2011 with Crawford making a negligible contribution.

The left fielder, highly sensitive to the perception that he was only piling on more disappointment onto the bust he was last season, gave it a month, and played better than he did over any similar stretch in 2011. But, as manager Bobby Valentine noted Sunday night, "From everything I gathered, the elbow situation is trending the wrong way.''

Crawford had made it known long before Monday's meeting with management and members of the medical team that, in his mind, surgery was an inevitability and that it could come sooner than later.

Crawford worked extremely hard to give it a shot. No one can fault his effort. And when it comes to injuries, you second-guess a man at your own peril -- otherwise we haven't learned anything from Jacoby Ellsbury, circa 2010. Crawford knows his own body better than anyone else, and what he can and cannot tolerate.

And despite the empty returns of the first two years of Crawford's seven-year, $142 million contract, the Red Sox have a long-term investment to protect. Admittedly, that investment looks worse by the day, especially since given his age and his primary asset (his legs), the Sox could reasonably have expected the greatest returns at the front end of his deal.

There is a sinking sense, given the magnitude of the injury and the other difficulties Crawford has faced in making the adjustment to playing here, that the Sox may never see the player they thought they were getting. There's a strong dose of New England pessimism in that view; there are examples of players who were thought to be injury-prone and in decline but ended up being at the top of their game in their 30s -- even some who didn't play in the steroid era.

Perhaps the best example is Paul Molitor, who five times in his 20s failed to play as many as 120 games in a season because of injuries.

But in six seasons between ages 31 and 36, Molitor polished credentials that ultimately earned him entry to the Hall of Fame. He played in 154 games or more in five of those six seasons, posted a batting line of .317/.385/.470/.855, and stole 20 or more bases four times.

No one here is suggesting that Crawford's career is destined to take a Hall of Fame arc. His numbers for Tampa Bay fell far short of Molitor's --.296/.337/.444/.781. He'll never steal 50 bases a year, which is what he averaged from 2003 to 2010 with the Rays. But it is also premature to predict that Crawford's career has gone into an irreversible decline.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, will prepare to go on without him. Daniel Nava, who performed so well in Crawford's absence until his own wrist issue put him on the disabled list, is rehabbing in Pawtucket and will undoubtedly receive a summons to return. Any fading hopes the team has of making a belated run for the postseason will depend far less on their left fielder than on whether the pitching can finally come together, a dubious proposition at best. It would help, too, to have David Ortiz back in the lineup.

And Crawford will take care of No. 1, an act that is anything but selfish.

"If I were him, I'd do exactly what he's doing, taking care of it,'' Ortiz said Sunday night. "Life continues.''

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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