Jeff Francis likely sidelined

Last season, Colorado’s Jeff Francis dealt with pain in his throwing shoulder that eventually landed him on the DL. At the time, it was considered to be nothing major, but even after he returned from the DL, he was never the same, and ended up back on the shelf. Now it is being reported that he may undergo “exploratory surgery” on the same shoulder.

While Francis is not a stud fantasy pitcher, he can be very useful in NL-only and deep mixed leagues. Managers in such leagues are going to want to know what to expect from him in 2009, because he is a good source of wins and serviceable ratios and strikeouts.

So, what is going on with Francis, and what kind of production—if any—can you expect in 2009? In a situation like this, it makes most sense to look at the past, and see how it relates to what is going on in the present.

Rewind to 2008

Last season, he was put on the DL in June, and after three rehab starts, he returned to the Rockies in August, only to succumb to persistent shoulder pain toward the end of the month. He ended the season with a dismal 5.01 ERA and a 4-10 record, logging only 24 starts.

Last year, manager Clint Hurdle said, “He’s been suffering from an inconsistent arm slot since Opening Day…I don’t think he’s felt the inflammation since then, but it’s become more a part of the problem.” Unless Francis had been trying to alter his arm slot intentionally, you can figure that something was causing him to do so.

If pain from raising his arm and shoulder higher made him change his delivery, it probably indicates some form of rotator cuff-related pathology.

Progress is slow in 2009

Francis is still in the phase of his throwing program where he is throwing only on flat ground, and is currently throwing from 120 feet. He is behind schedule if he plans to be back by Opening Day. He had announced in January that he would not pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Canada.

When I hear the phrase “exploratory surgery,” I usually fear the worst. The term usually is used when it is uncertain what is causing a particular set of symptoms. He already has gone the route of rest, rehabilitation, cortisone injections and throwing programs. A recent MRI revealed the increasingly used “no structural damage.” Though this phrase is sometimes correct, it does not mean that nothing is wrong. Not in the least.

More concerning to me is when I read things like, “If it turns out that Francis does require surgery, he wants to have it as soon as possible so that it won’t affect his 2010 season.” What this means to me is that it is possible that those close to the situation fear that the surgery will reveal damage that will require season-ending surgery. A simple arthroscopic debridement would not end his season. A repair of the rotator cuff and/or labrum certainly would.

So, what is taking so long? Everything seems to be pointing to some form of rotator cuff pathology.

Francis has been quoted as saying, “I’ve done a lot of shoulder strengthening of the decelerator muscles. I had some instability and some weaknesses there. That’s what we’ve been working on the last three or four months.” The decelerator muscles are the rotator cuff muscles, primarily the external rotators (infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and teres minor).

In addition, Francis’ agent, Jim Lindell, has said that there is fluid build-up in the front of Francis’ shoulder and that it is “sore all the time.” These are not good signs. Fluid retention and pain in the area—especially after having a Cortisone injection—could indicate that the damage is more on the serious side.

If the problem is not structural, i.e. cartilage or bone, then the cause of the swelling must be ligament, tendon, joint capsule or muscle. It is anyone’s guess at this time, but we should find out soon enough.

Fantasy outlook

I would not expect the results of an exploratory surgery to lean in his favor. If he has yet to respond to conservative treatment, it is likely because more invasive intervention is necessary. Given his symptoms, this might not be a good thing. If I were an NL-only or deep mixed league manager who has yet to draft, I would put Francis on my “avoid” list—just take him off your draft board entirely. Even if he is able to return to action in ’09, he probably won’t start enough games to warrant a selection on draft day.

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