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Bern’s-Eye View: Injured UNLV pitcher still in for big payday

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV baseball pitcher Erick Fedde throws in the bullpen during a media availability day Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014.

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UNLV pitcher Erick Fedde is expected to be a first-round draft pick in June.

Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft starts at 4 p.m. today on MLB Network. UNLV pitcher Erick Fedde won’t be healthy for about a year, but before the sun goes down he’ll hear his name called and become an instant millionaire.

It doesn’t matter that Fedde missed the last three weeks of the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Fedde’s Tommy John surgery — named after the first pitcher to get the experimental procedure performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 — went well on Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Before the injury he was a fringe top-10 prospect. And now? Well, top 20 sounds just fine.

Fedde hasn’t dropped out of the first round in any mock drafts, most often going at No. 18 to join fellow Las Vegas native Bryce Harper with the Washington Nationals organization. Both attended Las Vegas High.

What once could have been a catastrophic setback for a kid a month away from realizing his dream is now a bump in the road so slight you’re not sure you ran over anything at all. This is baseball’s current reality as general managers keep searching for the next great arm knowing full well it’s more likely than ever to break down.

Tommy John surgeries are on a record pace in the major leagues this season.

When Miami Marlins 21-year-old ace Jose Fernandez went down with the injury a few days after Fedde, he was at least the 34th pitcher throughout MLB’s levels to need the procedure. It kicked off a national conversation about what, exactly, could be done about all these young arms going on the shelf.

The conclusion? Not much.

Dr. James Andrews, whose name has become almost as synonymous with the surgery as John himself, recently released an official position on what he calls an “epidemic” of UCL tears. His conclusion sounds about as simple as the one a random fan would come up with.

“Do not always pitch with 100 percent effort,” Andrews wrote. “… The professional pitcher’s objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.”

Control over speed. That’s great in theory, but as soon as a 90-mph fastball isn’t getting the job done a pitcher that can goes back to 94 to get results.

And at this point pitchers in that range — regularly throwing at least 94 mph or higher — are expected to break down. That’s what UNLV manager Tim Chambers told me a few weeks ago, and there’s support for his view within MLB front offices.

“Now it’s almost part of your development to go through it,” Pirates special assistant to the general manager Jim Benedict told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s been a little bit disturbing that it’s an accepted practice.”

Part of it is surely linked to overuse and inadequate rest, particularly at a young age. But pitching is a very violent thing to do to your body over and over, so no one can be surprised when the arm breaks down.

The good news is that the procedure has become so standard that about 90 percent of pitchers return to their production level before the injury. Doctors take a tendon, usually from the non-pitching forearm, and attach it in place of the torn UCL.

Whatever team takes Fedde or East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman, another first-round prospect who just had the surgery, knows there’s a risk. Although it could be argued that having the surgery now puts those two guys in a slightly better position than other young pitchers who figure to need the procedure at some point in the future, because they’re getting it out of the way.

If the Nationals do end up drafting Fedde there are a couple of guys at the major-league level he could compare scars with: Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg.

Both guys had Tommy John surgery within the last five years. On Tuesday night, Zimmerman threw eight scoreless innings in a victory and Strasburg followed on Wednesday with 11 strikeouts through seven innings.

Fedde’s going to be just fine.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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