Most know by now that Rays number four prospect Hak-Ju Lee is likely out for the season with torn knee ligaments. It happened Saturday afternoon as he attempted to turn a double play. With the bases loaded and one out, Chris Archer induced a high chopper to second base from Orioles minor league L.J. Hoes, a player who has stolen 20 bases in three seasons. Second baseman Tim Beckham shoveled the ball to Lee, but he was moving away from the base and didn't get much on the flip. Perhaps he could've attempted to tag Travis Ishikawa running by and then thrown to first to finish the play, or maybe he could've set his feet to try to get more on the throw. Regardless, trying to turn the double play, Lee stepped into the baseline to receive the ball where he was unprotected against the sliding Ishikawa.
There's never a good time for serious injuries like this, but this is especially poor for Lee who was having a great start to the season. His 19.3% walk rate was extremely good, his 15.8% strikeout rate was lower than it's ever been in the Rays organization, his batting average was up, he was still stealing bases efficiently, and he was even adding more power than usual. He surely wouldn't have continued his 1.136 OPS pace, but if his swing had improved as has been reported (ESPN, $), then maybe he would've continued rehabilitating his stock to pre-2012 levels.
As of now, Lee hasn't had surgery yet, and it hasn't even been announced which specific ligaments have been torn; however, an injury like this isn't new in sports, and some of the effects can be predicted. From my amateur doctor Google searching expeditions, ACL tears are more likely to affect athletes than people performing normal, everyday actions while MCL and LCL tears affect everyone. As far as I can tell, Lee's game after rehab will be tested in two major ways. The ACL is important for lateral movements, and obviously lateral quickness in the field supplies a lot of Lee's value. The MCL and LCL provide stability for the knee while it's moving. Lee's left knee was injured, and that's his back leg in the batter's box. With the rotation a hitter puts on his back leg while swinging, stability and strength in that knee is absolutely vital.
Baseball players have come back from knee ligament tears before, and they'll do it again. Using the Pro Sports Transaction search feature, I went back to 2002 looking for major leaguers that tore knee ligaments. It's not a perfect list because one team's tear might be another's sprain, and maybe some players were put on the DL without a reason being given. Nevertheless, this is what I came up with.
The time frame for most recoveries is about the same. With only a couple exceptions, players will be ready to start next season in spring training. There are a few things that stand out here. Rarely, a player can reaggravate the injury. Mat Gamel and Scott Sizemore did so nearly immediately, while Chris Snelling just seemed to spend an entire career wearing down. Some players are able to return incredibly quickly, such as Jose Valentin. It was determined that his injury did not require surgery, and such a determination for Lee would mean he could be back in action for instructs in October.
An injury like this affects players in different ways. Of course no two injuries are alike, and Lee could be affected more than a number of these players depending on the severity. Lateral quickness is much more important to a shortstop than B.J. Surhoff, but there is precedent for middle infielders returning from similar injuries. Because every player and situation is different, it's impossible to say how Lee will play upon returning, but it appears to be a pretty safe bet that come spring training 2014, he'll be on the field.
Where does this leave the Rays? The focus shifts to two players: Yunel Escobar and Tim Beckham. Esocbar has gotten off to a dreadful start at the plate, but he's playing for a contract. With the Rays holding team options for Escobar valued at $5 million for 2014 and 2015, continued solid defense plus an improvement at the plate could keep him in town for up to two more years. The Rays would love nothing more than for Escobar to have a season like 2011 and feel comfortable going into 2014 knowing that Lee's injury did not hurt them in the short term.
At Durham, Tim Beckham's playing time at shortstop will surely increase. The former number one overall pick is just one step away from the majors, but he still has a lot to prove. Last week, writer and former scout Bernie Pleskoff had a number of positive things to say after watching Beckham, and he has been heating up a bit since then. He's still just 23, and maybe getting in better shape will help him regain the tools he flashed as an amateur. For now without Lee, the spotlight is on him with the Bulls.