Prince Fielder has been one of the most durable players in the major leagues over the course of his career. That made it even more stunning when his 547 consecutive-games-played streak came to a halt as he went from sore neck to season-ending surgery in just a matter of days. The Texas Rangers announced on Thursday that Fielder is likely to need major surgery on his spine, pending a second opinion, ending his 2014 season and putting his career in question.
Fielder was diagnosed with a herniated disc over the weekend, but after a consultation with top spinal surgeon (and Rangers team doctor) Dr. Drew Dossett, it was found that the disc injury was severe enough that Fielder would need to have a spinal fusion. In this operation, the disc between two or more vertebrae is removed and replaced by rigid hardware that maintains the space between the vertebrae. Flexibility and motion are sacrificed for stability.
This operation would likely be very similar to the one Peyton Manning underwent three years ago. The surgery cost Manning a full NFL season, but he came back at a very high level, ultimately leading the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl last season. There is a big difference between an NFL quarterback and an MLB slugger, but they had similar symptoms, notably weakness in the shoulder.
That loss of shoulder strength was the major issue, beyond pain, for Fielder. After attempting to take batting practice in spite of the weakness, manual tests by the medical staff showed a difference in strength from side to side. This is a major indication of nerve impingement. If the nerve is impinged (pinched) by the swollen disc for an extended period, it can take time before strength and function return.
With Fielder, the recovery should be relatively easy. Rehab is more about stability and function, but this tends to be restored organically as the nerves are released by the fusion. Given the weakness is on Fielder's left side, it shouldn't affect him as much. It is the back arm on his lefty swing, but he throws with his right hand, albeit not that often as a first baseman.
A fusion will take between two and three months to heal, but functionally, it could take longer for the strength and mobility to return. In addition, Fielder may undergo "prehab" in order to prepare him for the surgery, which could take a couple of weeks, delaying the surgery. Fielder is also going to get a second opinion, with Dr. Robert Watkins, the surgeon that performed Manning's surgery, likely doing the examination.
There is little reason to think that Fielder will not be ready to return by spring training next year, though complications are always possible. The Rangers are protected by insurance if Fielder misses a full year, and therefore won't receive any compensation this season.
Losing Fielder is bad enough, but the Rangers also lost top prospect Jurickson Profar after a setback in his rehabilitation from a shoulder injury suffered during spring training. This comes on top of losing Matt Harrison for the season, perhaps longer, with a spinal injury of his own and a number of other injuries.
I asked Bleacher Report's Scott Miller about his reaction to Fielder's injury.
"During all of Fielder's ultra-productive years, the one thing that kept screaming in the back of baseball people's minds has been that body," Miller said. "It is a body that industry insiders have been predicting will break down for years. But until now, it hadn't. Fielder's durability has been almost as impressive as his production.
"Since his first full season in 2006 at 22, he has never played in fewer than 157 games. He's played in all 162 in each of the past three seasons and in four of the past five. Now, at 30 and with a serious surgery ahead of him, you wonder if this is the time all of those predictions of doom are cashing in."
Miller's opinion is dead on.
It wasn't the body that failed him or the weight that wore him down. Instead, it was a neck injury that gave little reason to believe it would be a serious issue prior to this week. That said, there is open discussion that Fielder's reduced power numbers were the result of this neck injury, suggesting Fielder played through it for an extended period.
Fielder will be the 14th Ranger added to the disabled list. For a team that normally ranks among the most healthy franchises in baseball, it has been a season defined and devastated by injuries.