Izturis eager to force decision at short

Izturis eager to force decision at shortstop

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Grady Little on Thursday wouldn't say that All-Star shortstop Cesar Izturis will be a second baseman when he returns from his injured elbow.

He wouldn't say Izturis would be a shortstop, either.

It's an issue Dodgers management has sidestepped since Rafael Furcal signed. But with both All-Star shortstops reporting to Dodgertown on Thursday as they continue recovering from injuries, Little did say he won't allow the potential traffic jam in the middle of the infield to fester.

"When I was raising my son, I didn't wait until he got run over by a car before I told him not to play in the street," said Little, applying homespun logic to his first Dodgers dilemma. "I can't tell you a lot about it until I talk with the kid himself. But I'm going to do it sooner rather than later."

The "kid" would be the 26-year-old Izturis, even though entering his fifth season with the Dodgers he is tied for second with Odalis Perez for longest tenure on the team behind Eric Gagne. Izturis, an All-Star shortstop last year, had his 2005 season deteriorate with injuries and end with Sept. 16 Tommy John elbow reconstruction, rare for an infielder.

Because the prognosis for Izturis' complete recovery is uncertain, new general manager Ned Colletti paid a high price to sign Furcal to a three-year, $39 million free-agent contract, figuring Furcal would be an immediate double replacement for Izturis at shortstop and leading off the batting order.

But with Izturis in camp and predicting an early return, sooner or later Little will have two shortstops for one position. The most likely solution, if and when Izturis is healthy, is to move him to second base, slide 38-year-old Jeff Kent to first base and send new first baseman Nomar Garciaparra to the outfield. That's a lot of moving parts, transferred skills and potentially bruised egos through which Little must navigate.

Ultimately, a position change for Izturis could be doctor's orders.

"My feeling is, at second base with the shorter throw, he'd be OK," said Dr. Frank Jobe, originator of the Tommy John procedure who teamed with Dr. Ralph Gambardella on Izturis' operation. "The throw from shortstop puts much more stress and pressure on the elbow."

The original prognosis on Izturis was a midseason return, although his injury and operation were more complicated than the typical pitcher who undergoes the Tommy John procedure. In Izturis' case, a tendon was harvested from his left wrist and transplanted into his right elbow to replace a stretched ligament.

Unlike most pitchers, however, Izturis' ligament injury on the inside of his elbow is compounded by a degenerative arthritic condition on the outside of his elbow called osteochondritis dessicans (OCD), in which the bone deteriorates because of blood-flow loss, causing pain. Typically, it's the result of overuse before the bone has matured. Instability in the elbow from Izturis' stretched ligament aggravated the OCD.

Jobe invented the ligament transplant as a solution for Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, but there is no simple cure for OCD. Dodgers doctors employed one popular treatment on Izturis, drilling microscopic holes into the affected bone to stimulate blood flow and trigger a regrowth of cartilage.

But success of the procedure isn't easily predicted, nor are the chances that Izturis' elbow will ever again be able to handle the demands of throws from shortstop, which come from many angles with high torque.

"We made every effort to get the ligament as tight as we could and picked at the bone until it bled and we're hoping the cartilage regrows with good quality," said Jobe.

The onset of OCD is most commonly found in adolescents and even young racehorses and dogs. Izturis said he was a pitcher from the age of 8 to 14 and remembers having to shut down his baseball activities for a while after bowling. Jobe said that would fall into the likely timeframe of the condition.

Jobe's recommendation aside, Izturis is optimistic. He predicts he will be playing by early June because his rehabilitation has gone without the usual setbacks, which Jobe credits to Izturis' adherence to a prescribed rehabilitation program. Izturis credits that to the hiring of a personal rehab therapist that joined him in Venezuela over the winter.

"I've been throwing for two weeks. I'm up to 40 feet," said Izturis, who blew out in the first year of a three-year, $9.9 million contract. "No pain, but I feel a little intimidated when I throw."

He said his spirits have been lifted by the comeback of Cincinnati's Ray Olmedo, another Venezuelan shortstop who has returned from Tommy John surgery in 2004.

"I didn't believe another shortstop had this, but he did, so I went to talk to him and see him play in winter ball and he's got a great arm now," said Izturis. "He said, 'Don't worry about it, it will be fine.' The guy is amazing. He came back in about nine months. He made me confident I could come back."

That confidence was missing when doctors first explained what was causing the pain in Izturis' arm and what it would take to fix it.

"I almost cried," he said. "It was shock. I thought, maybe a chip or something. A little problem, but not like this. I had to talk to a lot of people. But life is a lot of ups and downs. The year before, it was great for me. Last year, not good."

He said he plans to remain a shortstop, but he doesn't blame Colletti for signing Furcal.

"If I was the general manager," he said, "I'd have done the same thing. I mean, I thought they would get somebody, but I didn't know it would be a three-year deal. But I understand. They don't know when I'll be back. He was a free agent and he's a great player. For the team, it's good. That's the way I have to take it.

"But moving positions? That's not in my mind. I'm concentrating on getting my elbow strong and if it's like it used to be, then they'll have to make the decision."

Furcal said he and Izturis spoke when they saw each other in the training room Thursday, Izturis working on his elbow, Furcal working on a right knee that underwent arthroscopic surgery a month ago.

"We're close friends," said Furcal, who expects to be 100 percent sooner than Opening Day. "I told him this [shortstop situation] wasn't my fault and it wasn't his fault. He said he's happy I'm here. It's nothing personal. We both just want to win."

But Furcal said if somebody is moving off shortstop, he doesn't expect it to be him.

"When I signed, I understand they want me to play shortstop for three years," he said. "If I'm playing, I think for the next three years I'm playing shortstop."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.