It was as recent as last February that industry publication Baseball American deemed Wolfson High School (Jacksonville, Fla.) product Eric Hurley the third-best prospect in the Texas Rangers' then-burgeoning farm system, ultimately appraising him as a "mid-rotation starter in the Kevin Millwood mold" and correctly projecting a mid-season call-up that came to fruition when veteran right-hander Sidney Ponson was designated for assignment following a series of "disrespectful and adverse reactions" in early June 2008.
Hurley was solid, if not spectacular in 22.2 innings of work spanning June 12-29, crafting a 3.57 ERA and 1.28 WHIP through his first four major league starts but never consistently flashing the mid-90s heat that facilitated his emergence as one of the safer bets among the Rangers' high-quality stable of young arms to contribute meaningful major league innings in the years to come.
Never has that long-term optimism been in greater jeopardy.
Multiple local media sources, including Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, are reporting that Hurley underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff and a frayed right labrum on Wednesday, effectively ending his 2009 campaign before it ever had the opportunity to get started.
Sidelined over the final two months of the 2008 season by what was initially diagnosed as a one-start injury -- right biceps tendinitis -- following a horrendous two-inning effort in Oakland on July 27th during which he never topped 88 miles per hour, Hurley received a cortisone injection in early August and undertook an extensive rehabilitation program that lasted through December, but continued to experience discomfort.
A second opinion recently sought from renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lewis Yocum confirmed the diagnosis of Rangers team physician Dr. Keith Meister, who performed the procedure on Hurley at Medical Center of Arlington:
"We were hopeful that rehab would allow Eric to avoid surgery," general manager Jon Daniels said. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. I thought he could have impacted our club this year, but with the proper program, that should be realistic for the following season."
Hurley isn't expected to begin a throwing program for another three to four months, but there's really no point in attempting to conceal the ugly truth of the situation: shoulder injuries, while certainly not always fatal to the often fragile careers of pitchers, are exceedingly difficult to rehabilitate from while maintaining pre-injury degrees of effectiveness. Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez notably bounced back from arthroscopic surgery to repair a partially torn right rotator cuff during the 2002-2003 off-season and turned in a quality 15-start campaign for the Yankees in 2004, but such instances of immediate success following such serious procedures are the exception more so than the norm.
Assuming the Rangers execute no further signings or trades this winter (and note that I still remain at least moderately confident in a deal eventually being completed with free-agent right-hander Ben Sheets), the Opening Day starting rotation is probably going to comprise Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison and possibly -- though not definitely -- Scott Feldman. A strong showing in Surprise, Arizona and some early rotation-related attrition could have conceivably opened another pathway to Arlington for Hurley, but he was, in all likelihood, going to begin the 2009 season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, and it wasn't a tremendous stretch to think that the electric Double-A Frisco tandem of Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland would have surpassed Hurley in the organizational pitching hierarchy at some point, regardless.
Not that any of that amounts to any degree of consolation for Hurley, his family, the Rangers or their understandably shaken fan base.
On Friday morning, we'll briefly look backwards at a few of the more noteworthy moments of Hurley's meteoric rise and fall last summer and unearth a few long-forgotten quotes that were ultimately more significant than they seemed at the time.