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February 10, 2010
Team Health Reports
The Summary: Atlanta keeps on rolling, but with Bobby Cox hanging it up at the end of the season, maybe something will finally change. When Leo Mazzone left, nothing changed. When the team switched from their long-time trainer, nothing changed. In the end, Cox has been the defining force of the Braves for the last two successful decades. He slaps together bullpens out of nothing, never seems to find a closer, seems to understand and manage risk well, and burns out young pitchers a bit more than he should. The other face of the franchise is Chipper Jones, who can still hit, but is less and less healthy enough to do so. The mix of old and young has always left the Braves in the mid-pack of most injury numbers. That's not good or bad, but the consistency is another hallmark of Cox's tenure.
The Cost: The Braves lost $12.5 million last year and have lost $79 million over the last three years. That's enough to have easily paid for keeping Javier Vazquez around or all of Derek Lowe, plus much of the Tim Hudson extension. If you wanted to take a look at the first base issue, they could have avoided hoping that Troy Glaus stays together and signed Lowe plus Adam LaRoche and three LaRoche clones for the same amount. Perhaps the best suggestion I got from Twitter (@rmann18) is that they could have bought Mike Hampton all over again-and yes, he does factor into that number slightly.
The Big Risk: Jones didn't go anywhere, but in what might be his last year, he's going to need to stay more healthy in order to go out on an up note. Jones is unlikely to hit any of the gold-standard Hall of Fame benchmarks, yet he seems to be considered a lock for Cooperstown by most fans. Jones is simply treated differently than any other player. Cox allows Jones to very literally write his name in the lineup. We'll see whether Jones has learned that a healthy 120 games is better than hobbling through 140.
The Comeback: Hudson is coming back from Tommy John surgery. For a guy who had questionable mechanics when he was drafted, his elbow held up a long time before popping. Compare Hudson to John Smoltz at the time of their elbow surgeries, and there are some similarities. That isn't to say that Hudson will come back as a closer or anything less than what he was. Tommy John surgery is as "automatic" as it comes. The hard part is done by the time you see a player back on the field. They're not better, or faster ... just well rested and healthy. Look for Hudson to do pretty much what you'd expect from Tim Hudson, adjusted for age and that slight "oh yeah, I'm back in the big leagues" adjustment period in April and early May.
The Trend: As you can see from the cost, the Braves aren't in the good part of the injury rankings. Losing "just" $12.5 million last year-much of that on Hudson's time off-was actually a major improvement for the team. While some will point to the type of players they sign, that should be baked into the contracts those risky players sign. The question is whether this is a one-year aberration or the start of a more efficient period for the Braves and their med staff. While I will put much of the blame on the front office for tying one hand behind the back of the medical staff, they still have to do better. Much of the problem has been long-term injuries, so that whole "ounce of prevention" thing might make a nice sign over the training room door.
1B Troy Glaus: Glaus came off the scrap heap at the end of '09 and parlayed that into a deal with the Braves. No, I don't get it either. In limited playing time or maybe at DH, Glaus could be useful. He may even be useful as part of a platoon, even, but right now, he's the Braves' first baseman. Sure, Eric Hinske or even Jones could pick up the slack if/when Glaus goes down again. Sure, Freddie Freeman isn't so far away that he couldn't be up quickly and Glaus given a pat on the back and a ride to Hartsfield. Glaus strikes me as the type of player that says "we're going for it all in Cox's last year" more than "he's a placeholder."
3B Chipper Jones: As I said above, Jones could make the transition to part-time player and still be valuable. The Braves just don't seem to have an idea of how to do that. It would actually be fairly simple. Jones could play 50 games at third base, 50 games at first, and pinch hit in another 50. Let's assume that he'd get into 40 of those, playing the field in some cases. That's 140 games, or more than he could reasonably be expected to play starting at third. I haven't done the GIA-style calculations, but can someone tell me why this wouldn't work and increase Jones' chance of avoiding injury in what might be his last season?
SP Tommy Hanson: You know that "it" factor? Hanson has it. He walked up to a group of us at the Bellagio last year, made some small talk, went off to collect his award, and impressed everyone in the joint. He was even more impressive on the mound. He's facing an innings increase, but I'm not terribly worried about Hanson, short or long term.
SP Kenshin Kawakami: While everyone was paying attention to Daisuke Matsuzaka's lost season, they failed to notice his countryman following a too-typical pattern. Change the workout, change the workload, change the work pattern, and Japanese pitchers react by fatiguing about midseason. Some adjust, some don't. The Braves are really hoping Kawakami can adjust or, at the very least, have another good first half.
C Brian McCann: McCann spent last year dealing with some eye problems and had his LASIK re-done in the offseason. Brian, I know how you feel. That he did as well as he did last year is a testament to his determination and grit... Oh wait, let me pick another word, since grit in his eye was the start of the problem. McCann's yellow isn't that bad given that he's a catcher. Remember, the system doesn't know last year's injury was kind of fluky.
SP Jair Jurrjens: Jurrjens escaped the Verducci Effect in '09. Now we get to see if he can hold above the 200-inning level. Guys that do it twice in succession tend to hold their value. He's still young, so there's that risk, and then there's where he's pitching. I'll leave the worries about his K rate to others and just watch to see if he can pass the injury nexus.
SP Tim Hudson: Just yellow? Yes. Tommy John surgery is about as predictable as surgery gets. Hudson showed enough in his return to make everyone think he's going to be just fine.
CL Billy Wagner: Wagner came back from Tommy John surgery, got traded, and showed that he was back. Now he wants to show that he can still dominate. If he's healthy and hasn't lost too much due to age, he could be the best closer Cox has had in a while. Wagner's technically still in the post-TJ shoulder danger zone, but the offseason usually knocks that out.
RP Takashi Saito: Saito avoided Tommy John surgery with alternative therapies, but the ligament isn't at full strength. They held him together in Boston, but Atlanta's track record at keeping pitchers healthy puts Saito well into the yellow and actually just shy of red.
2B Martin Prado
CF Nate McLouth: McLouth is an interesting green. He's had some hamstring problems and isn't as young as most think he is, but he's also a lot better player than most expected. Funny thing is, I think he's precisely the type of player that will be just good enough to do this a long time, even with the occasional injury. If he ended up having Eric Byrnes' career-or hair-it wouldn't surprise me.
RF Matt Diaz
SP Derek Lowe: There was an interesting theory a couple years back that sinkerballers were a bit more healthy than most. Since they have to pronate to cause the sink, maybe that motion was protecting their arm. With Brandon Webb, Fausto Carmona, and Chien-Ming Wang all having various problems over the last couple years, maybe it's just that Lowe is a healthy pitcher and not the type of pitches he throws.