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March 25, 2010

Team Health Reports

Tampa Bay Rays

by Will Carroll

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Team Health Reports

The Summary: The Tampa Bay medical team is one of the most noticed in the business. Starting with James Andrews and Koco Eaton at the top, the organization has made health a focus since even before the Sternberg era began. There are questions as to whether they're too risk-averse and too conservative, however. There's no question it's effective or that consistency is hyper-valued in this organization, so having no surprises when a player returns probably is a good fit. They've fallen on both sides of risk-aversion, trading away players that they couldn't predict and bringing in players like Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen when the cost was low enough to avert any real downside. The fault seems to be a lack of imagination, more than any real medical lack. Aside from Scott Kazmir's mixed results and the challenge of keeping a generation of upcoming (and often previously damaged Rice University) pitchers healthy, there's never been something that could define athletic trainer Ron Porterfield's staff. To win in the AL East, they're going to have to stretch and find that.

The Facts
Days Lost: 962
Dollars Lost: $12,128,846.47
Injury Cost: $10,860,972.22
The Cost: Tampa Bay lost more money to injuries in 2009 than it had in the previous two years combined. The Rays total of $12.1 million lost in 2009 made up over half of their total loss for the previous three years at $22.1 million. Tampa Bay took risks on players like Percival and Pat Burrell and it hurt the Rays. Both players saw time on the disabled list in 2009 and Percival combined with Akinori Iwamura to cost the Rays $4.6 million. Percival and Iwamura have since found new residences, but unfortunately, Burrell has not. The Rays learned from their mistake with Percival and spent $7.25 million in the offseason on a younger closer in Rafael Soriano, who still poses his own risk. The Rays chose to keep their team intact much the way it was during the season and only B.J. Upton's recovery from a torn shoulder poses significant risk.

The Big Risk: There was no "Price Policy" or similar marketing slogan for the Rays the last couple seasons as they, like every other team in the majors, try to figure out how to walk the tightrope of need and hope, of usage and safety, when it comes to developing a young star pitcher. After breaking him in as a reliever during their playoff run in 2008, the Rays got nearly 130 innings out of Price last season as a good-not-great starter. Part of that was adjustment and part of that was the team around him, so expecting a great leap forward right now is pretty easy. Of course, that's also going to involve a leap in innings. He's 24, nearly out of the nexus, but will the Rays need to overtax him? It wouldn't be outrageous to think that Price and Jeremy Hellickson could "platoon" into 200 innings of solid starting, around 150 from Price, then 50 from Hellickson. The downside is that it's hard to break a rookie pitcher in during a playoff run, but Price has already shown that it is possible. How they do it and what they do with Price once he's close to his ceiling as a starter is another interesting question.

The Comeback: Soriano is almost a class of one. While ulnar nerve issues are a known risk with Tommy John surgery—John himself had to deal with it—it usually presents quickly after the operation. Soriano's came four years after he came back from having his elbow rebuilt, which made many wonder if it was connected at all. His 2009 season showed that he was back from the second surgery and as with Tommy John, there's a bit of a "reconnect" period after the nerve is moved. Given that, there's every reason to think that he can build off last year's numbers. There's no ulnar nerve honeymoon, but that surgery is corrective, not palliative. Watch his control. When he's healthy, it's great.

The Trend: Is it any coincidence that in a year when the team saw a spike in injury cost, they also saw their record go down a bit? No, of course it's not. While most of the problems were traumatic or a fluke, there were some signs here that will have to be addressed. The pen was filled with accepted risk and that blew up on them, something it could do again this year. The Rays' consistency at the helm could end up being its strength as I expect the injury stats to correct back quickly to their normal top 10 levels.

The Ratings

Red light CF B.J. Upton: There's some positives here, but his '09 campaign seems defined by the shoulder surgery that started his season and the nearly empty home run totals he had at the end. The power never came back and while some are saying that it takes a year to come all the way back, there's not much to hang that on. Upton was worse in the second half and battled some leg problems as well. There's some that think Upton is pushing a bit, trying not to let his brother overshadow him. We all saw how good he can be in the '08 playoffs, but sometimes that shining moment is fleeting.
Yellow light 2B Ben Zobrist: The big knock here is that Zobrist tends to get small injuries in the second half. He didn't last year, but he did fall off his torrid pace some. Maybe that's fatigue, or maybe it's just coming back to earth. Zobrist will play multiple positions and that athleticism counteracts any positional change risk. The more time at second base he gets, the closer to red, but he'd be yellow at all but DH.
Yellow light SP Jeff Niemann: Niemann's big innings jump has to be taken into account, but there's not much about him that's normal. He was out of minor-league options and had an extensive injury history, but in his first really healthy season, he made the most of it last year. That he even had that chance is a testament to sports medicine, but he'll need to keep hoping he's on the right side of Paeon.
Yellow light SP David Price: See The Big Risk.
Yellow light SP Wade Davis: Like most young pitchers, Davis' major concern is pitching deep into the season and hitting a fatigue wall. The depth that the Rays have should make this situation moot. It's just a matter of spotting guys in, skipping days when possible, and hoping that no injuries begin really testing that depth.
Yellow light CL Rafael Soriano: See The Comeback.
Yellow light RP J.P. Howell: That yellow looks prescient, if a bit subdued. Howell's under-the-radar shoulder issues have kept him out all spring and there's no timetable for his return. Makes you wonder whether or not the Soriano deal was done knowing Howell was chilled.
Green light C Dioner Navarro
Green light 1B Carlos Pena: Pena is lesson No. 1 in why baseball needs better batting gloves. Maybe something like the XProTex gloves we've seen this spring might have helped or maybe not, but they'd have been better than nothing. Pena should be fine; as always, broken bones heal.
Green light 3B Evan Longoria
Green light SS Jason Bartlett
Green light LF Carl Crawford: Crawford is just shy of the yellow zone, but he had a year where his hamstrings didn't act up. That's a good sign, as is his commitment to stretching. In a contract year, I'll take the risk that he has a recurrence of his leg problems and bid the extra dollar.
Green light RF Matt Joyce
Green light DH Pat Burrell: Burrell showed up to camp looking, well, svelte. He didn't even look like himself. We'll see whether the bat that didn't act like his last season transforms as well.
Green light SP James Shields
Green light SP Matt Garza


Related Content:  Rafael Soriano,  Year Of The Injury

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