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April 19, 2010

Under The Knife

Abusing The Closer

by Will Carroll

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Francisco Rodriguez

It's hard to say that anything is normal about a game that goes 20 innings. The normal rules clearly don't apply, and things like pitch counts get thrown out the window. Since a team is constantly in a one-run environment and matchups are key, there's a period there in the middle where relievers get burned through, then things start to stretch out as both teams run out of available players. Since most games— over half—finish in the 10th or 11th inning, that's smart. The rest is pretty uncontrollable. One of the few things that is controllable is how often a player warms up, then is sat back down. It's something teams watch for and that has a pretty high "cost" to the arm. Baseball even has a term for it—"dry hump," for obvious reasons—and depending on the player, it can be pretty taxing. Hearing that Rodriguez did that nine times on Saturday goes beyond the weirdness of an extended game and well into abuse or just stupidity. After the game, the Mets admitted that Rodriguez had thrown "over 100 pitches while warming up" and "came into the game with a dead arm." Rodriguez is the epitome of the La Russa-era, one-inning reliever and basically started a game in the pen. Will he get five days rest? The last time Rodriguez did something like this, according to Kevin Goldstein, would have been nearly a decade ago, when he was at Single-A. How the Mets manage his recovery will be a very interesting one to watch.

Lance Berkman (post-knee surgery/arthritic knee, 4/21)

Berkman went 3-for-4 with a homer and a double in his second of two planned rehab games at Triple-A Round Rock, but none of that matters. What matters is how his knee did. Now, playing in the second of two games tells you that it wasn't bad after the first game. Berkman expects to be back in the Astros' lineup by Tuesday, saying that he doesn't need to be babied along. While I'd normally bristle at the bravado, Berkman's a bit more insightful here. He needs to get out there and do as much as he can while he can, because it's clear this is a problem that will linger. Just don't spin this as he's back "early." It's possible they can manage it well enough that he doesn't miss a game the rest of the year, but that's far from likely. The long-term implications don't change the short-term outcomes. Berkman's a hitter and, moreover, could be valuable. There are a couple teams looking for a DH right now, a slot Berkman could fill well for a contender. (Here's another interesting point—Berkman had almost no spring training action and hadn't hit in more than a month. He went out and wore out Triple-A pitching basically rolling out of bed. Anyone want to argue with me that spring training isn't too long?)

Aaron Rowand (broken face/concussion, 5/10)

I really don't like listing "broken face" as the injury here, but when you get right to it, that's what happened to Rowand. A high pitch from Vicente Padilla—one that many think was an answer pitch—broke three bones near his eye. Rowand was very lucky that there was no blowout. From the video it's tough to tell how much, if at all, caught the helmet. No helmet, normal or new "concussion-proof," would have stopped this injury, which reminds us of the challenges for helmet designers. Rowand, predictably, did not want to go to the DL, but he only narrowly missed needing surgery to fixate the bones and remove any chance of shifting. Rowand could be back as quickly as the minimum, especially if the medical staff can figure out some kind of shield. I'm curious why the type of clear shields we see in Little League wouldn't work here. I'm not ignoring the concussion here, either. We just can't tell yet if it will linger long enough to be an issue above and beyond the facial fractures.

J.A. Happ (flexor tendon strain, TBD)

Whether or not you believe in/there's evidence for the Verducci Effect, there is definitely something to the "playoff hangover." (Then again, without a study on this in place, I guess the nitpickers will be in comments telling me I'm wrong.) Happ is an interesting case, in that he was shifted to the pen for the playoffs and therefore, would be under slightly less stress than someone like Cole Hamels, who has done it two offseasons in a row. Or is it? We know there's a multiplier somewhere, a sliding scale that would tell us how much stress a pitcher is under in various relief situations. Happ's early-season struggles might be explained by this, but until there's more evidence, it's best to keep looking while noting this "hangover." Happ will throw on the side Monday and a determination on the DL will be made after that. Sources tell me that the Phillies really don't know, but with Joe Blanton still a bit off, this injury stack has the chance to throw the staff off. What might save them is the presence of Roy Halladay and the schedule. BP's Tommy Bennett took a look at the schedule and thinks the Phils will only need a 5-slot guy once in the next two weeks. Blanton should be back by then, if not Happ.

Kerry Wood (back spasms, 4/28)

The Indians should have Wood back soon. While Chris Perez was righting himself on the real mound, Wood was reminding the Indians why he held the closer job through camp. Wood was reportedly very impressive in a side session, showing no problems with his back. He has one more test—a simulated game—before heading out on a rehab assignment. That assignment will be quick, to one of the near-local teams, and last only three or four games. Wood will need to show he can go back-to-back games, though Perez's performance makes that a bit less necessary. Having two "closers" will allow Manny Acta to use his bullpen the way that makes the best game sense and not be held by role. That does mean that Wood might cede some save opportunities to Perez, even when he's healthy, but it also might keep him more healthy than otherwise possible. Wood's return is right on schedule and puts him back in the Indians' pen at the start of next week.

Miguel Tejada (quadriceps strain, 4/22)

Tejada used to be kind of like Cal Ripken Jr. You know, the Orioles' shortstop. Both played a lot of games in a row and were compared to each other. When both moved—Ripken by sliding to his right and Tejada taking a more circuitous path to third base in Baltimore by way of Houston—the luck ran out and the age went up. Tejada even saw his birthday shift. So it's no surprise that Tejada, like Ripken, is starting to see the physical issues that he could once play through slow him down. I even call this effect the "Ironman Effect"— players that have been very healthy throughout their careers often don't know how to play with pain or how to rehab effectively. They say "I can play through it" and then can't. (Think Chipper Jones, about once a month.) Tejada's quad strain is considered mild, so along with the clubhouse issues and record, it won't surprise me if the O's let him play through it. If they're lucky, he'll just be a step slow. If he's not, we'll see him on the DL with a more serious strain.

Rich Harden

It's easy to blame injury for any sort of performance dip. Pitchers have bad days, hitters have slumps, and it's sort of the easy go-to excuse. That guy you just signed or the team's star certainly couldn't have just lost it, could he? In many cases, the answer is yes. The perception gap that exists between what we think of someone and what they actually are is huge and can shift. Ben Sheets isn't an ace any more than John Smoltz was last year. Future Hall of Famer? Sure—well, Smoltz, not Sheets—but games are played in the now. That you were good might get you respect from the ump and a bigger cheer, but that's about it. That leads us to Harden, who was both ineffective and inefficient against the Yankees on Sunday. Lots of pitchers will have that problem against the patient pinstripers. Harden's command has been terrible in all three of his Rangers starts, but there's been no other sign of trouble. While it's easy to say "he must be hurt," there's really no other evidence to suggest this. It's actually more likely that the things we've seen could be the results of working with Mike Maddux this spring. If Harden stays healthy, these struggles could be worth it in the end.

Nick Blackburn (shoulder impingement, 4/24)

Blackburn only lasted five innings in his last start due to some pain in the back of his pitching arm. After the game, the Twins' right-hander discussed some inflammation back there, leading to the revelation that he's been dealing with some sort of impingement syndrome for a while. The problem is controlled by anti-inflammatories, but Blackburn indicated to reporters that he'll often feel it during starts and afterwards. He'll get an extra day of rest, with Carl Pavano swapping slots with him, but this bears watching. The Twins don't have a ton of top-level options, so they'll work hard to keep Blackburn available.

Kelly Shoppach (knee sprain, 5/1)

Shoppach is already on the DL with a knee sprain, but he's headed back to Tampa to consult with Dr. Koco Eaton, the team ortho. The first sign that there might be trouble came in a subtle way, with the Rays shifting their minor-league catchers around, as if John Jaso were going to be up a lot longer than initially expected. It's still unknown exactly which ligament is sprained for Shoppach, though all signs have pointed to one of the collateral ligaments until now. Usually, a MCL or LCL isn't repaired, even in concert with a more extensive surgery. There are enough secondary stabilizers to make fixing it a moot point. For a catcher, the collaterals aren't terribly taxed, unless they're hit or a spike catches on a slide to block a ball in the dirt. That's why it's not a common injury. If Shoppach has a PCL issue, the surgery would be more extensive, which makes me think this might be a meniscal issue. If cleaning out the knee made Shoppach more comfortable—and let's face it, most catchers likely have damage in their knees—then losing him for a couple weeks now might make sense. We should have a lot more info on this early this week and the ERD might shift back by a month or more if surgery is needed.

Jason LaRue (hamstring strain, 4/27)

The Cards pushed LaRue to the DL after his hamstring strain made it impossible for him to be an effective backup for Yadier Molina, who needs some time off after a spring where he had his own issues. Molina also caught all 20 innings of the crazy Saturday game, then came back and started Sunday night's game. That doesn't show a ton of importance for any of the backups, let alone Bryan Anderson, who was called up to replace LaRue. The team expected they'll get LaRue back at the minimum, but this is really more about Molina than whoever happens to be the backup. Molina's oblique strain hasn't been an issue since the season started, but his workload is going to have to be watched. He did go 140 games last season, up from his normal load, but he's maturing and hitting better, so this isn't that big a deal. The catcher is key to any Cards' hopes as well as key to the successful Dave Duncan program.

Quick Cuts: Ubaldo Jimenez was amazing in his no-hitter, but remember that there are indications that a no-hitter may be even more stressful than any other start. Every pitch from the fifth on takes on added meaning. Hearing that Jimenez went for a long run that night confuses me a bit. We'll have to wait on his next start to know. ... Huston Street is making progress in his throwing program, but still hasn't thrown from a mound. We're looking at a mid-May return if all continues to go well. ... Jim Bowden was on Sirius/XM Thursday saying he believed Jair Jurrjens was hurt. Sure didn't look like it on Sunday. ... Manny Ramirez missed a couple starts with a sore calf, but went Kirk Gibson on Sunday. He should be back soon. ... Hearing very positive things about Jimmy Rollins. His calf strain is making "huge progress, better every day." ... Edwin Encarnacion's shoulder continues to be an issue. The Jays hope to have him back at DH this week, but sources tell me they're not sure he'll be able to be a full-time third baseman for a while. ... The other side of that trade, Scott Rolen, missed the weekend with a back flare up. He should be back early this week, but this type of thing is part of the package with Rolen. ... Alex Gordon was rushed up from his rehab assignment due to Chris Getz's oblique strain. He's healthy, just lacking at-bats. ... The Rangers will keep Jarrod Saltalamacchia at Triple-A for at least a week and likely more while they figure out if he can play through his shoulder issues. Many are watching to see if his "yips" are any issue at all. ... Yes, Rickie Weeks has always been this talented. He's just never been this healthy in a while, so enjoy it while it lasts. ... While the Red Sox expected Mike Cameron back this week, late word from the Boston Globe's Peter Abraham indicates that the center fielder might not be done with kidney stones. It's an intensely painful problem, but blessedly short-term. … Cliff Pennington injured his hand on a dive. No word at deadline on the severity, though I'm told he did not need x-rays. ... We got rained out Friday night, so I didn't get a chance to see Aroldis Chapman. Pushing back a day means he'll likely pitch in Indy later this week and I plan to catch him then.

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