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February 23, 2003
Team Health Reports
Team Health Report: Kansas City Royals
Writing about the Royals is dangerous. Whether there's something in the water of the Missouri River or just dumb luck, it seems that most of modern baseball analysis springs from just west of Kaufmann Stadium. One wrong step and Rany Jazayerli is on the phone taking me to task, my e-mail inbox fills with invective from Rob Neyer, and Bill James creates a statistic that will cause me to spontaneously combust.
I'm smart enough to know that I'm far from the Royals expert in these parts, so I went to Rany and asked him what his outlook was. Not surprisingly, I got a pretty passionate response, part of which I'll quote:
"This is the team that sent Jose Rosado out to the mound--for what turned out to be his final start--rather than spend the $1,500 on the MRI, then got the MRI after his arm went dead following the start. Quinn can't stay healthy. Febles can't stay healthy. Dee Brown had off-season shoulder surgery. Shawn Sonnier blew out his shoulder after emerging as a relief prospect. Jaime Bluma did the same (although I blame Wichita State for that). Kyle Snyder blew out his elbow, although again, that was probably a problem that was festering in college. Mike Tonis needed rotator cuff surgery after emerging as one of the minors' best catching prospects. Paul Phillips, another well-regarded catcher, has missed most of the past two years with elbow problems. David DeJesus was drafted in the summer of 2000 with a broken elbow (suffered in his last collegiate game), then blew out his elbow in spring training in 2001 and didn't debut until 2002, costing him precious development time. Ken Harvey has never gotten definitive treatment for his sore toe. You can trace this back to Jim Pittsley, probably the Royals' best pitching prospect of the past decade, having his partially torn UCL repaired instead of having it pulled out and a new ligament transplanted, which allowed him to come back sooner, but ultimately probably cost him a career. I'm still convinced that if someone found Pittsley today and performed TJ surgery on him, by next spring he'd be a good major league pitcher, and still only 30 years old. The team's track record leaves me worried that someone's going to get hurt, and soon. My question to you (which I hope you answer in your THR) is, why? Who's to blame here?"
Rany's seized on one of the main problems of injury analysis -- who's to blame? In this response, you'll see many suspects. They range from collegiate uses to poor surgical results, from bad diagnosis to bad luck. Who is to blame when an organization has gone horribly wrong?
Many readers have asked me for "evidence" in my analysis. Part of the problem in my job is that there are no injury databases, no simple or complex statistics that allow for manipulation or formulation, and very little in the way of actual examination. There is only one accepted metric in the field and that's results. One of the few good sources of information is the Redbook, put together for MLB by their insurance broker. While I got to look at it last year, I'm not allowed to quote from it, nor do I have it in front of me to do so. However, I did note which teams consistently prevented injuries, both in terms of dollars lost and in days lost. The top teams--San Francisco, both Chicago teams, and Oakland--should come as no surprise. Nor should the bottom few--Boston, and St. Louis, along with the Aaron Sele'd Anaheim Angels. Kansas City was in the middle of days lost, almost directly on the five-year overall average.
Is our perception of Kansas City then incorrect? Is this a team that is average in its injury approach, neither gaining nor losing any advantage in this aspect of the game? My answer to this question would be no. The Royals appear to be average only due to two factors: luck, and the fact that many of their injuries hit players who haven't yet cracked the big league roster. As in many parts of the organization, there appears to be no plan. How many times have you seen any Kansas City manager, coach or instructor praised for his groundbreaking work? Do we hear about developmental plans that are enforced throughout the organization? Even with the Kansas Mafia writing regularly--though it is still my fervent hope to have "Rob & Rany on the Radio" someday soon--we hear nothing about this organization.
Stan Conte of the Giants was asked how the Giants became the model organization for preventing and treating injury, recently. He answered, "we decided to reduce injuries." While it sounds simple, once again I'll lay the blame on the organization, but also point a finger at the players. The team must commit to keeping its players healthy, but the players must also buy in to the philosophy and commit to staying healthy. Conditioning, training, diet, and communication all enter into what must be a part of an organization's medical plan. For a team as seemingly directionless as the current Royals, getting healthy might be a good start. It's attainable, it's cheap, and market size doesn't matter. It's on people like General Manager Allard Baird and Athletic Trainer Nick Swartz to implement a program and turn the Royals' fortunes around.
The state of the pitching staff shows how far they have to go. The loss of Paul Byrd might not sound like much, but he did have a stabilizing effect. Add in the loss of innings-sponge Jeff Suppan, and the rotation has nothing resembling stability or consistency. The construction of the rotation is based around the idea that there's no reason to overpay anyone to be out of contention. This is a good concept. None of these pitchers will block some of the other prospects coming up. In fact, outside of spring training, pitchers like Jimmy Gobble may not even meet many members of this staff.
The "leader" of the staff and titular ace is Runelvys Hernandez. There's been discussion about his age, as there has with so many other Dominican players. For all the discussion of how delicately he was handled by Tony Pena once he came up--low pitch counts, shut down when he had some elbow tenderness--it ignores the fact that Hernandez was supposed to be 22 at the time, just a year removed from Single-A, rushed through Double- and Triple-A and to the Show by July. Add in a total of nearly 175 innings, up from 100 in 2001, and you've got a recipe for disaster. We now know Hernandez turns 25 in April, but the tender elbow is a major concern. I have some hope for how Pena deals with his staff, so despite teetering on the edge of a red light, Hernandez stays yellow.
Jeremy Affeldt probably has the most upside on the current staff. Like Josh Beckett, Affeldt had bizarre blisters that hampered him not only during 2002, but also well into the winter ball season. Tom Glavine said during the season that the ball felt "grittier," and several pitching coaches I spoke with agreed with that assessment. While I know of no serious study or even reason that there would be a change in the surface of the ball, the number of pitchers that had blister problems seems more than coincidence. With Affeldt specifically, there's no telling how the blisters will affect him in 2003. They could completely vanish, leaving only be the standard concerns about a young pitcher's delicate arm, or they could sabotage his season just as they did in 2002. The yellow light is a hedge.
Darrell May, Miguel Asencio (if you can find a definitive spelling of Asencio's name, let me know, as no two sources can agree on it), and Albie Lopez fill out the bottom of the rotation and define replaceable talent. Found on the various discard piles of baseball, at best, these are placeholders. Asencio, a Rule 5 pick who was actually used in 2002, was completely overmatched and had little command. His heavy usage brings serious questions for his future, but his seeming lack of talent may take care of his arm by getting him out of baseball at an early age. Lopez isn't quite like his former teammate, Wilson Alvarez, but his injury history is voluminous. One of the data points against the genius of Leo Mazzone, Lopez is, at best, a placeholder. All three of these pitchers will be pushed aside once Chris George, Jimmy Gobble, Ian Ferguson and friends advance, assuming they can avoid the Royals' injury trap.
In the field, the Royals don't fare much better. There may only be a couple yellow lights in the projected lineup, but the risks are focused on key parts of the lineup that have no clear replacement available on the roster. As Rany pointed out, both potential left fielders have some questions. After Kung-Fu Fighting with his brother, Mark Quinn spent the year disappointing. He always has strange muscular injuries which scream of creatine use, and even when healthy hasn't lived up to the hype. It speaks to the organizational plan that Baird went to Puerto Rico this winter to see if Quinn was healthy. Baird saw one AB and run to first, where Quinn injured the same hamstring that he had torn in 2002. Despite this, Baird signed Quinn less than a week later and told the Kansas City Star "we expect him to be back to the level he performed at a couple years ago." Does anyone else see the disconnect? Thank Quinn's small $500,000 salary for his continued survival on the roster.
Likewise, Dee Brown has always held promise without payoff. He had off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder, but had played the entire 2002 season with the problem. I'm not sure why the Royals allowed this, especially as they often pointed to his defensive shortcomings. Prior to the shoulder issue, Brown had dealt with thumb and hamstring problems. He'll likely be at less than full strength in spring training.
Carlos Febles is one of those players who's never badly injured, but never fully healthy either. Most of the problems have been muscular leg injuries, mostly in his quads and hamstrings. He's lost a step that hurt him more than most, both offensively and defensively. There's no better option until Alejandro Machado is 'ready' later this year. Like the back of the rotation, Febles isn't bad enough to damage an already bad team. He still holds some glimmer of the upside he once shared with Carlos Beltran, but he's proof that once a skill is demonstrated, it can still vanish without a trace.
Mike Sweeney is the current franchise cornerstone, but in this house of cards even the cornerstone has a bad foundation. Sweeney missed time last year with a back injury. The swelling caused nerve problems that do not bode well for his long-term ability to remain at the elite level. He'll need to fix the problem or risk having it sap his power.
The Royals are a franchise with many open questions, both on and off the field. What will they do with Carlos Beltran? If they trade him, can they rebuild their minor league system with the returns? Will Mike Sweeney opt out of his deal after the 2004 season, assuming the Royals finish under .500 the next two years? Will Tony Pena do something unexpected, like put Raul Ibanez behind the plate? I don't have the answer to these questions. What worries me more is that I don't think the Royals have the answers either.