February 12, 2003
Team Health Reports
Team Health Report: Florida Marlins
There are so many things wrong with the Marlins organization that I could probably just sit here and rant. I've already had two cups of coffee - and I have big cups - and a Costco-sized bag of Gummi Bears, so you can imagine how wound up I am.
Once again, we see in the Marlins the continuing problem with sports medicine in baseball - keeping pitchers healthy is still guesswork. Some teams have innovative plans, like the Cluck-Fuson Tandem Starter system used by Texas. Some have organizational workload limits, like the A's and Padres. Too many still use the e pluribus unum method - draft a bunch of pitchers and play the numbers game, hoping that out of X number of prospects, one will make it to the show, effective and healthy.
Since the advent of Tommy John surgery, we've begun to understand the stresses that pitching entails. Dr. Mike Marshall and Leo Mazzone have taken lore and turned it into the base of science. Over the last five years, Keith Woolner and Rany Jazayerli have created and tweakedPAP3, a metric used to measure pitcher abuse.
Last year, I started the process of researching a tool called Established Stamina (E/S) that is developing into Velocity Loss (V-Loss). As we're learning, it's not the number of pitches itself that causes problems, it's fatigue. A tired pitcher tends to become injured if his arm is not mature, if his mechanics break down, or if his physical conditioning will not hold up under whatever amount of strain his pitches cause. Where pitch count fails is in providing context (and Woolner notes this in his PAP3 research). One hundred pitches could be a complete game for Greg Maddux, a good warm-up for Randy Johnson, or for a young pitcher like Josh Beckett, the last game pitched before shoulder surgery. I first addressed this topic last year in this article, and work continues to further refine the hypothesis.
At this point - and it's still early - it appears that velocity is the best measure of fatigue. Unfortunately, it is also near impossible to get acceptable and accurate velocity data. Somewhere, there's a middle ground between PAP3 and V-Loss with a side order of biomechanics that will end up being the best measure of fatigue. It's a problem desperately in search of a solution, and the team that finds the answer first will be on top of the world.
In any context, it's difficult to justify Jeff Torborg pitcher usage patterns. The last-minute, disorganized move from Montreal to Florida put Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg at a disadvantage. They simply didn't know their players well. Blame was also laid at the feet of an odd-at-best conditioning program (odd is what you get when you hire the coach's son, formerly a bad professional wrestler, as conditioning coach) and an organization without a plan or coherent philosophy on handling pitchers. Going into 2002, the Marlins had a rotation with enough upside to give even a cynical Fish fan hope. One year later, the rotation is in disarray and not one pitcher developed into more than he was a year ago. That's failure, plain and simple.
The worst of the lot is Brad Penny. Some insiders have tagged Penny as uncoachable, but his brutal mechanics are simply an injury waiting to happen. Penny was due to be traded to the Reds, but the Reds took one look at his medical records and backed off so fast you could smell the rubber burn. Penny maintains his arm is healthy, so the true test will be watching him this season. He missed time last year with two arm maladies, once for bicipital tendonitis (often a precursor to rotator cuff problems) and once with something alternately described as an inflamed nerve and elbow soreness.
One would think that any organization would have taken at least one MRI with one of those injuries, but Penny maintains he hasn't been near the big magnets in three years. The truth is either Penny is lying or the Marlins are awaiting a malpractice suit. Sources throughout baseball have indicated that Penny's shoulder is "shredded." One trainer told me that Penny's MRIs showed both cuff and labrum damage. Yes, it's possible that this MRI is as old as three years, but if so, Penny's been pitching with that type of injury all that time since then, under an ugly workload to boot. There's really nothing good that can come of this. Penny gets a flashing red light; if there's one guy I'll beg you to keep off your roster, it's him.
A.J. Burnett is less worrisome. Burnett's elbow problems are not only unexplained, they seem to be near singular. The best explanation I've heard on his injury is that whatever he did caused the bones of the humerus and ulna to bash into each other, causing an "acute bone bruise." It's a good news/bad news injury; bad is having enough laxity in his elbow to allow this to happen, but good is that anyone would much rather have a bruise than a torn ligament. The injury also saved him from the abuse he was taking on the first half of the season. Burnett's freak injury combined with persistent rumors to worry many that his potential was about to go up in smoke. I wasn't that worried last year and I'll remain on Burnett's side this year. He gets a yellow based on age and usage, but I'll jump out on my limb and say that his only worry is Torborg slagging him. One other Burnett note worth mentioning: his raging displeasure at the Ivan Rodriguez signing. Burnett feels he was slighted when he was told the money that "simply wasn't there" for him suddenly appeared for a "special signing." If he's vocal enough to cause problems, there are a lot of other teams willing to deal for him.
Blisters do not sound like a big problem, but for Beckett, they were merely the curse I placed upon him for not attending Texas A&M. That aside, Beckett was cursed with tender skin on his fingers - fine with the ladies, troublesome with the horsehide. Until he makes it through several consecutive starts, Beckett's ability to stay healthy, or at least blister free, is in question. Now, here's the rub: are the blisters a long-term positive? Are they saving Beckett from the abuse others on the staff are taking? Will having minor injuries prevent him from the major ones? There's no real comparable player on whom to test this theory. Some would suggest that Nolan Ryan's early battles with his control might be comparable, but I'm unconvinced. Short term, Beckett gets a yellow based on his inability to remain available. Long term? It's impossible to tell at this stage.
Mark Redman and Michael Tejera are both pitchers with significant injury histories. Tejera is a Tommy John survivor who was jerked around and visibly tired by mid-August. He had a severe workload, came out of the bullpen early and was inexplicably returned to the pen at the end of the season. Redman survived shoulder scares that include, according to sources, "the smallest labrum tear possible." Both get yellows due to this history, but neither is a major concern.
The Marlins also have good pitching depth. Carl Pavano will get some consideration for the fifth starter role, but his record - both on the field and in the training room - makes me hope he's the swingman. He's never put up more than 136 innings in any season and seemed to be adjusting well to the bullpen after coming to the Marlins. Pavano as a starter would be the pool of gasoline to Jeff Torborg's match. I'll give Pavano a yellow based only on his avoidance of catastrophic injury. Prospects like Justin Wayne will also be ready to step in at the slightest injury or poor outing.
The Ivan Rodriguez signing was probably the most unexpected of all the free agent moves this off-season. At the Winter Meetings, Peter Gammons compared Rodriguez's recent injury problems and subsequent comeback to the original Pudge, Carlton Fisk. I think the comparison is apt, and after seeing Rodriguez play several times last year, I think he's in for something of a career renaissance. It's a low-risk move for the Marlins given the low base salary this year, and whispers of Pudge working poorly with pitchers aren't that worrisome. Work here at BP and elsewhere has shown Catcher ERA to be a dubious stat. Rodriguez gets a yellow based on his recent history of back problems and other injuries, but I think he'll do well, not only this year, but for the next couple at least.
Alex Gonzalez, Florida version, is still experiencing the effects of a dislocated shoulder. Sources indicate that he is still not able to throw from the hole and may not be ready for the start of the season. Considering his already tenuous hold on the job and a roster spot, this setback could be fatal. Gonzalez's shoulder problems are much more significant than Rafael Furcal's. When a player of lesser talent is injured, there's a much smaller margin of error. Losing any edge brings that player down to or below replacement value, especially when salary is factored in. Gonzalez gets a red light based on his slow healing and comparables.
Luis Castillo is an interesting case. Here's a player that is both fragile and consistent. His diving, charging style contrasts with his slight build. He's reached 500 ABs in each of the last three years, yet seems to always have some injury. Last year, he had hamstring, ankle, and hand problems that kept him out of the lineup, yet he was in there enough to out together his huge hitting streak. The major problem came at the end of last year. Castillo was diagnosed with a muscle strain that was later discovered to be a labral tear in his hip. (The acetabular labrum is very similar to the glenoid labrum of the shoulder.) With someone so reliant on speed and range, this injury is most distressing. None of my sources had new information on it, so Castillo will be one to keep an eye on early in Spring Training. The hip injury alone gets him the yellow, and I debated a red.
Inside the Marlins, team owner Jeffrey Loria is letting it be known that he considers this team a playoff contender and that anything less will be unacceptable. To have anything more than a slim chance at it, he'll need one heck of a medical staff and a new manager. Still, stranger things have happened in baseball. Maybe Billy Marlin can be this year's Rally Monkey.
Eh, then again, maybe not.