February 27, 2003
Team Health Reports
This will probably be the first article--and perhaps the only one all year--where the location of the Expos means next to nothing. As far as team health goes, there's very little in the way of park effect. I'll assume that the MLBPA will watch closely to make sure that there are adequate facilities in San Juan, and honestly, it's not like San Juan is some third world country like most articles make it sound. People vacation there, and it's a part of the United States. While I'm no more thrilled with the idea of a team playing a quarter of its home games on the road, there's a lot of xenophobia in the way San Juan has been treated by baseball media.
It's an accepted tenet of baseball that younger teams are not only cheaper, but healthier. Unfortunately for the old thinkers, this is yet another 'accepted fact' that doesn't pass the test of the data. While the types of injuries players tends to suffer will change, there's really no significant increase overall for older players. Some of this is the 'survival effect,' where only the healthiest players will play into their mid- to late-30s or even 40s. Some of this is the traumatic way teams deal with young pitchers.
The Expos are young, reasonably inexpensive, and average in health. A lot of credit goes to Ron McClain, their head trainer, for keeping his operation top notch when so much around him went either to Hell or to Miami. Where health becomes valuable is in depth. Teams like the Yankees or Red Sox can afford bench depth that doesn't create a significant dropoff in performance. Say what you will about Raul Mondesi--you'd probably rather have him than Matt Cepicky. Without depth, keeping your starters healthy takes on even greater importance. Moreover, so few teams put money and effort into proactive player health that the teams that do so get a significant bonus. Over the last five years, the Expos lost about $4 million last season to the List, about 10% of last season's payroll. The Yankees lost roughly $6 million--a drop in the bucket for a budget hovering around $160 million. Had the Expos not suffered that manpower loss--or more realistically cut it in half--that's the GM equivalent of finding money in your pocket. If your team runs on spare change, every nickel and dime helps.
I'll start with two green lights that may raise an eyebrow or two. The work Nate Silver did on the injury nexus--or as I like to call it, "The Red Light District"--changes the way I now look at several pitchers. (Yes, I will be going back and taking a look at how it would affect some of the previous THRs.) Tony Armas Jr. really doesn't fit into the old or new nexus categories, but he did start his career looking like a fragile pitcher, despite reasonable workloads. He put in a full slate of 34 starts in 2001 before dipping to 29 last year. No one seems to think that Armas has horrible mechanics. No one seems to think that he's lost much. But somehow, a combination of fragility and more seriously inconsistency has impacted his expected development path. He's been passed by several players, both on this team and in his peer group.
Jose Vidro also gets a green light despite having played the entire 2002 season with a fractured scapula (shoulder blade). Compensating for this injury, Vidro had back pain that limited him some in the middle portion of the season. Despite the injury, Vidro had a productive season at bat and in the field, confirming his place among the game's elite second basemen. While some detractors call him injury prone, Vidro actually credits the shoulder injury for leveling his swing last season. Vidro's injury history is just slightly busier than expected for someone of his age and position, so he stays in the green.
The same cannot be said for Fernando Tatis. While some players hear whispers about their conditioning or attitude, people seem content to speak aloud about their concerns regarding Tatis. Attached like cement shoes to Bartolo Colon in many trade talks this winter, Tatis remains an Expo. Some time during the season, Tatis will injure himself, rehab poorly, fail to keep up his condition, and his stats will collapse. Compensating for a groin injury he suffered early in the season caused his knee injury last season. He's extremely susceptible to muscle strains, and his odds to have a healthy and productive season are about as good as winning Powerball. Still, Ron McClain has gone on record as saying Tatis could surprise. More than any other player not named Vlad, he could benefit from the trip to San Juan and the short power alleys, but he'll have to stay healthy to make that happen.
Orlando Cabrera dealt with harsh personal problems back in Colombia last year, but his biggest problem was a bulging disc that hampered him all season. The disc problem wasn't enough to keep him out of the lineup, but was clearly affecting him defensively. After the Brandon Phillips trade, the Expos really have no other internal option at SS, and they must hope that Cabrera pulls everything back together. But back problems seldom completely vanish, and Cabrera's slide from his peak age-27 season will likely continue.
On the mound, the Expos have imported some problems. Orlando Hernandez brings his questionable age, back and leg problems with him from the Bronx. El Duque has nerve problems, clearly related to structural problems in his back, that sabotage his high leg kick and strong back leg drive. Whichever age you believe for Hernandez, back problems at that age are very worrisome and less likely to resolve themselves without surgery. There have been some amazing advances in spinal care, but most back problems remain chronic, to the point where the back seldom returns to full functionality. Duque gets a yellow light; he'll probably be effective when healthy, but the Expos could have a sharp drop-off during his near inevitable stay on the DL. The loser of the Sun-Woo Kim/Zach Day battle for the fifth starter's spot, or possibly Rocky Biddle, will need to step up to keep the Expos afloat.
Biddle was able to recover enough from arthroscopic labrum surgery to pitch reasonably well last season, but he's yet to show that he can handle anything resembling a starter's workload. Often compared to Ramiro Mendoza, Biddle has nowhere near Mendoza's ability in either the starter or reliever role. He's had more success than most following labrum repair, but there's no good comparable for Biddle and so few positive returns, so the best I can offer is a yellow light.
A team like the Expos really doesn't need a high-profile, high-priced closer--hopefully Omar Minaya realizes this. Scott Stewart holds the SUN title right now, but Frank Robinson isn't afraid to use a guy who pitched here in Indianapolis not too long ago, Joey Eischen. Since Stewart has had elbow surgery in the off-season, as well as nagging shoulder problems--including a cortisone shot on the first day of spring training--it's good to have options. Neither injury should keep sidelined, but both could affect his performance if Robinson doesn't handle Stewart's workload impeccably.
The Expos have much bigger problems than health, but health is one forum where they could pull even or ahead of other teams. A small investment could lead to great returns if they're willing to take that next step. If a team can't sign big free agents, keep its own players, or buy depth, keeping what you have healthy takes on the utmost importance.