February 26, 2003
Team Health Reports
Of the million things Cubs fans can blame when they look back on why 2003 wasn't the year they finally won the World Series, health won't be one of them. In fact, for at least the last decade, trainer Dave Tumbas has kept Cubs' health concerns out of the picture more than most teams in baseball. The one major injury during that time was Kerry Wood's arm trouble; but as much as people look to Wood's usage during his rookie season, the more likely culprit was his usage during high school. As far as the rest of the team, the injuries suffered have been setbacks they could expect and plan for. It's fine to have someone like Moises Alou or Rondell White on the roster if there's an adequate backup plan. The difference between the Cubs with Alou and the Brewers with Jeffrey Hammonds is that not only do the Cubs plan on Alou playing only 120 games, they paid him according to this plan.
The same holds true for a pitching staff--if there's injury risk embedded in your rotation, be sure to have some options. Again, the Cubs have been constructed in a way where an injury or two--even a traumatic injury--would not be fatal to their hopes of winning or their long-term plans. A pitcher like Juan Cruz will coast along in the bullpen, awaiting an opportunity to show he can still start when the inevitable injury, scheduling quirk, or even suspension occurs.
There's as much green on this Team Health Report as there is on the outfield wall in June. Alou is a known significant injury risk and he'll be backed up by some combination of Troy O'Leary and a defensive type like Tom Goodwin. I'll keep a red light on Alou due to age as well as history, but given just his normal injuries, he should be more productive than he was last season. Alou was never able to stay healthy for more than 30 days in 2002, and throughout his career, he has always needed momentum behind him to be effective.
Alex Gonzalez remains the starter at shortstop despite being the same disappointing player he was in Toronto--his balky legs don't help either. Already, he's come up a bit lame in spring training, and it appears that he'll need some time off. Ramon Martinez should see some time in the field as a result. With last year's leg problems, Gonzalez's power disappeared and his baserunning went to nil, making his low OBP intolerable. Players of this type have a tendency to fade quickly, and hamstrings also tend to become chronic problems, so Gonzalez gets the yellow light with gusto.
The fact that the Cubs seem all but injury-free won't matter if one player gets injured. Just like Kerry Wood before him--and a countless number of can't miss, lead us to the Promised Land prospects before him--Mark Prior has come to symbolize the hopes and dreams of the Bleacher Bums. His 136-pitch start on August 4th against the Rockies jumps off the Game Log, screaming that the Cubs learned nothing from Wood's misfortunes. Was this start damaging to Prior? Clearly, the game meant nothing, and allowing Prior to "finish what he started" seems meaningless in the context of his career and the Cubs' pennant chances by last August.
A key point of the pitcher abuse study by Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner was that PAP score refers to the chance of loss of short-term effectiveness. Despite a start that reaches into the highest PAP category, Prior not only did not lose short-term effectiveness (three of his next five starts resulted in game scores over 60) but he lost no velocity, either within a single game or from start to start. Using the radar readings from Prior's start as provided by FoxSports Net's telecast of the game--which we can consider consistent, if not accurate--Prior threw 94 mph in the first inning and 93 in the ninth, hardly an indicator of fatigue. When Prior's season was ended by a hamstring injury, it was a positive from many standpoints; but was he headed down the same path as Kerry Wood?
The risk factors for Prior are clear. He's a 22-year-old pitcher who has amassed high pitch counts. He has pitched at several levels in one year. Three managers, none of whom have a particularly low-stress approach to handling their starters, led him through his rookie season. In his favor, Prior has exceptional mechanics. I've heard more than one scout describe him as "digitally enhanced," meaning that his delivery is so pure, it looks as if it was straight out of some baseball Matrix. Prior's legs give him an amazing base, reminiscent of Roger Clemens or Tom Seaver. Called "Calfzilla"--a nickname we can only hope doesn't stick--Prior's compact, leg-drive motion and arsenal puts a minimum of stress on his arm.
Prior is not as reliant on his curve as Wood was in his first year. Most of his strikeouts occurred using the fastball as the 'out pitch.' Prior has a more mature body, a more complete understanding of pitching due to his time in college, and the benefit of what looks like a much more stable regime in Wrigley. Dusty Baker and Larry Rothschild will need to monitor Prior's workload, mechanics and velocity to keep their phenom healthy and dominating the National League.