March 28, 2003
Team Health Reports
A Second Look
"It's too risky."
Good opening line from one of my favorite movies and one I should have thought of as I tried to introduce myself to BP readers with a series of 30 pieces analyzing each team's health. Who thought it would extend to some 60,000 words? Who thought I would be forced to agonize and second-guess myself with each decision on a "light?" Who knew that color-blind people would have such a problem with the stop light system?
Each and every THR came with its own set of pitfalls. Players were analyzed based on several factors, such as injury history, comparable players, style of play, biomechanics, and inside information from my sources. With no good statistics and no usable injury database, early readers screamed and yelled for "proof!" My response: There is no proof to injuries--sports medicine is like baseball before Bill James, and injury analysis is as much art as it is science.
What the THRs did do was spark some discussion, get people thinking about the effects of injury on their favorite teams and players, and bring sports medicine into the conversation more when performance analysis comes up for discussion. Sometimes, the evidence took care of itself, as in the case of Phil Nevin. That one call probably got more notice than any other, but it shows that there's a method to the madness--add up injury history, a positional change, a player with an odd career pattern, and the advice of the UTK Medical Advisory Board and it's not voodoo or Satanism, as one Pizza Feeder accused me of, Cotton Mather-style. I've said that if I do my job well, everyone will be able to make the same types of judgments with varying degrees of success. With statistics, some of us stick with OPS since there's no long division; in injury analysis, if you only want the results, I'll be here.
Still, just before Opening Day, we're all rethinking things. We've seen spring training, and there's now new evidence and old evidence that was ignored (rightly or wrongly). So the endeavor becomes worth revisiting, even before the season starts. I've checked and rechecked the information and ratings and surprisingly, I'm changing very little. We'll go by division this time:
Yankees: I'm always surprised that people haven't thought more of the red light on Mariano Rivera than they did of the call on Phil Nevin. Did more people really expect Rivera to stay broken down, or was all that confidence I sensed in the Bronx as false as David Wells' steroid allegations? While the Yankees don't get any changes of lights, I wouldn't be surprised to see their training room ending up like the set of Gangbang Girl #20--a mass of moaning old men all looking for one person trying feverishly to meet some of their needs, while failing at all of them. In the end (probably a poor choice of words after that analogy), the Yanks will need to try and buy their way out of the mess they're headed into. The thing that Sox fans will hate to hear is that Brian Cashman usually figures out a way to do it.
Red Sox: I still like the ratings on the Red Sox, and I still think the big difference between the Sox and Yankees--and likely the deciding factor in the AL East--will be which team has the one or two significant injuries that it can't buy its way around. The Yankees are already dealing with one injury, so when it happens--and it will, almost inevitably--to the Sox, that team's reaction could be the basis of jubilation in the Back Bay, or else another chorus of "Next Year" will begin. I almost upgraded Nomar Garciaparra to green, but I try to remember that spring training doesn't tell us much.
Devil Rays: I was wrong. I wasn't wrong when it came to their health. But some of the players I picked to make the team, like Dewon Brazelton, didn't make it. Those players will spend the season's early months trying to win a steak, but my opinion of the team's medical situation remains intact. With Rocco Baldelli making the team and potentially having very little backup on the roster, offensively or defensively, I'm a bit more concerned and would now rate him a yellow light. If anything, I'm more concerned with Joe Kennedy's risk, but I don't have anything higher than red. Pink? White?
Blue Jays: I'm more concerned now about Frank Catalanotto's back than I was when I wrote the Jays THR. Whispers of spondylolisthesis have come up. If they're true, short-term F-Cat should be reasonably productive, but the condition would put major a major crimp in his hopes of having a long career. Worse, there's not much that can really be done for it. Catalanotto will stay a yellow light, but it very nearly changed and definitely would be red if we were looking beyond 2003.
Orioles: I still don't get this team. I just don't get a single thing they're doing. Having Sidney Ponson and Scott Erickson pitching through labrum tears only seals it for me. Worse, having seen that Erickson went down in flames, they've done nothing to change the odds that Ponson will join him. The positional players are no better, and at some point, something's going to really have to change with this team's medical philosophy. Maybe 110 losses can shake some sense into them.
Twins: I gave lights to three of five Twins starters...so naturally green light Eric Milton goes down with potentially season-ending knee problems. Like everyone, I drank the "we didn't rush him back from the last surgery" Kool-Aid the Twins were selling. The signing of Kenny Rogers with the insurance money puts them at even. Johan Santana rightly felt a bit screwed, but he's still the first man in after the next injury. How is it that "small market" Minnesota has more depth than any other team? Are we not giving Terry Ryan and Jim Rantz enough credit? The Twins will win the AL Central because of depth, but the media will almost surely chalk it up to some of the off-season contracts given out. The sound you hear is Joe Sheehan's head banging against a wall.
White Sox: I had Jon Rauch right and Dan Wright wrong, but it all evens out, right? Sandy Alomar is sure to break down and the sun will rise in the east. I'm still willing to bet that Bartolo Colon will end up on the DL with strained fat or something and, unlike their AL Central rivals, the ChiSox can't just dip down and find someone ready to go at almost any position. Sometimes teams get all the breaks and can win it all like the Angels, but you can't plan for that either.
Indians: Ricky Gutierrez won't be ready to open the season, but he has made great progress after cervical fusion. A yellow light still seems appropriate for him. Travis Hafner's wrist remains the major obstacle to establishing himself solidly in Jim Thome's old spot and yellow still seems appropriate for him as well. I'm less concerned about Matt Lawton, who has made great strides after shoulder surgery, but he still holds enough risk to keep the yellow light burning for him. If the Indians get a couple lucky breaks, this team could be interesting, and one of those breaks almost has to be good health. (Brandon Phillips? He's green.)
Tigers: Things could be worse. The players they have that are serious risks--Matt Anderson, Dean Palmer--have ready replacements. They have the luck of youth on their side, but using Jeremy Bonderman in the rotation at age 20 borders on felonious. I can't think of any logical reason that using Bonderman now, on a team this bad, will make him a better pitcher when the team eventually turns around--and yes, I think Dave Dombrowski can turn this beast around. Bonderman is an immediate red light.
Royals: The pitching staff has looked much better, especially Jeremy Affeldt. He's worthy of an upgrade to green status. I didn't expect the Carlos Beltran injury--there's nothing in his history to suggest it--but it only points out how difficult it is to predict these sorts of things. The Royals have enough problems before they add in injuries that it's tough to tell what injuries might cost them. Losing Beltran while his trade value is high is perhaps the worst loss they could have.
Angels: The red on Darin Erstad stays. He's had problems with his wrist and pain in his hand, giving credence to some of our worries. To his credit, he's not diving all over the field, but it is spring training. Troy Glaus got a yellow light and I said that I "had my eye on him." His recent wrist problems are just the type of thing I'd be looking for. Jarrod Washburn also had a yellow light, and has had shoulder problems. If that's the worst he has all season, I'll be a bit surprised.
Athletics: Admittedly, I didn't look inside the A's like Moneyball is going to, but when I did my quick look-see, I liked what I saw. Erubiel Durazo's injury history is definitely a concern over the long season and Ted Lilly remains a risk. A lot of readers questioned how three starters worked as hard as Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito could avoid even yellow lights--for that, I'll refer you to this article.
Mariners: Kaz Sasaki has tried his best to change his yellow light to red, but he's failed so far. His workload--at least on the field--shouldn't be enough to be a major concern, even if his off-field workload may need to be reined in. Gil Meche keeps his red despite winning a spot in the rotation and looking returned from a plethora of shoulder problems. I'm close to putting Freddy Garcia on the red team, but there's just not enough evidence to warrant a switch. Yes, he's risky. Yes, he seems to be fading. No, I can't say when his shoulder melts down.
Rangers: Kevin Mench went down early, and his replacement, Carl Everett, is a yellow light risk. The rest of the lights on the team all look solid, though Juan Gonzalez is looking less bulky, more fluid, and perhaps just a little angry this pre-season. His injury history alone keeps him yellow, but I'll be less surprised now than I was in February if he can stay healthy enough to put up big numbers.
Phillies: Mike Lieberthal's pelvic problems might have pushed him to red, but he's come back well and yellow still remains the most appropriate choice for the injury-prone backstop. Vicente Padilla and Brandon Duckworth both have had problems this spring, but neither have had anything serious enough to elevate their risk. Actually, Padilla is more worrying than Duckworth, even given Duckworth's forearm concerns. I've received some reports that Marlon Byrd has been injury-prone in the minors, but I haven't seen any real evidence of that. Jose Mesa...well, I don't give lights for mental health.
Braves: Russ Ortiz and Paul Byrd both got yellow lights. One of these I like, the other I'm beginning to question. Ortiz looks to be adjusting to the Mazzone Way very quickly as I expected, while Byrd has already broken down on more than one front. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles have been injury-prone this spring, but not enough to change their color. I've seen some things I don't like in Chipper Jones' swing after the early spring thumb injury, but again, not enough to downgrade him.
Expos: There was a lot of research and great sources behind this THR and it stands as one of the strongest. The Expos have gained an innings-sponge in Livan Hernandez as a hedge against his half-brother's injury and recent trip to the DL. Given El Duque already earned a yellow light due to preexisitng back problems and Javier Vazquez's strain calf isn't anything serious, there are no changes for the Expos.
Mets: Ignoring evidence is difficult, and the biggest error I made in any THR was in discounting conflicting reports surrounding Pedro Astacio. Mets sources insist that the Astros misdiagnosed him with a torn labrum, and Astros sources wondered how he'd pitched as well as he had in the first half. Mets sources worried slightly about tendonitis, while scouts said his motion looked fluid. In the final analysis, I had too many conflicts, and failing to find a consensus, threw out both opinions. It was a mistake to not err on the side of caution, and the resultant green light was just flat wrong. Astacio is a red light, plain and simple. I got a lot of questions regarding the new "skinny" Mo Vaughn. Any loss of bulk is sure to help some, but most of his serious injuries have not been a result of bulk anyway. His yellow light stays.
Marlins: I still remain gravely worried about the pitching staff. After reading Nate Silver's research, I'm a bit less concerned from some aspects of injury analysis than I was, but none of what built this opinion changes. I remain most worried about Brad Penny, despite A.J. Burnett's early-season problems. I'm slightly more positive regarding Josh Beckett's ability to stay blister-free, but this opens him up to additional workload, so it nets the same result.
Astros: Only three players were major concerns--Roy Oswalt, Richard Hidalgo, and the since-released Shane Reynolds (Carlos Hernandez was already toast by press time). On Hidalgo, my concerns about nerve damage and the ability to return from the gunshot appear unfounded through spring training. Still, he's definitely been injury-prone, and I'll stick with the red. For Oswalt--the pick I've probably taken the most flak on--I still like what I wrote about him. He's exactly the type of player Pedro was in 2002--someone you want on your team, but someone who could kill your whole season if he doesn't stay healthy. I'll chalk one up in the "correct" column for my red light on Reynolds, since it appears the concerns with his back were the main reason that Houston cut him loose.
Cubs: The Cubs look healthy. Mark Prior's age alone got him a yellow light, and since I believe strongly in BP's recent research on young pitchers, I'll keep the yellow on Prior and pray that I'm wrong. No one else has changed my opinion, even if the vets play over the kids.
Cardinals: Perhaps I was too easy on Jason Isringhausen with the yellow. The Cards were very tight-lipped at the time that I wrote the article--perhaps their silence spoke louder than I realized. Isringhausen is still a question mark and any Labrador--yes, my new term for someone after labrum surgery--gets at least a yellow light. There were as many lights on the Cards roster as most Christmas trees, but most still seem correct to me. Why did I pick the Cards so low in my predictions this season? Just look at all those lights.
Brewers: Geoff Jenkins' yellow and Nick Neugebauer's red seem pretty solid right now. I'm still happy with Jeffrey Hammonds as a red. The Brewers are wisely sending Ben Diggins to the minors, hopefully to avoid the pitfalls I saw for him. With the Brewers' extremely odd choice of catchers, I'd put Eddie Perez as a yellow and Keith Osik as green, but neither has caught more than 100 games in the last decade (largely a product of their lack of ability more than anything, but still). The Brewers' health will be a major challenge for Roger Caplinger and Paul Anderson.
Pirates: Another organization with no changes. Kris Benson has looked pretty bad this spring, but there's not one peep about it being injury-related. I still like Aramis Ramirez and contemplated taking the yellow light off him, but I don't have any new positive news. Keeping Brian Giles out of CF helps him, but his prior positioning wasn't enough to push him to yellow anyway.
Reds: Ken Griffey making it through spring training has to mean something, so I debated giving him a push him down to a yellow light. His risk really hasn't changed however. It's only going to take one bad play, one slip in the outfield, one missed stretching session to put him back on the shelf. Austin Kearns has shown that his yellow light was well-earned, and Barry Larkin remains extremely risky. I will back off the red light on Sean Casey. He's looked good this spring and seems to have full extension, giving him more of a chance to take advantage of that short right field in Great American Ballpark.
Dodgers: So both red-light pitchers, Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort, not only made it through spring training, they made it back to the rotation. Brown has looked like the world-beater that the Dodgers signed him to be, while The Glass Man has looked...well, like he always has. Both are injuries waiting to happen, and while both could make it through the season, I wouldn't want to wager on both these guys making 30 starts. Or 20.
Diamondbacks: Craig Counsell has surprised me. He's been able to come back, and has seemed healthy throughout spring training, showing no ill effects from cervical surgery. To be honest, both he and Gutierrez beat timetables, and the red lights were based on what I thought would be their inability to play complete seasons. Counsell has earned his yellow light with his spring performance. The rest of this aging but talented team's lights stand--they'll need pitching depth, they'll lose time to injuries, and Bob Brenly will make some inexplicable moves. Some things never change.
Giants: Trading off a red light, even if you have to pay his whole salary, is often a good move, and the Giants did just that with Livan Hernandez. You won't hear me argue with that one. Robb Nen has made slow progress and still isn't 100%. That was to be expected, and he should still be effective given proper rest and treatment. That Barry Bonds guy? He's still yellow, but don't let that fool you into thinking he can't hit .400 this season.
Padres: As good/lucky as the Phil Nevin call was, I was a bit too optimistic on Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman's out now, so changing him to red doesn't really break news. New starting right fielder Xavier Nady has been injury-prone throughout his minor league career, so he's worthy of a yellow light now that he's made the bigs and slotted in for regular playing time.
Rockies: None of the risks here are really so risky. Todd Helton is the most worrisome part of this team, but when Jonah Keri turned to me at Tout Wars and asked: "Is Helton's back a problem?", I didn't hesitate to say "spend the extra buck." Like Pedro or Oswalt, some players have a known risk and a great upside. Sure, you can get someone like Fred McGriff, who will plod along and put up expected numbers, or you can understand the risk of a higher-upside player, hedge with a good minor leaguer or bench guy (like Chris Richard) and do all you can to keep the upside on the field.
So to review the changes I've made:
This article is dedicated to Don Baylor, as he faces the toughest battle of his life. I've been in his shoes, I've faced those doctors that won't look you in the eye, I've heard the odds they won't let you bet on, and hopefully he'll end up like me. Alive and healthy, so that he sees the green grass on the fields of many upcoming seasons. Stem cell therapy is amazing, as are the doctors and researchers who help cancer survivors everywhere. Consider donating your own marrow. Perhaps we can't save the arms of young pitchers, but together we can save some lives.