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March 16, 2004
Team Health Reports
CL Jose Mesa
I don't ask for much as a baseball fan. Show up every day, play hard, have reasonably priced beer, and have an organizational plan. The Pirates do the first three well and toss in the best stadium in the major leagues as a bonus. But as much as I root for this franchise to turn it around, I've yet to see anything resembling a plan. It could be that Dave Littlefield found this organization in such disarray that rebuilding is taking longer than expected. Or maybe owner Kevin McClatchy changed budget midstream, as happened to the grand plans of Jim Bowden down river.
The Pirates also fail miserably at keeping their players healthy. A change last year from long-time trainer Kent Biggerstaff to a new staff makes it difficult to assess with statistical certainty, but many of the more bizarre medical stories last season came from Pittsburgh. Whether it was the 'sudden discovery' of an injury to Jason Bay or the saga of Brandon Lyon's shoulder, the Pirates' medical staff raised questions around the league.
Coming into the 2004 season, the Pirates will be facing the same challenges. Most of their offense last year was expected to come from the bats of Brian Giles and Jason Kendall. While Kendall remains, his name continues to come up in trade talks. Giles was dealt for, among others, Jason Bay and Oliver Perez, two players with significant injury concerns. While contention in the NL Central probably isn't possible in '04, health could be the difference between being bad and being the Tigers.
Jason Bay projects as one of few regulars with a slugging average above .400, and he's coming off shoulder surgery. With the signing of Randall Simon and Raul Mondesi, the middle of the order is questionable at best, and any loss of time by Bay will hurt even more. Up to this week, Bay has only been able to do light throwing after the repair of what's known as a buckethandle labrum tear, calling into question his ability to play the field on Opening Day. In a DH league, Bay would be fine, but at best, it looks like he will be in a Pujols-Gonzalez type situation where the shortstop will need to come out farther than normal on cutoff throws...
...Except that Jack Wilson, the starting shortstop, has shoulder problems of his own. Wilson has had off-and-on shoulder issues his entire career, but recent rotator cuff problems followed by tendinitis indicate that he may have some impingement. Wilson has never been known for playing through the pain, so any injury has to call into question his ability to play effectively.
Surrounding Wilson are three new faces. While Chris Stynes is a known quantity with what was described in BP04 as "inherent Styneliness", Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez are far from known. Both came over in trades last season and promptly got injured. Sanchez is the more advanced prospect, but a high ankle sprain ended his season. It's probably flukish, but Pawtucket had a near-viral outbreak of high ankle sprains last season. Hill's injury was more concerning, as his season ended with a stress fracture in his back. Both should be able to overcome these injuries given an off-season to recover, but the healthier of the pair will certainly be the more valuable, whomever that turns out to be. Bet on Sanchez, despite both being yellow lights.
Jason Kendall is not a Padre, not a Cub, and not a Dodger, but likely not a Pirate by the end of the season. His large contract almost guarantees the move. His yellow light might deter some teams, and the memory of his grotesque ankle injury from a few years back still has the power to make many baseball fans cringe. For a yellow-light player and a catcher, Kendall's surprisingly not that bad a risk. His injury history isn't as deep as one would expect given that major injury and his style of play, but as he ages, he might not recover so quickly. Consider this yellow merely cautionary. The top option if he leaves is J.R. House, who's apparently on the Sandy Alomar Health Plan.
The entire staff, save Josh Fogg, is yellow, but all for different reasons. Fogg may be healthy, but he has the least upside of the bunch. A healthy but mediocre pitcher may be more valuable than a great one on the DL, but it's still not much in the way of ambition. Kris Benson is likely to be traded, especially after a contentious 2003 ended with a continuing dispute over the extent of a shoulder injury. Benson has not been able to reach his expected potential after Tommy John surgery in 2001, finding problems in his back and shoulder. Since there's still some very open question about the shoulder--which I'm told is SICK scapula--and its treatment, Benson goes yellow until he gets out of black and gold.
Kip Wells is one of the hardest throwers in the game. While I don't have complete numbers in the V-Loss project, Wells had among the highest established fastballs. Something seemed to click last year in his work with pitching coach Spin Williams, and he showed an increased efficiency and aggressiveness in the later portions of the season. Wells remains an underachiever based on his talent, but if he can cross the 200-inning barrier and remain healthy and effective, he's one of the more-talented yet lesser-known pitchers in the game.
At the back end of the rotation, the Pirates have Oliver Perez, Rick Reed, and Ryan Vogelsong competing for two spots. Perez is almost assured a spot based on his filthy but inconsistent stuff and his coming over in the Giles deal. The young, rail-thin lefty has a repertoire like Randy Johnson's but his insistence on pitching in the Winter Leagues puts such a load on his arm that it's nearly impossible to imagine him staying healthy. He's not normal, having pitched in Mexico from an amazingly young age, but I'm far from ready to put him in the Livan-class of pitching freaks. Reed is simply old, while Vogelsong is still coming back from Tommy John surgery. It's a small sample size, but Pirates pitchers come back slower than any other team from the all-too-common elbow surgery.
It's one thing to be bad, but in the NL Central, there are three bad teams. The Brewers and Reds at least have something to excite people with--the Reds have a potentially great outfield and the Brewers have a load of prospects. In Pittsburgh, they have really big sandwiches with cole slaw and fries on them. They have a stadium that's second to none. We can't even say they have their health.