March 26, 2004
Team Health Reports
Baseball is built on a foundation of myths. From curses to miracles, heroes to goats, the folklore and iconography of the sport has always been a major part of its attraction. Some myths have a basis in fact; others are sheer folly. One of the most widely believed tenets of injury 'wisdom' is that old players get injured more than young ones. The corollary is that old teams will be more injury prone than young ones.
If you actually look at the data, the evidence doesn't bear it out. As Nate Silver assures us, there are lies, damned lies and... well, you know the rest. If I told you that 65% of 36-year-old right handed starters got injured over the last five years, that would seem high. Of course, if you looked up that there were only about twenty of them over the last five years, the sample size issue would render this number meaningless.
What changes between old and young players are the type of injuries and the reduction in the number of players. There are plenty of 23 and 24 year olds streaming into the majors each year in every position, but it takes a special player to be pitching at forty or hitting a home run for every candle on your birthday cake. Instead of strains, there are sprains. Instead of tears, there is the slight slowing of age. Constructed properly, an aging lineup is only a liability if it consists of the wrong aging players.
The Diamondbacks went into 2003 as a very old team, but came out younger. Buoyed by surprising youngsters like Brandon Webb, Matt Kata, Jose Valverde, and Robbie Hammock, the Snakes were a surprising team despite the injuries to their Aces. With Curt Schilling moving on and a trade with the hapless Brewers bringing a new jolt of power to the lineup, will there be enough health in the desert to make a run at the Giants?
So far this spring, the Diamondbacks seem to be trying to get their bad luck out of the way all at once. Shane Nance and Brandon Lyon have gone down, leaving the pen depleted. Casey Fossum is out of the running for the fifth spot while he recovers from rotator cuff surgery. Robbie Hammock will start the year on the DL, leaving Brent Mayne to begin the season behind the plate.
The most watched recovery this season will be Randy Johnson. Now the clear ace of the staff, Johnson can only go as far as his degenerating knee takes him. After surgery and repeated injections of synvisc (a lubricant not unlike motor oil), Johnson has made some off-season changes to his mechanics that takes pressure off the knee, and moves his release point closer to home plate. Johnson's knee will be a problem, but it's a matter of how much pain he can deal with and how much relief the team's medical staff can offer. Johnson is a warrior and while he probably won't go much over 30 starts, he'll still be fearsome in those starts.
Shane Reynolds gets his red light based on his long history of back problems, but he only needs to stay healthy long enough for Fossum or Casey Daigle to become available as a fill-in. While the fifth starting slot isn't decided yet, Bob Brenly appears to be leading towards Edgar Gonzalez. Gonzalez draws attention because of his clean, fluid delivery, but he's not in the mechanical class of a Mark Prior or Greg Maddux. Any 21 year old expected to increase his innings as he makes the majors is going to be an injury risk, so the yellow light is more to type rather than to the individual.
I could waste a paragraph of your life talking about Matt Mantei, but I hate insulting my readers' intelligence. Nothing's changed from last year and he's a good reason to grab Jose Valverde and Brian Bruney in the late rounds.
On the field, Luis Gonzalez has to hope that someone on the Snakes staff watched how the Cardinals dealt with Albert Pujols last season. Gonzalez chose to rehab his elbow rather than have Tommy John surgery. Pujols had good results last year, limiting his throws but, as you can tell, letting it all hang out at the plate. Third base coaches should start windmilling their arm the instant the ball heads toward Gonzo, daring him to test that elbow. What matters to the D-Backs isn't his arm, but his bat, so the Pujols results have to give some hope.
Roberto Alomar comes to the desert not looking for a comfortable retirement, but for redemption. His legend was tarnished by a 2003 campaign that was lacking both offensively and defensively. Rumors of injury swirled in both New York and Chicago, but at his age, Alomar can't hope to dive and slide headfirst into first without incurring some injury. He'll be trying so hard that he's likely to injure himself at some point, so that yellow is pretty bright. You'll be bright if you remember that this isn't the same Robby Alomar that made all those highlight reels.
Steve Finley is a center fielder pushing 40. That's a rarity and speaks to his drive and his health. He's had few injuries over his long career. Not counting the strike season of '94, Finley has played in more than 140 games in every season since 1990. The yellow light is lit for position and age, but there's really not much reason to believe that Finley can't do this season what he's done the last several. Brent Mayne is a similar situation, though he'll run more risk the longer he's kept behind the plate.
The Diamondbacks may not look deep, but they're one of few teams with solid upper level pitching prospects, they've got a deep bench, and they develop pitchers well, if slowly. As they unwind some of the financial machinations that brought them a ring, they're slowly becoming the type of team fans like to root for--homegrown, but recognizable. Is that good enough to win this season? They should be healthy enough to find out.