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October 5, 2004

Under The Knife

Playoff Health Report: AL

by Will Carroll

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$100,000,000.00.

That's one hundred million dollars (and xx/100 cents.) It's the admission price to the American League playoffs. The Twins are the lone representative of fiscal conservatism to make it into October. Billy Beane is looking for his next advantage, J.P. Ricciardi is scouting the wires, and the rich are getting richer.

But $100 million evidently doesn't go as far as it used to. Each and every team in the AL side of the bracket has significant flaws, many stemming from injuries. Health didn't help that much in getting here--the Devil Rays led the league with just 315 days lost to the DL, with the Yankees just behind. The Yankees lost significantly more cash than any other team, yet their payroll size disguised this loss, showing up as just over 8% of their total player payroll, not including benefits and other "etc." items. Moreover, teams with half the budgets--Oakland, Cleveland, and Texas--stayed in the race for much of the season, some right to the end.

Looking back, it wasn't Jason Giambi missing time due to a mysterious illness, Garret Anderson needing months to get a good diagnosis of arthritis, or Johan Santana recovering from elbow surgery to set himself up for his first Cy Young Award that got these teams to the playoffs. It was how and when these injuries occurred. There's much less margin for error in October.

  • New York Yankees

    Once the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez his new pinstriped jersey, many tried to call off the season. It would be easier to just hand over the World Series trophy and call the era of revenue sharing a failure. It didn't work out quite that way, however, as injuries often overcame talent in the Bronx. Gene Monahan and Steve Donahue have been doing more overtime than Visa commercials. They won't get a break for a while longer.

    The pitching suffered the brint of the injuries this season. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte not only packed in the pinstripes, they left with 400 innings in their back pocket. That put a bit more of a workload on the top of the rotation, most of it on Mike Mussina. The early-season load put Mussina on the shelf with elbow pain for better than a month. Coming back, his velocity has been off. Like Mark Mulder and Matt Morris--there's something about double Ms--Mussina has been relying more on breaking balls. Mussina has been using his knuckle-curve almost twice as much as he did in 2003.

    Kevin Brown wasn't expected to break down (or break walls) as much as he did. His place in the postseason rotation came down to another unlikely starter, Orlando Hernandez, breaking down. El Duque's shoulder went all Millay on us, burning brightly but quickly. Both pitchers may make the as-yet unfinalized roster, forcing the Yankees to consider an 11th pitcher for the Division Series.

    Jon Lieber was not expected to be the most consistent starter on the team. The Yankees let Lieber take all of 2003 to rehab his rebuilt elbow and 14 wins later, the investment looks smarter than ever. Tommy John survivors are no longer a risk; they can be predicted and in all but a few cases, return to their previous form. They're the T-Bill of pitching. Expect the advantage that teams like the Yankees and Cubs have, spending a bit on a "lost year," to vanish as it ceases to look risky.

    The Yankees still hold some risk in the bullpen. A lack of depth forced Joe Torre to use three of his pitchers more than he would have liked. Both Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon showed some fatigue down the stretch after 80+ appearances, though neither showed a significant reduction in effectiveness. Both pale compared to Mariano Rivera, using his still devastating cutter to rack of 53 saves and a sub 2.00 ERA. A career high in appearances did little to make him less dominant. Where the bullpen can be exposed is in the middle. If the Yankees starters cannot make it to the sixth, they expose the weak underbelly of the pen with a mix of castoffs and rookies that will cause many in the Bronx to reach for the antacids.

    The only significant injury in the field is the shoulder of Gary Sheffield. Sheffield has played through the injury pretty well, if you think "MVP-caliber season" qualifies as pretty well. Cortisone shots and anti-inflammatories, plus a pair of brass ones, got Sheffield through the season. There's no reason to believe he'll suddenly lock down from the pain unless, as some are reporting, Sheffield was forced to change medicines with the recent Vioxx recall. Add in a timely nudge with Federal Grand Jury transcripts and Sheffield is bound to be in the media spotlight as long as the Yanks stay on the field.

    The Yankees 2004 campaign will probably generate plenty of books looking back. Many will point to Jason Giambi's mysterious illness if they don't win. In the division series, Giambi will likely be irrelevant, pushed aside by the pitching staff's need for that extra reliever. He'll spend the Twins series as the world's best paid cheerleader.

  • Minnesota Twins

    Assuming the Golden Gophers don't need the field, the Twins will put one of the more interesting teams on the turf against the Yankees. Cheap? Sure is, despite Carl Pohlad being among the richest of MLB owners. Bad turf? The people at FieldTurf will argue until they're blue as Boise State, but a quick talk with any of the players, especially Joe Mauer, indicates that yes, it was a problem all season. Overloaded at the corners? More so than ever.

    So how do the Twins go into Yankee Stadium with a team so fresh off the farm that you half expect any answer from a player or coach to come with a Marge Gunderson accent? The kids can flat-out hit and the top of the rotation feeds the opposition into the wood chipper.

    Minnesota has overcome injuries to Mauer, Corey Koskie, Torii Hunter and their middle infield. They're above the average in DL days lost (that's bad) and among the worst in recovery time (that's worse). Much of these shortcomings could be blamed on Mauer's injury, yet the recurring injuries to the outfielders and middle infield suggest that the medical staff simply hasn't stepped up.

    The infield is all banged up. Justin Morneau (hand) and Koskie (high ankle sprain) should be fine for the playoffs, though Luis Rivas may not even make the roster. This forces a pseudo-platoon of Michael Cuddyer (innings 1-7) and Augie Ojeda (defensive dawg). Rivas' struggles have been well documented, so this is one of the cases where an injury can be a net positive. Cristian Guzman is not so easily replaced, especially if Ojeda's needed to carry the glove at second. The sore shoulder/neck that has troubled Guzman may be a bigger worry than Rivas' injury. Guzman's defense has improved significantly in '04 and is credited by Johan Santana as a key to his amazing stretch run.

    The outfield is just as troubled, but the vaunted depth the Twins possess has disguised it. With a shorter roster, some of the injuries may be more exposed. Torii Hunter had played the last few weeks with problematic neck and knee injuries, Jacque Jones has struggled with sore knees all season, and Shannon Stewart has been telling the media he is limited to DH due to his hamstrings.

    The pitching is healthy, as it must be for the Twins to contend. If the media insists on making this series a David vs. Goliath, I'll remind them that these Davids can really chuck rocks. For everyone who suggested a rhyme for Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt (my favorite was "Oswalt and Clemens, then help from the heavens," submitted by several), I'll challenge you to try to find anything that rhymes with Brad Radke and Johan Santana. The third starter slot was expected to fall to Kyle Lohse. A blister on Lohse's pitching hand will likely push Carlos Silva into Game Three. Terry Mulholland will pitch all over, strengthening a very solid bullpen.

    I'm preaching to the choir when I say that the Twins have a good chance to beat the Yankees. Readers of BP know that this series doesn't lend itself to easy metaphors or simple narratives. From the medhead perspective, the Twins talent overcame their injuries. In the postseason, talent doesn't always win.

  • Anaheim Angels

    Forget Vlad Guerrero. The Angels know that the real MVP this season was Ned Bergert. Despite losing 14 players to the DL at various times, often overlapping, Bergert and assistant Rick Smith were able to keep their recovery time at the top of the 2004 charts. Their innovative rehab plan for Troy Glaus may have made just enough difference to explain that one extra win that put them in the playoffs.

    The work isn't done for the Angels trainers. Heading into the Division Series, Mike Scioscia surprised many by naming rookie Casey Kotchman to the roster. This move shows the worry that the Angels have regarding Darin Erstad. Erstad has been fighting a sore back for much of the last month and Troy Glaus, as much as the Angels hoped, cannot credibly play first base. Erstad insists he will be ready to play, but in this short series, the Angels couldn't afford to be left without a first baseman. Don't be surprised if Erstad tries to steal a base early to show he's as apt to "cowboy up" as the Sox are.

    Garret Anderson is also something of a question mark. Since Glaus cannot play third or any other position in the field, Anderson's patellar tendonitis has made center field nearly impossible for him to play. With the Jose Guillen suspension in effect, Jeff DaVanon--another player who's been banged up since August--shifts to center. Home field actually works against Anderson slightly since the small area of Fenway's left field could help him.

    The middle infield is also problematic. Adam Kennedy is gone for the playoffs, unable to avoid the surgeon's knife in regards to his damaged knee. That leaves Chone Figgins and Alfredo Amezaga to man the keystone. David Eckstein, the gritty, gutty shortstop with no margin for error in his game, has bone chips in his elbow. If defense is important in this series, this could be a key point against the Angels.

    The Angels rotation goes four deep and is solid. There's no question there, just as the deep, strong bullpen should be a major advantage. Francisco Rodriguez may not be a secret this time around, but at least he's on the roster legally. With Brendon Donnelly (bone chips) and Troy Percival (back, elbow) aching, "K-Rod" may see the majority of the high-leverage innings. We'll also likely see more of Scot Shields than many will expect.

    The Angels are hot going into the playoffs, fighting off injuries and two good opponents in the AL West chase. Some will surely bring their rally monkeys and thundersticks out of the closet, but this isn't the same type of team that won rings in 2002. It's going to win on the back of Vladimir Guerrero--the same back the Angels were smart enough to realize wasn't a problem.

  • Boston Red Sox

    While the other AL teams try to get healthy, the Red Sox just slide on their old "been there, done that" T-shirt. They can spend more time hanging out with midgets and thinking up this year's version of "Cowboy Up."

    The Sox struggled throughout the season with injuries. Pokey Reese, Bill Mueller, Trot Nixon and other spents the season keeping Terry Francona on his toes and Jim Rowe on his feet. All are healthy at this stage. The only real questions involve the team's best hitter and a key cog in last year's bullpen.

    Manny Ramirez is almost a walking conundrum. He's often chastised as lazy, then his numbers bely that. He's regularly putting up some excuse err, injury that makes me reach for the cell phone to find out the "rest of the story." Ramirez has been playing with tight, sore hamstrings more much of the second half, the result of a late August knee injury. Francona was able to rest him regularly and the playoffs are different for Ramirez. Overlooked by many due to the great seasons of Guerrero and Sheffield, expect Ramirez to stay healthy and look to excel on the big stage.

    Scott Williamson cleared up some doubts this weekend, pitching on consecutive days for the first time. His velocity is still off, meaning his roster spot is still up in the air. He won't be more than what he was in 2004--an average reliever--but he does add depth to a Boston bullpen that looks better on paper than it does at the end of a game.

    For the Red Sox to reverse their curse--not that I believe in those sorts of things (damned goat)--they'll rely on what brought them there: Slugging, scrapping, and two starters.

A couple of quick notes: Chipper Jones is continuing to have problems with his hand. After being hit by a pitch, Jones hasn't been able to bat. He's considered day-to-day, though the Braves are much less dangerous without him Adam Everett was left off the Astros NLDS roster. My NL report was turned in before that announcement We'll announce "Medical Staff of the Year" on the same day that IBA's are passed out.

I'll be here throughout the playoffs, covering the injuries that make or break the chase for a pennant. I'll also be anchoring all the BP Radio coverage all week long. Listen in live on ESPN950.com daily for updates.

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