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January 24, 2005

Under The Knife

Two Weekends in the Valley

by Will Carroll

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It was just over a year ago that I was in a similar position. This time, I'm sitting in the "C" Terminal of O'Hare Airport, watching snow and planes stack up outside the window. I'm using the time wisely, burning up cell phone minutes and writing. I left Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport this morning at 9 a.m. local time and if I told you that it was 9 p.m. now, would you feel a bit sorry for me? Me, neither.

I spent the last two weekends in Phoenix attending two functions where I was invited to speak. At both, I ended up learning far more than I taught. I was honored to speak at the American Sports Medicine Institute's "Injuries in Baseball" course, run by Drs. Jim Andrews and Glenn Fleisig. Now in its 23rd year, the conference is a who's who of baseball's best doctors, trainers, coaches...and one writer.

The ASMI Course was so full of information that there's no way to summarize it in this column. We're learning more and more about shoulders, with many of the doctors seeming hopeful that labrum surgery will have some level of survivability. The technological advances, including data collection, high-speed video analysis and other things that would make your eyes bug out, promise to predict injuries and reduce their incidence. Anyone who saw Tom House's presentation on Day Three left with their head spinning. I even got a chance to sit down with Bill Thurston, the head baseball coach at Amherst College and one of the top pitching coaches in the college game. I showed him the way I teach the curveball and I was shocked to see he approved!

After a quick trip back to UTK HQ in Indy, I was back in the Valley of the Sun. Again, it was my honor to speak at the Brewers Symposium, where I discussed the state-of-the-art in pitching research with a group of team executives, medical staff, coaches and scouts. The Brewers are probably not the first team that comes to mind when you think of smart organizations, but get ready to change that thinking. From Doug Melvin on down to rookie ball, this organization is sharp. Look at the data from this season's Dick Martin Award ranking: the Brewers came in a close second to award winner Tampa Bay. The smart-guys list there is long, from Reid Nichols (player development) to Jim Rooney (minor league pitching coordinator) to Roger Caplinger (head trainer). This might not be the year in which the Brew Crew breaks their decade-long losing season streak, but that day isn't far off. Even PECOTA will agree with me.

To say that it's been an interesting ten days would be gross understatement. Where there has been a trickle of interest in medhead information, it's now becoming a flood. Organizations are seeing the value of injury maintenance, prevention and management as the key part of modern baseball that they are. It will continue to be a differentiator, one of those inefficiencies in baseball that can be exploited by the smart teams. It's even more heartening to see that many of the teams at the forefront are ones in the so-called small markets.

NOT powered by O'Hare Aiport in Chicago, which somehow has absolutely no Wi-Fi coverage, on to the injuries…

  • After a winter of signal silence, facts are finally starting to come out about Magglio Ordonez's health status. Ordonez had a second knee surgery in Austria, but only secondary to sound-wave treatments on his damaged knee. While the surgery was routine, the sound-wave therapy is controversial. The treatment, similar to those used on kidney stones and plantar fasciitis, is not approved for use in the U.S. Despite reports that his Austrian physician has signed off on Ordonez to return to activity, he has still not yet worked out for any team. I remain hopeful, but he's a sure red-flag type until he demonstrates he's healthy. The Tigers and Orioles, largely shut out so far this offseason, figure to remain his top suitors.

  • It shouldn't surprise me that a great deal of my e-mail this week had to do with Roger Clemens. First, it was outrage and disbelief at his non-random $22-million dollar arbitration request. That number--given by #22 heading into his 22nd season--was quickly replaced by a one-year deal valued at $18 million. I'll let Joe Sheehan and others debate the relative value; I'll look at it as a two year, $23-million deal in combination with last season's bargain contract. As far as Clemens' ability to make it through that 22nd season without health problems, I'll just point to his results the last few seasons. If he can do what he did at age 41, is there that much difference when you add a year to it? He'll retire when he wants to, no sooner.

  • I mentioned above the use of shockwaves on plantar fasciitis, designed to knock the osteophytes out without surgery. That's the procedure that Albert Pujols had earlier this winter. Unfortunately, the pain has returned. Pujols may undergo another round of the procedure, called lithotripsy, which team doctors had called for initially. Pujols felt so good after the first round that the rest were cancelled. Pujols has ruled out surgery. In any case, this is not nearly as severe as the case that cost Mark McGwire the better part of two years. Pujols played pretty well with the pain last year.

  • The White Sox can only wish that Frank Thomas had the ability to play with pain that Pujols has shown. Thomas is unlikely to play at all during spring training due to continued rehab after foot/ankle surgery. Manager Ozzie Guillen has publicly said that he isn't expecting Thomas back until June, while team medical staff is thinking May 1. Thomas has missed a lot of time over the past few seasons, so it was always a stretch to expect more than 130 games from him. The Sox can only hope he's just getting them out of the way early in 2005.

  • Ben Sheets had a breakout season in 2004, then went under the knife to repair a herniated disc in his back. If he can do what he did while injured, it should be interesting to see what he can do in 2005. Sheets is making an excellent recovery and will be ready when pitchers report to the Brewers' Maryvale facility next month.

  • It seems that I'll be updating a lot of ACL recoveries heading into spring training. My latest is on Carlos Guillen. He'll be ready for spring training, but nowhere near 100%. The Tigers plan to be extremely conservative with their shortstop, I was told by a team official, allowing him to set his own course based on results. With coaches like Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson around, it might be tough for Guillen to hold back much.

  • John Olerud is set to be the Plan B first baseman for the Mets if Carlos Delgado goes elsewhere. That said, Olerud may not be ready for the season. His comeback second half ended with a foot injury and he's just getting to a point where he's moving without his walking cast. It's tough to stay in shape that way and while Olerud doesn't seem to need much mobility, having any additional risk isn't going to help a 36-year-old, even one with a .350+ OBP, find work.

  • The Cardinals don't need Chris Carpenter to do what he did last season. Then again, no one expected that from him last season. Carpenter is throwing again after missing the playoffs with a biceps nerve injury similar to what Brad Penny has. There's absolutely nothing to go on with these injuries. While I have some theories that got a positive nod from some of the top surgeons I spoke to, it will be impossible to say what will happen. That's the definition of risk, so Carpenter is a risky pitcher.

  • The Diamondbacks have a lot of new faces, which some think will translate into more wins. It would be tough to get worse than last year. Still, they'll need to stay a lot healthier to do so. Signing guys like Troy Glaus adds to the burden on the medical staff, already hard at work trying to get Luis Gonzalez back after Tommy John surgery. While he should be ready for Opening Day, he'll be used very sparingly until he feels 100%. That could be May. The D'backs also lost their shot at Eric Byrnes when Jose Valverde showed some shoulder damage. No, Valverde didn't fail a physical as some reported. It never got that far; all Oakland needed was reports from his September shoulder surgery.

  • Expect the Cubs to take a long look at Robb Nen in the next couple weeks. Nen is a longshot to ever approach his former level, especially if he insists on relying on a fastball likely left on one of the operating tables he's visited in the last three years. Still, Dusty Baker has a history with him, and that seems to be enough. Baker has publicly declined to go along with management's hope that Ryan Dempster could slot in as closer.

    The Cubs are more hopeful about Nomar Garciaparra. His incentive-laden contract is a key to the success of the Cubs in 2005 and so far, Mr. Hamm is saying all the right things. He's working out and reporting no problem with his Achilles tendon or sore wrist.

  • Want some pitchers to worry about? One key negative "tell" from the classic book "The Diamond Appraised" is a declining strikeout rate year after year. Here's the list of pitchers who had more than 20 starts in each year from 2002-2004 and had declining K/9 in that period: Matt Morris, Kerry Wood, Brian Anderson, Miguel Batista, Curt Schilling, Kaz Ishii, Odalis Perez, Javier Vazquez, Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Al Leiter, Brett Tomko, Randy Wolf, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Pedro Martinez, Sidney Ponson, Jon Garland and and Mike Mussina. (Thanks to BP's Ben Murphy for putting the list together.)

  • Quick Cuts: Jayson Stark noted that Carlos Beltran required the Mets to lease a "Conditioned Ocular Enhancement" machine. Beltran and several other Royals players fell for the machine last spring, though several people I've spoken to say the COE training is dubious. I'll be looking into this soon … What's the worst-case scenario for Tony Saunders in his latest comeback? Another broken humerus, I'm told. Sounds painful to me, but if he's willing to take the risk, good luck … The Nationals will still be looking for a shortstop once Barry Larkin announces his retirement. They'll likely be looking for one less resume on Monster, however. Larkin is expected to become a special assistant to GM Jim Bowden … If there's one thing I want from beat writers this spring, it's information on which pitchers have developed new pitches … The Braves signed Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan this week. Jordan is unlikely to stay healthy, so read this as "how to keep Jeff Francoeur on the farm just a bit longer." … I gave my pal Dan and his "MCScoresheet list" some scoop on Greg Miller this week. (He's throwing, reported as fine, and headed for Double-A.) The list is a must-read for Scoresheet Baseball addicts like me … The Team Health Reports will start early this season, so look for those in just a few weeks.

I'll be back as needed before the THRs start, but I have a couple projects you'll see this season that I think you'll really like. I've hinted at one of them in this column. Until next time, stay healthy!

Related Content:  The Who,  Surgery,  Year Of The Injury

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