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May 17, 2005

Pennants on the Training Room Wall

How Injuries Are Affecting Preseason Contenders

by Will Carroll

No team flies its pennants or celebrates its championship in the training room. It's clear, though, that the difference between winning and losing often hinges on the players who end up there--or worse, on the operating table.

When it comes to winning baseball teams, one near-universal commonality is good health. Rare is the club that escapes an entire 162-game season without injuries, but the teams that minimize the impact of injuries, adjust to the lost players, and reduce preventable health woes are most likely to find themselves playing in October.

Halfway through May, it's time to revisit a few of the preseason pennant contenders and the injury situations that are threatening to interrupt their long path to glory. Players' production is measured using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which calculates how many runs a player is worth over a readily available fringe player (say, Bubba Crosby), but does not consider defense. For context, Brian Roberts leads the majors in 2005 with 33.0 VORP.

Chicago Cubs: In the midst of a disappointing 16-20 start, the Cubs have been more affected by injuries so far than any other team. With Nomar Garciaparra, Kerry Wood, Joe Borowski and Todd Walker missing for extended periods, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field haven't been so friendly.

Garciaparra was expected to help replace Sammy Sosa's bat in the lineup; instead, a torn groin and abdominal muscle has all but ended his season, putting his expected VORP of 38.8 on the shelf. His replacement, Neifi Perez, is among the least potent offensive forces in baseball; after an early hot streak, Perez is quickly regressing toward his .270 AVG/.301 OBA/.381 SLG career batting line.

Nor is Garciaparra's cringe-inducing injury the worst of the Cubs' problems. The pitching staff appears to be breaking down due to heavy workload, bad mechanics, and bad luck. Wood's problems, from Tommy John surgery to his shoulder problems, always seem to coincide with the overtaxing of his arm. While superstar expectations for Wood (33.6 projected VORP) have fallen as his arm has grown more troublesome, he's not easily replaceable.

Carlos Zambrano, meanwhile, underwent an MRI yesterday after complaining of pain the start after a 136-pitch outing; he is reportedly suffering from tennis elbow, and if he follows Wood to the disabled list, the Cubs should start thinking about 2006. And if the heavy workloads continue, the status of Mark Prior - who also missed time earlier this year due to elbow problems - could also come into question.

Boston Red Sox: The normally durable duo of Curt Schilling and David Wells landed on the DL within days of each other with foot problems. Wells is expected to return by the end of the month, but Schilling (56.0 projected VORP) is still dealing with the remnants of his now-beatified ankle injury from last season. His stress reaction, the pre-fracture state that can be caught by modern imaging, could not only linger, but worsen.

It is important to note that Schilling managed to rank second in the AL with a 72.9 VORP last season despite suffering a similar injury back in May 2004. He aggravated that problem in the playoffs--and his bloody sock ended up in Cooperstown. Nonetheless, Boston snagged an abundance of starting pitchers this off-season, preparing for just such an occurrence. It was a wise strategy: Red Sox starters have pitched effectively this year, led by new acquisition Matt Clement, who ranks seventh in the AL with a 13.5 VORP this year.

The Sox haven't yet had to deal with an injury to a major position player this year, but their roster is prepared for the possibility. Deep with outfielders, deeper at middle-infield spots, and backed by a decent farm system, the Sox are built the way the Yankees now wish they were.

San Francisco Giants: No team has been more affected by a single injury than the Giants; Barry Bonds (142.0 VORP in 2004) is simply impossible to replace. Jason Ellison has been a find as an outfield replacement, posting an 11.6 VORP through the season's first six weeks. But he's done so in place of the decaying Marquis Grissom in center field, and his .372/.417/.577 line is way out of character with his minor-league performance, suggesting the bubble will burst soon.

The loss of Jason Schmidt could be just as challenging for the Giants. Even with a menagerie of prospects in the minors, no one could be expected to put up even half of Schmidt's projected 56.8 VORP. The Giants' ace is currently on the DL with a shoulder problem, which the club probably could have caught early enough to prevent a long absence. The value of a topnotch training staff is not always in keeping people healthy, but in minimizing the injuries that inevitably happen and returning regulars to the lineup quickly.

That certainly appears to be the case with Schmidt, who will be kept far short of his normal workload in coming months. Throw in the injury to closer Armando Benitez - out four months with a torn hamstring--and the Giants are likely to fall short in the NL West.

Los Angeles Dodgers: The value of a closer is debatable, but the value of Eric Gagne is near the top of whatever chart can be agreed upon. Though Yhency Brazoban filled in adequately in Gagne's absence, the Dodgers certainly feel better beginning the ninth with Gagne--a fully healthy Gagne, that is. His elbow still isn't 100%, and his velocity is hovering about 5 mph below normal; no wonder he gave up two home runs in his first game back.

The Dodgers' roster flexibility has been reduced by injury as well. Jose Valentin and Jeff Kent were expected not only to start, but to provide multipositional possibilities for manager Jim Tracy's mix-and-match tendencies. But Valentin went down for at least eight weeks with a significant knee injury, and the Dodgers' front office will likely shop for an everyday third baseman. Another area of concern for the team is left field, where the Dodgers have received what is most likely an unsustainable .318/.402/.477 early-season performance from Ricky Ledee while Jayson Werth rehabs from a wrist injury.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer, shelved with an ongoing knee problem last year, has overcome the problem thus far this season, catching more as the season has progressed. But the mere possibility that Mauer's injury would recur significantly altered the Twins roster. For much of the first month, the Twins hamstrung themselves by carrying four catchers, which hurt the team's bench and overall offense.

The Twins were luckier with Justin Morneau's return. After a frightening beaning in the third game of the season, Morneau has returned with the same offensive force he exhibited in 2004,hitting .389/.409/.714. He'll likely exceed his 22.0 VORP from last year, but his 20 games lost--and the lack of a credible offensive backup--amounted to nearly 14 runs down the drain. In what figures to be a competitive AL Central, that margin could prove a significant difference as the Twins try to keep pace with the White Sox.

This article originally appeared in The New York Sun newspaper. Baseball Prospectus contributes two articles a week to the Sun throughout the season. You can read those and other articles at daily.nysun.com.

Related Content:  The Who,  Year Of The Injury

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