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October 4, 2005

Under The Knife

Playoff Health Reports

by Will Carroll

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One hundred sixty-two games. Thirty teams. Forty men per team, more or less. Thousands of days lost to injuries. Millions of dollars thrown into the black hole of the disabled list. Forty-eight elbow injuries. Fifteen groins.

It's all numbers, pieces of a puzzle, and I don't have the luxury of having a box top to compare my version of the story to. So, transparency is my cause. I try to get as many things out there as possible, facts when possible, guesses and rumors when that's all we have. As we get distance, we also see patterns. We begin to get meaningful sample sizes. Someday, we'll have better information and even more transparency; for now, we'll just look at the numbers and find what we can. The one thing we know is that injuries can be the key to winning or losing, to ending up in the playoffs or watching them like me. Even now that we're down to eight teams, injuries become even more magnified, as does fatigue. I look at baseball a little differently, but what's neat is that more people, inside and outside baseball, are starting to see things the same way. Things are changing, dear readers, if slowly.

Powered by an October of high-def, surround-sound, big-screen baseball, on to the injuries...

  • CARDINALS

    The elbow of Al Reyes is something of a metaphor for the Cardinals. Reyes was a nice find, another in a long line of reclamation projects for Dave Duncan, used smartly (if frustratingly) by Tony La Russa. His solid year and emergence as a top reliever all end on the very last day. Instead of heading to the playoffs, he heads to the operating table, faced with a year of rehab after Tommy John surgery. The Cards will look for a replacement, and here's where Walt Jocketty and the oft-ignored front office comes in. There's probably a good replacement there. It's not usually a sexy name or even a former starter. It'll be role players, put in positions where they can succeed in order to overcome what for most teams would be a devastating injury.

    We've seen the story over and over. Scott Rolen goes down and Abraham Nunez steps in. Larry Walker needs the spike to make it to October and John Rodriguez emerges from a nondescript minor-league career to put up a double-digit VORP. Once is luck; this many times is a plan. The Cards have suffered injuries all season long, finally looking mostly healthy, yet there's a degree of uncertainty due to the way they've gotten here. It was a coast for the Cards and while they rested down the stretch, was it enough?

    The main concern is Chris Carpenter. His velocity and command are down and his innings are up. Gaudy win totals aside, largely a function of his jersey color, Carpenter isn't a dominant pitcher, one who makes opposing hitters find a reason to pull themselves out of the lineup. There's no one guy, yet the playoffs often find that guy for us. Remember Josh Beckett in 2003 or Francisco Rodriguez the year before that? The Cards have had someone step up time and again. If Carpenter left the best he had on the mound back in July, there's enough left to be dangerous. Also, don't forget that Mark Mulder brought all his late-season injury questions with him from Oakland. They haven't surfaced yet, though his effectiveness hasn't been what the Cards expected.

    Short series are dangerous for most teams, but are a blessing to the Cards outfield. Walker's neck problems are well-chronicled, but note that Reggie Sanders, due to age and injury, isn't very mobile and Jim Edmonds has fought with both shoulder and back problems throughout the second half. The Cards would like nothing more than all the rest they can get. Injuries won't be the deciding issue for the Cardinals, but fatigue likely will. It's going to be interesting to see if La Russa continues to find the right combinations.

  • PADRES

    Would Dave Roberts be able to make that now-mythical steal with the bum leg he's been running on most of this season? Like Curt Schilling, Roberts seems to have left a bit of himself on the field at Fenway in return for the Red Sox ring. Roberts is hardly the only injured player who is key to the Padres hopes. One is even a positive.

    The Pads have had more than their share of injury problems. Their season-long mediocrity only served to let us ignore them. Ramon Hernandez missed most of the second half with a wrist injury and still looks hurt. Ryan Klesko has battled his normal series of maladies. Mark Loretta, Khalil Greene, and now ex-Padre Phil Nevin fought injuries. Only Brian Giles made it through the season unscathed and his VORP shows just how valuable he was on a roster that's filled with the type of mediocrity that leads to .500 seasons. Hernandez's injury is probably the one that will affect them most, though the Cards don't figure to run much. The rest were smart enough to get their injury days out of the way early.

    So how can an injury be a positive? Jake Peavy fought dead arm most of the season, finally conceding a shoulder weakness in early September. He'd miss a couple starts here and there, sometimes from the shoulder and once from a virus. Those missed starts kept his innings total lower than any of the other aces in any series. If you look back to 2004 when he missed several weeks with a forearm problem, the innings he didn't throw really add up. Say what you will about finishing games and being there for every start, but that's not always the most efficient way to get through the season. Creativity, even the unintentional kind, counts. (By the way, if you don't think that pitching through a groin problem in spring training really cost Peavy this season, think again.)

    The Pads are healthy enough to give the Cardinals a problem. How much of one will likely have more to do with the managers and pitchers than the athletic trainers, which is how it should be. Then again, it seldom is and the managers get a lot more credit than the trainers.

  • BRAVES

    Many of us, myself included, questioned the wisdom of putting John Smoltz back in the rotation. He was solid as a closer, it kept his workload down, and let's not start in on Danny Kolb. Smoltz was able to stay healthy all season long, something he attributed to the regular schedule of the Leo Mazzone/Johnny Sain program. If true--and who are we to question at this stage--then we have an interesting data point in the multiplier for fatigue for relievers. A starter has four days to recover and theoretically should be back to 100% by the next start. A reliever, on the other hand, may never pitch to failure, yet may be asked to pitch without full recovery and in fact may never return to 100% during the season. Ignoring Smoltz's late season fatigue, the return has to be termed a success.

    The rest of the staff wasn't so lucky. Mike Hampton is done, and much of the bullpen is shaky. Each of the other starters battled injury. Tim Hudson had his annual oblique-inspired vacation, John Thomson spent much of the year on the shelf, and Horacio Ramirez returned after a long rehab. In the pen, only Kyle Farnsworth is truly healthy (and that's physically speaking only).

    As for the position players, health is the least of their concerns. Ineffectiveness and Brian Jordan's inevitable problems gave Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson a chance to shine. Chipper Jones battled leg problems to put up his normal hitting numbers while deluding himself about his glove. Johnny Estrada never fully recovered from a July collision, forcing Brian McCann to take on a role no one expected. None of these should be a major concern during the playoffs, especially with the top of the order. Healthy seasons from Rafael Furcal and collision avoidance by Marcus Giles finally allowed them to live up to their potential.

    Expect the Braves to be healthy through the playoffs. In this year's field, there would be some irony that the perennial playoff loser could turn into the surprise winner. Superstars love big stages and no one wants to step on that stage more than Andruw Jones. I like this squad.

  • ASTROS

    The story of the Astros, on the field and in the training room, is more the story of three men than anything else. If Roger Clemens isn't worried about his hamstring, if Andy Pettitte isn't feeling anything in his elbow, and if Roy Oswalt isn't twirling himself into some mode of strain, pull or tear, then this team is as dangerous as any. Add a fully ready Brad Lidge, whose delivery is as painful to watch as it is to face, and you have a pitching staff that treads the razor thin margin between a dominant staff and a million-dollar DL.

    Pitching concerns aside, the Astros have been pretty good. Lance Berkman returned from his off-season knee surgery on time and stayed healthy throughout the season. Jeff Bagwell missed most of the season with shoulder surgery, though Dave Labossiere and his staff deserve credit for keeping Bagwell out on the field and productive as long as they did. It wasn't injuries that kept the offense anemic.

    It's the pitching that allowed that offense to make it this far and the staff has the best depth of any still in the field. The biggest concern is Clemens' hamstring. He didn't seem to have any problems in his last outing; his leg drive was as consistent as ever and his velocity just a touch below normal levels, likely due to effort rather than fatigue. There should be no letdown when the best right-hander since Walter Johnson once again takes the stage. I'm more concerned that Roy Oswalt is breaking down under several seasons of heavy workload including deep post-seasons. The slightest break in the pitching staff would expose this team for what it is--all throw and not much go.

  • WHITE SOX

    The ChiSox, OzzieSox, Whatever-Sox head into the playoffs relatively healthy. There's no major concerns or missing players, yet they still have some of the same concerns that Americans paying $2.95 a gallon for the cheap stuff do--are they almost out of gas?

    It's difficult to tell when a pitcher is actually tired. Velocity and command stats in the second half all show mixed signs, especially for Jon Garland. That type of change makes me think that it was more a matter of adjustment than fatigue or talent. Much like Esteban Loaiza a couple seasons back, Don Cooper appears to be the master of the early season change. Both Mark Buehrle and Garland regressed in the second half, but most human pitchers would given the first half. If you're expecting to see this staff running on fumes, you're out of luck. On the other hand, if you look at the counting stats and expect dominant pitching, you'll be equally disappointed.

    The injury that everyone points to as the change in the Sox season is the groin strain for Scott Podsednik. Sure, it slowed him on the bases and in left him average in the field, but as many here have shown, Podsednik was never really the engine on this team. No, the player this team has to have healthy is Tadahito Iguchi? Iguchi put up solid numbers all season, but Ozzie Guillen saw Iguchi slowing in his first, longer American season and rested him down the stretch. He was rewarded with a resurgence that carried the sagging Sox into the playoffs. Podsednik's .365 OBP and Iguchi's .346 are the real driving forces for the Sox homer-powered offense.

    The final question about the White Sox is the quality of the bullpen. Bobby Jenks is the poster child for "it only counts between the white lines." Since his callup, Jenks has been asked to simplify his arsenal to two pitches, a dominating but flat fastball and an effective change. He'll still show a breaking pitch occasionally, but only the best hitters can do anything with his Dibble-style heat. Dustin Hermanson is still effective when his back allows it and Damaso Marte appears to have apologized his way back to a meaningful role. Add in Orlando Hernandez and his deceptive delivery and the pen looks just healthy enough to not be an Achilles heel.

  • RED SOX

    The Red Sox enter October 2005 as almost the opposite of their team that "reversed the curse." The Bambino might be gone, but the tab is still due on the cost of those championship rings. The clearest remnant of last year's win is the ankle of Curt Schilling. The scar is still pink and the ankle is never going to be the same. That leaves Schilling as a shell of what he once was, yet still occasionally a very effective pitcher. Schilling's late career recalls Orel Hershiser post-shoulder surgery; a competitive pitcher without his best stuff, fighting to do what he can. One report had Schilling throwing a curve on Sunday, not one of his normal pitches. A source close to Schilling said "he threw a curve and actually gripped up a knuckler at one point. I think Varitek would have killed him if he threw it." The other part missing is Pedro Martinez, forcing the Red Sox to push Matt Clement into his role and hoping that David Wells can continue to look, well, good. As a pitcher, I mean, not that there's anything wrong with that. The key for this staff is going to be efficiency. Clement and Wells tire quickly, while Francona has to keep his finger off the panic button when Schilling takes the mound.

    The bullpen, for what it is, is healthy and situationally effective. The addition of Bronson Arroyo gives Terry Francona some interesting issues, though it's expected that he's more of a shadow starter than a high-leverage reliever. The loss of Foulke has been papered over, though I'm still a bit surprised not to see Craig Hansen on the roster, Francisco Rodriguez style. It's fun to watch the "Funhouse Mirror" effect that Chad Bradford and Mike Myers have; the sidewinders can confuse those who aren't watching closely as much as they confuse batters. "Wait, wasn't he just ?"

    There's really no problems worth speaking of in the lineup. Johnny Damon has a weak shoulder, but even a small reduction in his arm is only going to make it a bit worse than it already is; even when Damon's healthy, nobody runs scared of his arm. I think it's key that in the near-playoff series this weekend, Damon's arm was never a factor. The injury to Gabe Kapler will expose Trot Nixon's splits. Apart from some rumors about Edgar Renteria and his back, there's nothing more that's overly concerning here. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are healthy and given enough runners in front of them, that should be enough to make White Sox pitchers sick.

    Odd note: The Red Sox cut their DL days this season by nearly half, down to just over 500. As much as it hurts me to say, it doesn't really seem like it helped, does it?

  • YANKEES

    So what's different? By October, the Yankees had Randy Johnson dominating the Sox, had Alex Rodriguez launching homers and playing stellar third, and turned into the offensive powerhouse everyone expected. Robinson Cano won't get the ROY attention he deserves, but his replacement of Tony Womack amounts to about three wins by my quick calculations, certainly a huge decision for Torre and Cashman race decided by a tiebreaker.

    What's different is that the Yankees pitching, instead of being expensive and good is expensive and well, who knows where Kevin Brown and Carl Pavano are at this point. Every signing this off-season went bust, leaving the Yankees working with the equivalent of found pennies in the rotation. Credit Aaron Small with being the right man in the right place. There's no real reason the same stuff that Triple-A hitters were teeing off on is suddenly 10-0, but you take it. Credit Brian Cashman and the scouting staff for seeing something in Shawn Chacon that no one else did. But as much heat as he's taken in the media, credit Mel Stottlemyre's patient approach to this staff-on-the-fly. Instead of wasting time tweaking mechanics or soothing the ego of players who might think their paycheck promised them a place in the rotation, Stottlemyre simply turned the page and kept the staff moving forward. Johnson found his mechanics mid-season and when his back allowed it, he became as dominating as the Yankees had expected.

    The Yanks still don't know what to expect from Mike Mussina. Tendonitis in his pitching elbow has robbed him of his already declining skills. He's using his curve more as the base pitch, essentially trying to learn to be a junkballer on the job. Using the unknown quantity in Game One could change things up for Torre if he's forced to go to the pen. Aaron Small would normally be the first man out if needed early, but that would make a Game 4 start by Cinderella Small a tough proposition. That means Chien-Ming Wang and his nasty sinker would be the man called. Given Mussina's late season results, Wang might think about using his normal pre-game routine.

    There's not much to look at in the lineup. Bernie Williams is a shell of his former self, but a useful shell in the right situations. Jason Giambi should be one of the great comeback stories in baseball history, but the specter of BALCO will shine not only on his season but his career. Gary Sheffield has proven that his legs are healthy and his bat never seems to get sick. It's the quintessential Yankees team. Perhaps not "Damn Yankees" dominant, but the steady hand of Joe Torre and Brian Cashman have been enough to make Buster Olney wonder about changing the title of his book.

  • ANGELS

    The Angels come into the playoffs with the most ifs of any team here. If healthy, they're as good as any team. If things break their way, they could go a long way. There seem to be a lot of ifs here and this many questions takes a lot of correct answers to win.

    The health of the pitching staff is the first problem. If the Angels can find two starters beyond Bartolo Colon, they'll be fine, but while John Lackey has had a fine second half, Jarrod Washburn has fought forearm problems. If he can't go effectively, the Angels are left with Paul Byrd. Byrd is fully back from Tommy John surgery, but doesn't match up well. Mike Scioscia has allowed Colon to go a longer way to 21 wins than is wise. That workload has caused a bit of inconsistency in August and September.

    Once the Angels get into the pen, there's still the illusion left over from the past couple seasons that this is a dominant pen. Francisco Rodriguez doesn't have the unhittable slider every time out, Scot Shields' deal with the devil expired, and Brendan Donnelly appears to be missing his slime, leaving the chippy elbow of Kelvim Escobar as the key arm. Escobar returned from surgery over the summer without the arm to stay effective in the rotation. Give credit to Scioscia for not staying married to the role, using Escobar in almost any relief situation, including closing. Escobar hasn't been as effective if asked to go back to back, something that will likely come into play during the playoffs.

    Ned Bergert and his staff will be in the training room early each day, as they have been all season, making sure that Garret Anderson is warm and ready, that Darin Erstad's back isn't a problem, and keeping Vladimir Guerrero in the lineup despite a litany of nagging injuries. When the Angels won the World Series, the Angels had almost no significant injuries all season, a combination of luck and preparation. They don't have that to fall back on this season, so instead they used flexibility. Chone Figgins wasn't used around the field as much because of necessity. He's filled in for Adam Kennedy and Dallas McPherson more than ably. The team concentrates a lot of energy on making sure Figgins maintains the leg strength, flexibility, and explosiveness.

    The key for the Angels health-wise is Steve Finley. He's healthy, though many have questioned his vision. A team source denied that Finley's in anything but a slump despite rumors about his loss of bat speed. According to scouts, Finley is slower, taking worse routes in CF, and hitting "older than he looks." I won't speculate on what he's done or why, but if Finley can find his mojo for a couple weeks, the Angels would be significantly improved and that signing would look a lot better. A good October can paper over a bad season.

***

A final note: I'll wrap up the year with injuries, off-season surgeries, etc soon. These are important and one of the harder things I have to cover. I'll also be working with Mike Groopman on some articles analyzing injury patterns and hope that Tom Gorman's "injury accounting" system gets ready for prime time at some point. (It's amazing as is, but Tom's a perfectionist.) Finally, I'll give out the Dick Martin Award. Even if MLB.com got the scoop on the likely winner, we'll try to hold some suspense.

I want to take the chance to thank everyone who reads and contributes to this column. I can't thank my sources, but you know who you are. I'd like to thank media relations staffs, trainers that work insane hours, and the team here at BP that allows me to do what I do in the way I do it. I'll close out my third year at BP the way I do at BP Radio--Play ball.

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