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August 1, 2006

Under The Knife

Baseball's Billion-Dollar Question

by Will Carroll

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The baseball season gives us some signposts along the way. Opening Day. The All-Star Break. The Trading Deadline. Times to assess the team and figure out how to get from here to there. "Here" may be the same, an essentially arbitrary date, but "there" is different for every team. It could be squeaking into the playoffs, finding a few more dollars in the till, a World Series now or three years down the line. Every team passed yesterday's signpost and looked at its roster. In doing so, knowingly or unknowingly, they looked at their team health. In some cases, it was the deciding factor. Yes, I know I say it over and over, but health is baseball's billion-dollar question, a question some teams haven't even asked themselves yet.

Powered by nothing. Like many others, I'm on fumes today, but I know that a lot of people rely on this information. Let's get to the injuries:

  • The news on Albert Pujols is mixed. Any injury to the big man cripples the Cardinals. Pujols injured himself on Friday and was diagnosed with a hyperextended elbow. If you'd like to mimic this, straighten your arm. Now, keep going. Ouch, right? This puts a great deal of stress on the UCL, the so-called Tommy John ligament with which he has had problems. Pujols was moved to first base in 2003 in large part because of his injured arm. Pujols was able to get back in the game on Sunday and reports are mixed. Some have him headed for an MRI to confirm a physical finding of a strained UCL, while others have him sore but unlikely to miss time. St. Louis was off Monday, so we have no indication of what's going on besides beat reports.

  • The Cards should get much more information tomorrow on Mark Mulder. He's scheduled to throw a simulated game on Tuesday. Assuming he makes it through the three-inning sim without problems, Mulder will head out for one rehab game. At this point in the season, rehab assignments tend to get shorter. (There is an exception when minor-league affiliates are in playoff races.) Mulder should be back in the Cards rotation by mid-month, though his injury is likely to be a lingering type, not unlike the Cards saw over the last couple years of Matt Morris. The difference here is that Mulder will be a free agent after the season.

  • The Red Sox limp past the trade deadline, literally. Jason Varitek left Monday's game after twisting his knee running the bases. The Sox captain has dealt with what has been alternately described as a high hamstring or a gluteal strain. The two problems could be related, though the video doesn't make the mechanism of injury clear. It's something of a positive that he stayed in the game through the next half-inning before leaving. I won't venture a guess here, but I wouldn't worry too much. The worst-case scenario is a moderate ligament strain or some torn meniscus.

  • The news isn't so good for Trot Nixon, though it could have been much worse. Nixon was diagnosed with a Grade 2 strain of his biceps. If you think of the muscle fiber like a rope, Grade 1 would be wear some of the fibers are frayed away. Grade 2 is where there's several broken fibers, up to about half the length. You could still use the rope, but it's weakened and could break. That break would be a Grade 3, which is a complete or near-complete tear. Nixon should be out about six weeks, leaving right field to Wily Mo Pena and supersub Gabe Kapler.

    The Sox also have all but given up the hope that they'll get anything from Keith Foulke. His back tightened up before a rehab appearance in Triple-A Pawtucket and sources with the team indicate that Foulke is considering retirement.

  • Eric Chavez had further tests on his forearms and elbows last week. According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, it was acupuncture that helped. Well, that or Eric Chavez is blowing a lot of smoke. The third baseman told the press that he felt "close to 100%," something we should take at face value. The Oakland press is savvy, something I haven't given them enough credit for in the past. They realize that the A's have been less than forthcoming about injuries and carry a healthy skepticism with them when asking questions. It's interesting to see that a team so tight about medical information is willing to push the envelope and use a non-standard but well-researched technique.

  • The way that Bartolo Colon has looked throwing over the last month, it's no surprise that he's on the DL. Colon's elbow has taken the cascade from his altered mechanics. Most see it as a "short arm" motion, since he cannot rotate his shoulder back beyond the home to second midline as he normally does. (This is not an ideal motion, but it works for Colon.) The triceps tendonitis that the Angels list him out with is a symptom, not a cause. Until Colon either adjusts to or alters his motion, this cycle of injury and reduced effectiveness will continue to spiral down.

  • Brad Radke has been pitching most of the season with a sore shoulder, making it through games on guts and cortisone. He's been pitching well, but the cortisone is starting to wear off more quickly, indicating that the problem is getting worse and/or he's building some resistance. He'll either need more frequent injections, something that will diminish his long term prospects, or he'll need to find a new treatment that keeps him game ready. The loss of Radke would really hurt the Twins chances; while they're carried by Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana, having the veteran behind them provided that needed third in a short series. How the Twins keep Radke ready while also trying to stay in the wild-card race could be the key to their season.

  • The Devil Rays aren't headed for the playoffs this season, but when they do, Scott Kazmir is likely to still be their ace. Placed on the DL with an inflamed rotator cuff, this is much more about precaution than the injury. Kazmir was already on pace to test several innings hurdles and any innings with any additional risk simply aren't worth it at this stage. Kazmir remains risky--he's a young pitcher with a significant workload and shaky mechanics. No one questions his talent; I'm just asking you to assess risk alongside that talent.

  • The Mets had everything change because of a taxi. This might be hyperbole, but the Mets front office sounded as if Duaner Sanchez, injured in a taxi cab accident on Trading Deadline Eve, was as key to their playoff hopes as Pedro Martinez. That's not the case, but Omar Minaya went out and loaded up on right-handed relief just the same. None have quite the pure stuff of Sanchez, and a reported deal for Pads reliever Scott Linebrink fell apart, so we'll see just how important Sanchez was. The Mets expect to get Brian Bannister back in the rotation soon. His minor-league rehab is going well, part of the reason that the Mets didn't make a move for a starter.

  • The Dodgers' trades told us a bit about Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra. While they felt comfortable giving up Cesar Izturis, it looks like they feel the need to build depth on the chance that their two infielders may not be back any time soon. Garciaparra has a sprained knee while Kent continues to struggle in his comeback from an oblique tear. The moves for Wilson Betemit and Julio Lugo give them more flexibility both before and after the injured players get back in the lineup.

  • Sometimes it's hard to tell if a rehab outing failed due to injury or if a pitcher simply had a bad outing. Gustavo Chacin was shelled over the weekend, not even escaping the first inning in the first of two planned rehab outings. The plan is going to have to be revisited, perhaps tacking on another start for Triple-A Syracuse, though most of this will key of his next performance. That could actually come more quickly, given his short, 38-pitch outing. If Chacin shows it was just an off day and not his sprained elbow that caused the problems, he'll be back with the Jays and starting on plan.

  • Kris Benson saw an orthopedist about his pitching elbow. That's not unusual. The doctor recommended he change his pitching mechanics. That is unusual. With Leo Mazzone as pitching coach, it's very surprising that a doctor, even one as accomplished as Craig Morgan, is making these types of suggestions. I have a feeling that there's more to the story and that the suggestion was made through the field staff rather than directly to Benson. In many cases, consulting physicians will give the results and their recommendation to the team rather than the player. Often, it's who's paying that determines who gets the results. This is definitely one to keep your eye on.

  • Quick Cuts: Kosuke Fukudome returned for the Chunichi Dragons after missing July with a knee injury. I know no one outside of Japan cares, but how often do I get a chance to say "Fukudome"? Adam Eaton was pushed back a day. He's recovering from food poisoning Ryan Dempster has thrown in four straight games. Why? Chan Ho Park heads for the DL after being diagnosed with anemia Mike Maroth is due to go on a rehab assignment next week. He could be back after one or two minor-league starts with the Tigers likely to use a modified six-man rotation Ty Wigginton is done for the season after breaking his hand. While he could make it back just before the end of the season, the Rays could use the playing time to help make decisions. It will be interesting to see if Wigginton's performance will get him a spot on the Rays 2007 roster The Cubs aren't admitting that Derrek Lee is done for the season, but all signs are pointing to Lee missing the better portion of it as his wrist fully heals Robinson Cano passed his last tests and will play in a minor-league game this week. He could be back in pinstripes by the weekend.

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