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February 15, 2007

Positional Health Reports

First Basemen

by Will Carroll

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First base should be the least risky position on the field, but there are factors that cancel out some of the inherent advantage. First, the guys who man the position tend to be of a type. They lack mobility, have an increased likelihood of previous injuries (many of which are the reason they're at first), and tend to be large and muscular. So the advantage of "hiding" someone down the defensive spectrum may keep some defensive shortcomings from being exposed, but it won't necessarily keep their injury risk from being a factor. Players moving to first base have a greatly increased risk of injury in the first year; there's definitely a learning curve to the position. A ten-year trend of collision injuries at first base indicates that most of them happen to new first basemen, though it's the longer-term first basemen that get hit the hardest or at least have the most effect. If a team wants to keep their first baseman healthy, the ideal candidate seems to be a younger player who has been converted from third base or catcher while in the minors. Then again, most first basemen are just hoping that Nick Johnson doesn't skew the curve too much.

Kevin Millar Yellow light: Millar gets his yellow mostly on age and the idea that he's a full-time player. If he's platooned or even just regularly rested, his risk would fall into the "grey zone" between yellow and green. Figuring that Millar will strain an oblique or a hamstring doing something to keep his Idiot title is probably enough to hang the yellow on him.

Doug Mientkiewicz Green light: Here's your prototype green, if not your prototype first baseman. Mientkiewicz is mobile and doesn't play full time. His recent barrage of injuries amp his risk up enough that even splitting with the statue-tastic Jason Giambi makes sense for the Yankees.

Paul Konerko Yellow light: Konerko isn't young anymore, and like Jim Thome, he's had some back problems. Although sluggers tend to age well, injury-prone sluggers can drop off dramatically. I think the combination of Konerko's work ethic and the excellent medical staff of the White Sox make this yellow a bit alarmist.

Justin Morneau Yellow light: Morneau makes this yellow almost entirely off a team factor that's really bad and his plethora of past injuries. He's had everything from chicken pox to ulcerative colitis during his career, which just goes to show you that all he really needed to do to showcase his MVP-caliber talent was stay healthy.

Sean Casey Red light: With some guys, you can look at their career path and see that an injury steepened the decline. I think of Don Mattingly when I'm trying to explain the concept. With others, the slow steady erosion of their core skills by a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and the steady march of time make it tougher to see. Casey's not going to stay healthy and productive for a full season, but in bursts, he'll remind you that he is still useful. Figuring out how to maximize him is one of Jim Leyland's biggest questions this season.

Nick Swisher Green light: Swisher isn't so much making a position switch as probably settling in at first. He's not very good there, but he's athletic in a bumbling sort of way. If he's pushed to first full time, his injury risk is significantly lessened. One concern I have with young guys making the switch to first or DH is that they'll stop working quite as hard, packing on pounds or losing mobility, but no one's ever questioned Swisher's work ethic.

Carlos Delgado Yellow light: Delgado's offseason surgery points to the fact that he's dealing with bumps and bruises along the way. Another former catcher, Delgado knows how to do this, but in a season where the Mets are pointed at the playoffs again, Delgado's less likely to fight through them. Add in his age, and he's likely to have some minor injury push him to the DL in April or May.

Ryan Howard Green light: I just want to point out that Howard isn't that young. He's 27, not the 23 or 24 that many think he is. A college guy who was blocked for a while in the minors, Howard's clearly at his peak. He has the look to me of someone who could become David Ortiz in a hurry, so he needs to make sure that he doesn't put on much weight. (And by Ortiz, I mean an immobile power guy.)

Nick Johnson Red light: It's too easy and a bit too sad. Johnson was finally playing up to his potential before a sick collision put him on the DL and on the operating table. He's had complications with his recovery from the broken leg, and may not be ready for the start of the season. Like Morneau, he's as talented as they come, but his body simply can't handle playing full time. There's more than bad luck here, even if I can't put my finger on it. I wonder who the first team to do DNA testing will be.

Mike Jacobs Yellow light: Jacobs wore down, but has an offseason commitment to conditioning. That speaks well for his character, but he's the type of player that can't afford much loss of anything in his skill set. I think he's a modern-day Eric Karros; good, not great, but definitely useful. Jacobs might do well to find out more on Karros' unusual warm-ups.

Derrek Lee Yellow light: He's a yellow after just a freak wrist injury? I'll admit this is a bit skewed by missed games in September when Lee left to deal with a family problem. It's a very low yellow, but the system knows that players that peak can often struggle to re-establish a baseline, especially when complicated by injury. I think Lee will be fine, but it's also fine to acknowledge the risk.

Albert Pujols Yellow light: It will be as interesting to watch the media picture of Pujols as it will be to watch his numbers continue to become historic over the next few years. Pujols came back from an oblique strain in an astoundingly quick period with no residual problem, something that's just not seen. He has actually never been healthy--playing with injuries to his elbow, feet, and back--which make the possibility of that healthy season so amazing. What could he do then?

Lance Berkman Green light: The Astros seem to have an organizational bias against position logic. Good catcher? Move him to second. Good second baseman? Move him to center. Bring up a better, younger second baseman? He goes to center field. At least they figured out that Berkman belongs at first base. I think they just added an extra big year to his career.

Scott Hatteberg Red light: The Pickin' Machine is 37 and his comps list is full of guys who had just played their last good season. He'd be exposed by going more than half-time play, and the question of Adam Dunn's eventual position complicates the picture. Hatteberg is the one guy who'll benefit most from having Jeff Conine around.

Rich Aurilia Red light: Aside from the idea that Aurilia is the best option at first base, there's a lot to worry about here. The switch risk is a bit muted by the reduced risk and his actually having played the position some. He's actually pretty solid at first according to scouts, so the rating is mostly based on his age and the idea that he'll play a full year without a platoon. If Ryan Klesko can turn him into a part-time player, this goes down.

Todd Helton Red light: I don't even know how to factor in Helton's intestinal problem from last season. It was scary, but is apparently controlled now through medication. Factoring that the same way I would a traumatic injury is tough since there is a risk of recurrence. There's a lot of inner turmoil on this red light, but there are enough factors in play here to be comfortable with the rating, yet be relatively convinced it's wrong.

Nomar Garciaparra Red light: There's nothing sadder than what might have been. I've been wondering if Garciaparra's commitment to fitness has actually kept him healthier than he would have been without it. Garciaparra is the epitome of the race car player--they run great for a while, and then the engine goes.

Also Green light:

Kevin Youkilis
Lyle Overbay
Ty Wigginton
Ryan Shealy
Casey Blake
Mark Teixeira
Richie Sexson
Shea Hillenbrand
Prince Fielder
Adam LaRoche
Adrian Gonzalez
Conor Jackson

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