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March 12, 2007

Under The Knife

The Sixth Season

by Will Carroll

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And so we begin the sixth year of Under The Knife. Writing that sentence proves the axiom about time flying while you're having fun, because it seems like yesterday that I sent the first experimental UTK out to three friends, asking, "is this anything?" For those of you new to Baseball Prospectus, Under The Knife is our regular injuries update, but also always provides peripheral information that I gain in finding out what I need for this column. I do my best to cover all the most important injuries and making sure you're up to date. My one rule is that if I don't have anything to add to the discussion, I'll keep my big mouth shut, so if you see something not covered here, that either means there's excellent reportage elsewhere or that I'm still working on getting more info.

As injury analysis has become more accepted, there's more of an acknowledgement by the so-called mainstream that injuries are not only important, but interesting stories. They're noted more, written about more, and more mainstream writers are following the stories more closely. That makes my job a little easier in some ways, but harder in others. We'll also be challenged by the new media reporting rules that baseball has in place, more by the confusion they create than because of their limitations.

I've also been asked why I often refer to "we" in UTK. I am just one writer, after all. However, as with most things at BP, nothing is a solo effort, and that goes for UTK too. I have Bill Burke behind the scenes helping me with data again this year, as well as literally hundreds of sources, a team of doctors, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and a pharmacist on call to help, but I also have you, the readers, who make up a large part of making this column work. So by saying "we," I'm actually saying thank you, something I should do more often in explicit terms. Without all the people that won't fit into the byline, this column wouldn't exist.

One other thing to note this year is my creating a synergy between UTK and Unfiltered. The immediate nature of Unfiltered will give me a chance to give "quick hit" coverage to injuries and breaking news, something I haven't had an outlet for previously. Don't expect it all the time, but it will happen. As always, I encourage everyone to email me with your opinions, questions, and comments.

Powered by the expectation of an amazing year in my little niche of baseball, on to the injuries:

  • The Cardinals have a load of pitching concerns on paper, but no one in the organization seems too concerned. Even with Josh Kinney down for the year with Tommy John surgery, no one I spoke with seems overly concerned about anything. Assuming that Jason Isringhausen is ready to go, the bullpen is shaping up. His hip surgery last year was serious, in the sense that if it doesn't work out, he'll be facing the end of his career and a hip replacement sooner rather than later, but don't think he's the new Bo Jackson yet. Isringhausen's done well in every stage of his rehab and is on track to start the season in the closer role. If he continues to look like he has while throwing on the side once he's back in game action, Izzy will be more like the solid closer he was in 2004-05, rather than Tony La Russa's personal roller-coaster ride from last season while he was fighting through the hip problem. He remains risky until he proves he can go back-to-back days without problems, but that risk is tempered by as much upside as any established closer. He'll start testing himself in game action this week.

  • As made clear in the Positional Health Report for closers, ace reliever is a risky position. We don't know yet how to assess closers in general, but in specific cases, we get indicators of how they deal with the workload and how they adjust to the different physical demands. We've long seen that pitchers switching from starting roles or even out of long relief often gain velocity in short relief, knowing they don't have to pace themselves. That additional stress on the pitching arm and body can also overtax them, and lead to injuries. As good as J.J. Putz was last season, his showing up with a tight elbow so early in camp has to worry the Mariners. Indications from the Mariners, though unconfirmed from sources, are that Putz had tests that indicate no structural damage. That sounds like they were worried enough to get an MRI, though again, this is unconfirmed. It's more worrisome when, despite good numbers last season, you notice that the pitching elbow has been the big problem for the Mariners recently. Mark Lowe and Jorge Campillo are two other recent residents of the training room and injury report, though Campillo has gotten better results lately. Putz didn't pitch this weekend, so watch to see how the Mariners treat him and get him back into the spring mix.

  • The Diamondbacks have new uniforms and a somewhat new pitcher. I can't say I'm a fan of the new look, though I'm certainly glad to see less purple and teal in baseball. (Now if the Rays will use more of that new blue in next year's change, I'll be a happy guy.) The somewhat new pitcher, Randy Johnson, is no stranger to Arizona, to Tucscon, or to coming back from spinal surgery. He'll begin throwing to hitters this week, which puts him on track for a mid-April return to the D'back rotation. Given the relative strength and stamina of the rotation--three guys figure to go 200 innings--and some depth to pick from for the fifth starter, dealing with Johnson's absence won't be too taxing. Johnson's extremely competitive and not the easiest hurler to hold back, so don't be surprised if he tries to dial it up too quickly. It will be key for the Dbacks staff to rein him in and make sure that the minor surgery doesn't become a major problem.

  • Last Friday, Jered Weaver got back on the mound, funky motion and all. He threw 30 pitches, all fastballs, in what was essentially a shakedown run. He came out with no problems and no reported soreness. The session took place a few days later than expected, but that was due to flu rather rather than any arm-related setback. Weaver's due to get back on the mound today, where he'll throw a more indicative mix of pitches. Even if he comes through this in the best way possible, he's unlikely to make his first scheduled start of the regular season. It's unclear if the Angels will use a four-man rotation for the first run-through, slotting Weaver in for the season's second pass through the rotation, or if they'll retroactively place him on the DL and use another fill-in starter, such as Hector Carrasco or Chris Bootcheck. In the longer term, the tendonitis doesn't appear to be much of an issue for Weaver. He's had it, he and the training staff knows about it, and they just have to be conscious of making sure it doesn't show up at the wrong time or descend into an impingement.

  • The Indians might be blaming Winter Haven. In the same week that they announce they're leaving Florida to return to Arizona for spring training, Cleveland is dealing with yet another early-season pitching injury. They've shut down Cliff Lee for at least a week (and likely more) in order to heal up a recurrent abdominal strain. The problem is exacerbated by pitching, an activity that puts a great deal of strain on the core. Knowing this, the sharp Indians staff has shut Lee down to make sure that the breakdown in his core doesn't lead to a cascade injury in a more difficult-to-heal structure, like his shoulder or back. While missing a start or two at the opening of the season is definitely a problem for Lee, it doesn't hurt his medium- to long-term value. With core injuries like this, it's pay me now or pay me later, like the old commercial used to say. By paying a small cost in lost time now, the Indians and their lefty hope they are avoiding a much higher cost later on.

  • He's more in the news for what he hasn't been doing (like pitching on schedule), than what he has (pitching at all), but Carl Pavano's been throwing well on the side. His last couple of seasons in New York haven't given much reason for faith, but his past aside, Pavano has actually thrown well this spring, showing the form that might make him pitching's version of Halley's Comet, good every so often and usually timed to his own contract year. Many expect the Yankees to deal Pavano off as soon as he shows that he's healthy. Indications are that the team is committed to him slotting him in the No. 4 or 5 slots with Kei Igawa for the first couple months of the season, while Philip Hughes marks time in Scranton.

  • The Cubs outfield situation is muddying itself more than shaking itself out at this stage in camp. Cliff Floyd is about to get into the mix, hitting the field after an offseason of rehab following heel surgery. Floyd is still very limited, a fact acknowledged by Cubs sources who think that Floyd is going to end up more of a platoon partner with Matt Murton than a starter. The three-man platoon between Floyd, Murton, and Jacque Jones doesn't match up well in terms of splits, since both Floyd and Jones struggle against lefties, while Murton is essentially equal against both sides. Assuming that Floyd is just a bench player with some matchup starts, he could be very valuable and would have a better chance of staying healthy. One thing to factor into the Cubs' outfield picture is that the team is committed to Alfonso Soriano not having to shift positions at midseason. Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella are going to have their hands full turning this surplus of talented players into the advantage it should be.

  • No one seems to be taking NL batting champ Freddy Sanchez very seriously. Yes, he's all average, but was his season really that much of a fluke, and doesn't his move to second base increase his value? I think people are sleeping on Sanchez a bit, and will be glad when they pick him up in fantasy leagues. His early-season knee injury, caused by a takeout play at second, gives people another chance to push him down the draft charts. While it does show how risky the position change can be and that Sanchez has some footwork practice ahead of him, the injury wasn't serious. Sanchez will return to the spring lineup for the Pirates early next week. The Pirates have enough problems to worry about beyond Sanchez, such as another injured top-round pick (Brad Lincoln) and two starters who've looked tender--Paul Maholm has some shoulder tightness, while several observers have pointed out that Ian Snell is relying much more on his breaking stuff so far this camp, something than can be an indication of shoulder problems.

  • The Red Sox cognoscenti are already starting their mumbles and grumbles about Manny Ramirez and their bullpen situation. Is it really that much more unsettled this season than it was last year? No one at this time last year knew what the team was in for with Jonathan Papelbon. While I have no idea who the surprise might be (though I like Jon Lester for the role), the team has several options. Mike Timlin is another week away from getting into games while he deals with a recurrent oblique strain, though he remains the most likely "closer" for the start of the season. Brendan Donnelly has been the best in camp so far, though no one seems to think that he's grabbed the job strongly enough, and there are huge questions about both his stamina and velocity since leaving his mojo behind in Anaheim. Joel Pineiro is still in the mix while he struggles with new, cleaner mechanics that may make him more healthy, but he needs to use them and somehow regain his effectiveness. No one there wants to hear the talkers start in with the "closer by committee" talk, so look for Terry Francona to make this distraction go away as soon as he possibly can.

  • We can't blame the turf for this Twins injury, can we? I guess we could stretch it and say that years of playing on the surface led to the cartilage injury in Lew Ford's knee. Then again, there are hundreds of other factors that played into this. The knee problem in and of itself is a small thing. He'll have it 'scoped, cleaned out, and will be back on the field in a few weeks. The problem for Ford is that he can't afford to miss time in the spring, as it puts him behind the pack in the fight for the left field job that notionally belongs to Rondell White. In what is sure to be a multi-player position given White's history, Jason Kubel could be back in the mix despite knee problems of his own, shifting from DH. It also helps the cause of Jason Tyner and Gardenhire-fave Josh Rabe, two guys trying to avoid another summer at Triple-A. Ford has never locked down a starting job since coming to Minnesota a few years back, but a dearth of other options keeps him hoping that he'll eventually live up to the potential he had a few seasons back.

  • The Astros rotation has more than a few question marks, so getting Brandon Backe, err, back into the rotation would ease some of that concern. Backe is still less than a year out from Tommy John surgery and in the area where many have setbacks. He'll be back on the mound this week, and thinks that he could prove he's ready for the Opening Day rotation by pitching well. It's not going to take much for him to grab the job--he just needs to pitch effectively, not beat anyone out. Still, this is very unlikely, as he's just six months removed from surgery, so seeing him pitching anywhere on Opening Day, let alone Houston, is something of a longshot. Backe was a Jim Andrews-led repair, and most of the returns from inside nine months have come off of the table of Tim Kremchek. While I can't determine if there are any minor league TJ's done by Andrews that are ahead of Backe, he still figures to be the fastest return from an Andrews surgery.

  • As confusing as the Red Sox bullpen situation might be, it's all that and more for the Marlins. Then again, I don't think anyone lives and dies by the comings and goings of the Marlins' bullpen the way they do with the Sawx. Taylor Tankersley was cleared to throw again, though he's well behind where he should be at this stage in camp. It will be tough, though not impossible, for him to seize the closer role coming out of camp. According to Fish sources (not fishy sources), Tankersley is still the preferred long-term closer, with Ricky Nolasco needed in the rotation, though Tank's currently behind Kevin Gregg and Missionary Matt Lindstrom (perhaps not the most imposing closer nickname ever). Tankersley's sore shoulder remains a major concern, both short- and long-term, despite some good progress over the weekend. One source said that this is playing a lot like last year's situation with Sergio Mitre, who had a similar problem.

  • Quick Cuts: David Eckstein is almost ready to start swinging a bat again. The chronic oblique problem is something to be very worried about, at least until he proves he's past it. A full offseason, albeit with some wrasslin' added in to his normal training regimen, didn't heal it up ... The elbow problem that kept Ryan Braun out of games for a week also dooms his chance of starting the season with the Brewers. Nashville's not such a bad place, and I wouldn't expect Braun to sign a long-term lease down there. Here's an interesting stat: the Nashville starters didn't miss one due to injury last season ... I'll be in Vegas next week. No book signing set up there, but if you're in the area drop me a line. There may still be time to put together some kind of get-together ... Lots of eyes on Angels camp this today, where Bartolo Colon will step up his rehab. While being ready for Opening Day is out of the question, this week's work should go a long way towards establishing a realistic expectation for his return. In a competitive AL West, the difference between a couple starts of a replacement versus Colon could be big. Of course, it also depends a lot on what version of Colon shows up ... Alex Gordon missed a few days with shoulder pain, something Mark Teahen fans must have found ironic. Gordon figures to be back in the lineup early this week, though the Royals have not discussed the underlying problem ... The DJ sets available from Sasha are great writing music, at least for me ... No worries for Magglio Ordonez after taking a Josh Beckett pitch off his ear. He'll be back in the lineup early this week ... The good news out of Rockies camp regarding Troy Tulowitzki is that his hand isn't broken. The bad news is that there's no clear picture of how long he'll be out yet. Hand injuries can linger, so watch this closely ... Yes, it's confusing watching all the pitching talk from camp. The Jays are trying to get Roy Halladay to quit throwing his cutter so much, while Chris Carpenter is crediting the pitch for his resurgence, and teaching it to some of his younger teammates. Aside from Billy Wagner's fosh-split, there hasn't been much in the way of interesting developments on this front this spring. Of course, let me know if I've missed one.

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