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March 21, 2007

Under The Knife

Vegas, Baby, Vegas

by Will Carroll

There's nothing like a long weekend in Vegas to recharge the batteries before the season starts. From a couple Cirque du Soleil shows to one of the best fights I've ever seen, it was a four day vacation that Barney Stinson would describe as an "awesomefest." But now it's back to work ... for a couple days. I'm headed to New York for events at the end of the week. If you're going to be at the Yogi event, I'll see you there.

Until then, there's plenty of injuries affecting things in spring training, but not so many that really affect teams or even fantasy. Everything this spring has been pretty up front -- we know that you'll need a backup to pair with your closer if he's not one of the few lockdown guys. We know that you'll need to make sure you don't just have top pitching, but solid backups that are sure to get some innings. We know that risk is a bigger factor than ever in deciding who wins championships, both real ones and those of the fantasy variety. There's a lot to cover today, so powered by Penn & Teller, on to the injuries:

  • It's no secret that Bobby Jenks is having trouble this spring. He's got the vicious cycle going - his mechanics are off, stressing his shoulder. His shoulder gets sore and drops, causing his mechanics to fall off even more. The apparent result is a loss of velocity, but Jenks doesn't succeed on just velocity. What has to be worrying is the damage going on in the shoulder. If, as indicated earlier in the spring, the mechanical trouble is taxing his rotator cuff, Jenks is a time bomb rather than a late inning terminator. The key is what Jenks himself said - he has to keep his elbow up, level with his shoulder or even slightly higher. (There's some debate in pitching circles on this, but I'm going with the doctors on this one.) If Jenks is unable to go, the Sox have several options, so make sure you're handcuffing someone to the incumbent White Sox closer. There's no clear number two, so it's tougher to do the traditional "closer in waiting" move.

    All that said, I'm not that concerned about Jenks. First, he knows the problem. Second, he has a good support system with Don Cooper and Herm Schneider. Finally, he's a pitcher, not a thrower as most guys in the upper 90's are. As long as the shoulder is tired and sore and not damaged, Jenks should be able to come back quickly.

  • It's gotten kind of gloomy in Seattle. While J.J. Putz has gone from being one of ESPN's top-rated closers to someone you couldn't force people to pick in the space of a week's worth of bad elbow reports, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There's damage in the elbow, with varying reports of a minor UCL tear, a flexor mass strain and the always joyous "I dunno" and yet...Putz has actually made progress. He's throwing long toss and reporting no problem. Now, this is the type of "no problem" you'll often hear with rehabs. The team won't tell you anything, the player's scared of saying anything, and we don't see enough to know anything. At this stage, he's risky, but he was risky a month ago when I did the Positional Health Reports. Watch to see if Putz gets back on a mound by early next week. The Mariners are having all kinds of problems with their bullpen. Beyond Putz, Arthur Rhodes and George Sherrill have both exhibited signs that they're not all there physically. That leaves Chris Reitsma as the in-house closing option, assuming that Putz starts the year on the shelf, something my Seattle sources are saying isn't off the table yet. Yes, Putz *might* start the season as the closer. In the longer term, I'm very worried, but until his arm actually shuts him down, you might as well look to get value out of him.
  • Why does it seem that no one has noticed B.J. Ryan has missed more than a week with back spasms? The Toronto closer is likely out for the rest of the week, which makes me wonder if he'll be ready for Opening Day. Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg doesn't think he'll miss time and that's something. When teams don't seem overly concerned by an injury, there's the chance they really aren't. Ryan's got no significant history of back problems, though any change to his already violent mechanics could cause a cascade. As long as Ryan gets into the last week of Florida games, there doesn't appear to be any change to his position on the draft board. That said, back injuries can recur and if so, you'd better have a good backup ready to go. Ryan's never been a sure thing, even as good as he's been the past couple seasons, in large part due to his motion.
  • We'll close out the closers with some positive news on Taylor Tankersley. His comeback from arm soreness has come off without a hitch, putting him back on track to get some saves in Florida. He'll throw batting practice later this week and get into game action in the last week of Florida games (or in his case, we should call them Grapefruit games.) Whether that will be enough to have him ready and, more importantly, to gain the confidence of Fredi Gonzalez is an open question. Tankersley's been aided by the relative failure of Florida's other options to step up and take the job. It's going to be very close but even if Tankersley doesn't have the closer's job on OD, it looks very likely that he'll have it soon after that. Then his only worry will be keeping that shoulder intact long enough to rack up some saves.
  • There's continued progress from Angels starters Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver, but both are running low on time to get ready for the season. Colon is trying to adjust, pitching without his once-dominant fastball, while Weaver is just trying to be what he was last year, even after losing the element of surprise. While Weaver looks close to where he needs to be (pitching well to minor leaguers) there's still no publicly-known schedule for his return. That makes it almost a lock that he'll begin the season on the DL. Colon is due to pitch batting practice on Wednesday, putting him on track to pitch in an Arizona game before the team - but not Colon - breaks camp. We'll be watching today to see if Colon mixes in breaking pitches. If you're watching to see how either of these pitchers is adjusting to a spring training filled with rehab, they're both on about the same pace for a return. It's not if they'll return or even when at this stage; it's what you'll see when they do. In that, Weaver has a huge advantage.
  • Is the Big Unit getting closer, or does his size alter perspective? After a weekend in Vegas where size is everything and there is no perspective, I haven't lost sight of the fact that in baseball, context is everything. Randy Johnson is on track, throwing a solid 50+ pitch bullpen session and starting to get ready for his first Arizona game. While Johnson is not going to be ready to start the season in the rotation, it appears that he's only going to miss a couple starts rather than all of April as some have speculated. Johnson's shown all his pitches, if not game-level velocity and intensity, but as one source told me, he's "exactly where he's supposed to be." That's encouraging. I'm seeing a lot of people stealing Johnson in the mid-rounds of drafts, a strategy I endorse. With this latest news and an impending Cactus League start, your window on doing this might be closing.
  • Diabetes is a tough opponent. David Wells has beaten things before that no one expected. The big San Diego pitcher found out recently that he's dealing with Type II diabetes, something usually seen in overweight people. For some of us, this should be something of a wakeup call. Wells doesn't appear to have any limitations at this stage as far as pitching, though there could be some questions about his stamina and, if necessary, his adjustment to medication. Several players around the league deal with varying forms of the disease, so other than noting that it exists and that we should all be watching our diet, Wells should be able to do what he does for at least another year.
  • The A's will face a big test as Bobby Crosby gets back on the field today at shortshop. Crosby got a later than expected start to his spring training as he fought to get on the field after back surgery. The injury prone but talented middle infielder has made it through camp without setbacks so far, but today's innings - he's not expected to play more than a couple - will tell us whether or not his stated goal of being the Opening Day shortstop is plausible. Sources tell me that Crosby's playing without physical limitations, and that they expect him to succeed today. Early in the season, Bob Geren is likely to be cautious with Crosby, meaning you'll see more off days. The next concern is whether he appears to be guarding for the injury, and whether or not he's lost range in the field or power at the plate.
  • Jeremy Hermida is starting to get the "injury prone" tag. After a rookie season held back by injury, Hermida is now dealing with an injury that is completely out of his control. Hermida fouled a ball of his kneecap and the initial thought was that it was fractured. X-rays came back negative, but it is still swollen and painful. Given his hip and ankle problems from last year, the Marlins medical staff is conscious that this could lead to a cascade problem. Assuming he's able to get back out on the field this week, there's no reason to think he won't be the OD starter in RF, just as there's no reason to call him injury prone quite yet.
  • Brian Schneider suffered after a heavy workload the past couple seasons, due in large part to having no real backup. That he's already dealing with a minor hamstring strain at this stage of the season has to be considered a negative. The Nationals still don't have a solid backup for him, carrying Rule 5 pick Jesus Flores and guys like Danny Ardoin, Brandon Harper, and even Robert Fick available. Manny Acta is going to need to figure out some way for Schneider to get more time off without crippling his lineup. The alternative is crippling his starting catcher.
  • Quick Cuts: The Reds could have Ken Griffey Jr. back by OD, though it's looking more like their new RF will miss the first week of the season. Watch to see how the Reds use him over the next seven days ... Gary Majewski is throwing in minor league games, a good sign, but he's also going to start the season on the DL for the Reds. He's definitely lost out on the closer battle, which seems to be tipping towards Dustin Hermanson ... Thomas Diamond, the Rangers prospect, will miss the season after Tommy John surgery. Those of you that met him at Jamey Newberg's Winter Meetings event in '05 know that he's got the right attitude to get through this ... Eric Gagne saw his first game action. He looked okay, topping out at 92. The worry now is that he's lost separation between his fastball and his change ... Juan Encarnacion got good news over the weekend. The pain he's feeling in his wrist is just scar tissue, not a new injury. He's not going to make OD, but he'll be able to continue his rehab shortly.

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