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July 30, 2007

Under The Knife

Hack, Slash, and Rehab

by Will Carroll

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Every event in baseball has a context. A hit is never just a hit, a pitch is never just a pitch, and no stat tells a story without knowing its context. The same is true for injuries. No injury happens in isolation, and depending on who, what, and where, the same injury can mean two entirely different things. While a win is just a win, the scarcity in today's market and the seeming lack of understanding of roster-building make the inevitable run of injuries take on a perceived greater import. While there are few times where hiding an injury has value, this time of year is one of them, as we saw with the Mets and Duaner Sanchez last season. It was a very temporary move designed to hold a specific outcome in place rather than a "chronic misdirection," as one team exec called a lie he'd held onto for a week before the truth got out. With injury days and the dollars lost to them up significantly this season, each move we see changes the stakes for teams. Some teams understand that there are three kinds of transactions-trades, promotions, and injury moves. All three should be proactive.

Powered by my natural bubbly good nature, on to the injuries:

  • The worst kind of injury is the one that you don't understand. It's the "unknown known" if we use the Rumsfeld taxonomy* Carlos Beltran has a known injury with an unknown effect. The abdominal strain is affecting almost everything he does, yet isn't so serious that the team is sure that he needs to go on the DL. His value to the team, especially as they hang on to their division lead, clearly makes waiting the right move, but it does stress an already stretched bench. An MRI didn't look promising according to reports, indicating a small but noticeable tear. A decision on the DL should be made early this week, though any trades might affect how the rosters moves happen, so don't expect anything immediate. For now, "indefinite" is the word, though it's not as dire as it sounds. The Mets are also watching Paul Lo Duca to see if the scar tissue that broke free will have any lasting impact. Usually, these types of situations have some brief discomfort and quickly resolve.

    * The clip used does not necessarily reflect the views of the author. It was the best, least offensive one we could find on the YouTubes.

  • Randy Johnson will have a discectomy, a more serious version of the surgery that he had last offseason. Unfortunately, the previous surgery didn't fix the problem, but it's more likely that it didn't hold up under the stress of Johnson's occupation. This surgery leaves a bigger scar and involves a longer recovery, but it will be possible for Johnson to come back. The question before he stated that he was going to rehab it and return was if he wanted to. While people talk about player exiting gracefully, I know that most players leave the game when forced; Johnson's no different. Johnson still thinks he can get people out, and still has a burning desire to play the game. It's 50-50 whether he can come back, so he's not a good fantasy keeper unless you can handle the risk.
  • Joel Zumaya finally let loose his thunderbolt, the final real test before he heads off for a short rehab assignment. Observers told me that a point was made to make sure that no radar guns were anywhere close, making sure that Zumaya was pitching to his catcher and not for a three-digit number, as he sometimes does. Zumaya estimated that he was in the mid-to-upper 90's, and multiple observers agreed with that assessment. What they don't agree on is how it looked. "Something was different," one said. "I thought at first that he looked flat, but that wasn't it. I guess if it's hard for me to pick up, it's not going to be easy for hitters." If Zumaya doesn't come up sore after this session, he's likely to have one more session and then head to the minors for one or two games. Zumaya could be back as early as next week, if all goes well (and perhaps also if the Tigers pen continues to be their Achilles heel).
  • Reader M.Y. asks if the height of Chris Young has anything to do with his recovery from an oblique strain. I think M.Y. is asking if the size of Young's muscles is any different. Yes, but no. Like all of us, Young is an individual with very different measurements within normal human variation. You've heard of people being "short-waisted" or "long-legged." The oblique of a 6'10" man is likely to be larger than one of a 5'10" man, but not necessarily bigger or smaller than someone within a smaller range. So the real answer is no. A muscle strain is simply a tear, and any tear on any muscle merely needs to heal. We all use the same process, though once again, healing is as individual as our DNA. Young's minor oblique strain shouldn't take longer than the minimum, a good thing for the Padres considering how Tim Stauffer threw yesterday while staked to a huge lead.
  • The Dodgers have gone from division leaders to a veritable mess. In the space of two days, their pitching staff has lost the two steady hands they've had, severely testing the depth that has kept the Dodgers in this race. With both Brad Penny and Derek Lowe facing missed starts or more, the team is going to have to get very creative and hope that Stan Conte and his staff can stop the bleeding quickly. Penny's abdominal cramp is now known to be a strain located in the low core, near the torso-leg junction. The core is involved in nearly every motion so for a pitcher, so this is a terrible place for a strain. (Yes, I resisted the easy Eliza Dushku line, but I had to include a picture.) Penny made it through a side session Sunday and is tentatively penciled in to face Barry Bonds and the Giants on Tuesday.

    Lowe was also scheduled to throw off of a mound today and see how the hip reacted to the force of his landing. Surprisingly, the injury appears to be related to a problem Lowe had in the minors. This should be a pain tolerance and management problem, but as we know, slight alterations to a pitcher's mechanics can lead to bigger problems. Expect the Dodgers to be very cautious here, starting with their decision to push Lowe's next start back to Saturday.

    The news is much worse for Randy Wolf. He had a setback during his rehab, and has been shut down indefinitely. If no other good comes of this, you have to admire the accountability shown by the Dodgers' medical staff.

  • The injury to Aaron Harang isn't that bad in and of itself. It's a mild back strain, and once the pain-spasm cycle is broken, he'll be fine. The question is whether this is an isolated incident or has some more troubling root cause. Harang has been mostly spectacular this year, though the timing of his breaking down just after a 121-pitch high-K effort is worth noting. Harang was especially brilliant in that outing, but as we saw with Curt Schilling, even being good can add stress. Harang will miss his next start as a precaution and to get him a little extra rest. With the Reds playing for nothing at this stage, there's no reason at all for him to pitch now. In fact, as good as he's been, there might be reason for the Reds to pitch him a bit less. The perception that he's a Cy Young candidate could get in the way of that, as well as the Reds' lack of good alternatives to him. For now, Harang will miss one start and avoid the DL.
  • Just as Brett Myers returns, the Phillies lose another reliever, as Ryan Madson left Sunday's game in obvious pain. The injury is being tentatively called a right shoulder strain, but with the way he looked in the final pitches, it could be a number of things, including a rotator cuff problem. Madson is likely headed for an MRI in the very near future. Madson's absence will be mitigated slightly by the return of Myers, but it will also put pressure on Myers and Tom Gordon to take up the slack quickly, and Madson was going to be one of the key cogs in the plan to keep their usage to a minimum. The context here is that an injury can make other players more risky.
  • The Pirates have pushed Tom Gorzelanny back from his scheduled Saturday start to Tuesday after he came out of his last start with shoulder stiffness. While Gorzelanny insists that he's fine, it's the communication and decision-making that are causing problems. According to insiders, the entire team is a grumbling mess, and Gorzelanny's getting pushed back was something he pushed back against. One mystery continues to be why Bryan Bullington, the IL starter in the Triple-A All-Star Game, hasn't been given a shot at the rotation. With injuries and the demotion of John Van Benschoten, does Tony Armas really give this team the best chance to win? Is that even the goal in Pittsburgh any more?
  • As expected, Dr. Lewis Yocum confirmed the diagnosis on Akinori Otsuka-he does not need surgery of any type at this stage, but will be shut down until the end of the week. At that point, he'll begin a throwing program with hopes of a quick return. Otsuka's risk is still high, making it very difficult to trade him, though speculation that without Otsuka throwing the Rangers couldn't trade Eric Gagne simply isn't true. The Rangers would rather keep Gagne, but have always been open to offers on him. If Gagne goes, the team would turn over the save opportunities to Joaquin Benoit and C.J. Wilson until Otsuka is back.
  • Quick Cuts: Congratulations to Jason Tyner on his first career home run. He's the guy that originally made me say that defense was a graph, not a number. ... Our best wishes to Brett Butler. The former MLB center fielder has been managing the Double-A Mobile Bears, but suffered a minor stroke. He's recovering well, I'm told, but is likely to miss the rest of the season. He's being replaced by Matt Williams. ... Ian Kinsler is expected back. ... Jason Giambi isn't showing much problem with his foot during his rehab assignment, but he's not exactly testing it either. Said one observer "how do I know when he's going slow?" ... The Nats are privately acknowledging that Nick Johnson won't be back this year. The uncertainty of his future availability is also in question, with the team hoping he can come back enough to show an AL team that he's still useful as a DH. ... Kerry Wood will move to Double-A for his final test before rejoining the Cubs bullpen. They will not put him in pressure situations, though sources tell me that they won't have special conditions on how he's used, besides limits on back to back appearances. ... A.J. Burnett is likely to head out on a rehab assignment early this week. The plan is for one start in Single-A, then one in Triple-A. ... Matt Clement is throwing, but it's very unclear whether he'll make it back in time to end his Red Sox career on a mound rather than the DL. ... Rumors that Matt Harrison had been shut down were circulating, but according to sources, the Braves prospect came up clean and was in the mid-90s during his last start.

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