January 14, 2008
Under The Knife
Trading Places, Trading Problems
In any trade of two big-name players with individual challenges who play the same position, some will call it a "challenge trade," and others will call it a matter of minimizing problems. The Cardinals, especially manager Tony La Russa, spent much of the offseason feebly trying to stop his feud with Scott Rolen from being a story. He failed. Rolen's fiery nature just wouldn't let it die, and La Russa's choice comments at the Winter Meetings kept Rolen's value dropping. In contrast,, the Blue Jays played it cool and quiet all the way along during the in- and off-season problems of Troy Glaus. However, while out with a foot injury, Glaus was pulled into the steroid scandal when it was leaked that he had purchased steroids through an online clinic. Unlike others in recent scandals, Glaus purchased strong anabolic steroids, including nandrolone (better known as Deca-Durabolin).
However, even more than their off-field issues, both third basemen have significant health problems that have held them back from their former levels of performance. By swapping players and problems, does anyone win this trade from a health standpoint?
The Cardinals would get Troy Glaus back on grass, and that might be the most significant factor in this trade. Glaus' long history of foot and back problems will be helped by a move away from artificial turf, but let's also note that the Jays training staff did a very good job of minimizing the effects of the turf on the slugger. Glaus' recovery from shoulder problems is one of the reasons that the Jays are willing to take a shot on Rolen at all. Glaus suffered similar problems during the latter part of his Angels tenure, some of which may have led him to steroids. Of course, the steroids didn't seem to work, but the shoulder hasn't been a problem in a couple of years, and could be discounted. There's no reason to believe that he'll need to be shifted to first base, something many thought inevitable a few years ago, and isn't an option on the Cardinals, not with Albert Pujols locked in there.
Instead, it's the foot injury that limited Glaus that has to be the foremost concern. If so, the Cards did well. According to sources, Glaus had a nerve problem that was painful but not serious. He had surgery to decompress the nerve causing the pain due to plantar fasciitis. While oversimplifying the procedure, the nerve was moved to keep the inflammation from causing the constant, debilitating pain that had limited Glaus. Remember, the Cards have good experience with managing plantar fasciitis-they've been able to keep Albert Pujols on the field despite the condition, and Pujols has continued to produce due to some advanced techniques and plain old hard work. The combination of the Cardinals' experience with the injury, the move to grass, and the absence of shoulder symptoms over the past few years makes Glaus a very reasonable risk over the term of his deal, which has just one more season on it (plus an option for 2009 that actually reduces his salary from 2008).
Rolen gets the opposite treatment. He moves from grass to turf, but away from the organization that has frustrated him both in the dugout and in the training room. Rolen's opposition to his care has been noted in the press, and his feud with Tony La Russa-stemming from La Russa's calling Rolen on a double standard-was untenable. La Russa noted that Rolen was hurting the team by not disclosing the full nature of his shoulder injury, but wanted the benefit of the doubt on his play once the condition was known. Really, it was Rolen's lack of trust after the initial treatment and surgeries on his shoulder that were the beginning of the end. Rolen's arthritic condition is going to come back, but his most recent procedure shouldn't be dissimilar to the last one in terms of results: he'll be okay for a while, but the time will come when the shoulder will start to tighten up. At that point, Rolen's going to have to take a hard look at a needle full of cortisone and the rest of his life after baseball. The question is if the Jays medical staff, among the best in the business, can control the symptoms and bring back some of Rolen's power that's been lost to the injury. Rolen hasn't rediscovered his power stroke after surgery, and it's something that figures to limit him going forward. Rolen's contract status allows the Jays' recent top third-base pick, Kevin Ahrens, a couple of years to develop before being needed.
With any injury-prone and aging player, time is one of the biggest concerns. Baseball players are not wines; few get better with age. Chronic conditions tend to get worse and act up more frequently rather than fading away. Yes, it can happen, but it's usually the result of hard work by the medical staff and player or some other significant change. The Jays will be taking on three years and $36 million for the right to see Scott Rolen at the hot corner in Rogers Centre, while the Cards have only one year plus an option on Glaus, making their total commitment only a two-year, $23 million outlay. Factoring in that, the deal comes down to whether or not the medical staffs on both sides have not only properly assessed both their new player, but also their own abilities. If their skills in keeping their respective new pickups don't match the challenges that come with each player, we'll be seeing one or both in this column all too soon.
Mark Kotsay appears headed to the Braves, pending a physical. It's my understanding that the Braves will be conducting a very thorough physical on Kotsay in hopes of gauging whether or not he can play 120 or more games next season. The Braves have little to lose here; they don't really have a better option, and the A's are eating much of the contract. The problem is that they don't really have an option if Kotsay goes down. While the surgery he had last year was supposed to clear up the issue, that doesn't appear to be the case. Kotsay's chronic back trouble is going to be with him for the rest of his baseball career, if not his life, and it's an issue of management and not curing it at this stage.
By moving to a different team, Kotsay might think that his luck will change, but that's not always the case. While the continuity of care issue isn't quite its normal positive for staying in one place-the A's changed trainers this season, promoting their former assistant to the head position-it's still a major negative for the Braves. The A's will pass along their medical records, but they can't pass along the same feel. Stephen Sayles and his staff have seen Kotsay day in and day out over his four seasons with the A's, and are familiar with the very subtle things about Kotsay and his condition that the Braves staff likely won't have time to learn. This isn't to say that the Braves staff isn't as competent; it's just a simple matter of familiarity and comfort. More than anyone, a team's athletic trainers get to know their players. They know who needs more attention, and every individual player's quirks and fears.
Maybe Kotsay can stay healthy playing on the plush grass of Turner Field, and maybe he can't. I just know I'd have a very good backup plan in place if Kotsay was my Opening Day center fielder.