February 8, 2008
Swinging Back into Action
There's an NFL commercial that talks about the season lasting 13 months a year. In baseball, that's also true. Spring training, the six-month season, October action, and winter ball combine to make it seem as if it never ends. That's great for die-hard fans like you and me, but not always so great for the players. (It's really bad for younger players, but that's a discussion for another day.) The offseason can be just as dangerous for some players as the regular season. The rehab work, the "pre-hab" routines, and the functional conditioning are fraught with problems as much as they are opportunities for rebuilding. A player can show up lighter, but lose his power. A player can bulk up, only to lose flexibility. A pitcher can be hard at work on his mechanics, only to find that the changes actually tax his muscles, tendons and ligaments in new ways, leading to an injury.
As teams pack up for "Truck Day" and the weather reports in Florida and Arizona look more like spring than snowbird season, teams are shifting from simple monitoring of their players (such as a weekly call from a trainer) to more hands-on, kicking-the-tires kind of checks. Mini-camps have or are already happening, with teams sending people out to observe some of their questionable players. By this time next week, players will be in their complexes and getting physicals, then getting checked over and watched carefully by coaches on those first days. Who will make a leap forward? Who will be this year's James Shields, who found his changeup that much more effective last spring? Who will come back from LASIK with a better batting eye? Who will have the spring that will remind us of Gary Scott or Rafael Furcal?
Just as with last week's Super Bowl, that's why they play the game: You just don't know. The great thing about baseball is we'll get to see it every day, on the green of practice fields and in the black ink of a stat line. Of course, we'll also see it in the small agate type of the Disabled List, so as I write my first column on the MacBook Air, let's take a look at some injuries:
(Reminder--the format for the top line is player name, days expected lost, and the expected value of that player in 2008, in millions of dollars. As the season starts, we'll use these two figures to calculate an Injury Cost for each incident.)
The Boston media exploded with the news that Schilling was injured. At some point between his signing physical and last week, Schilling injured his pitching shoulder. It appears to be a new injury, rather than a simple exacerbation of the shoulder problem that sidelined him last year. Schilling knew that changing his style and mechanics to try to get more out of his body was going to be risky, but I doubt that even he knew that it might be over this quickly. As with last year, the shoulder is going to remain closed up for now, as the team tries to use the rehab advantage its support staff provides it to get Schilling back into some usable form. Going with last year as a guide, the estimates that Schilling could be back around the All-Star break seem about right, though I'd bet that Schilling will try to make it back more quickly. One of the most interesting pieces of this puzzle is that the decision wasn't made by either Schilling's doctor or the team physican. Instead, they had to use the new "medical tiebreaker" rule that was put in place recently, using Mets physician David Altcheck as the neutral third party. For fantasy players, Schilling becomes a late-round flier, not unlike Mark Prior or Chris Carpenter.
Last week in this space, based on what we know about recovery from Tommy John surgery, I estimated that Ryan would be out until around June 1. Now Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi thinks Ryan will be ready on Opening Day. Is it possible that Ryan could be ready that quickly? Yes, it's possible; pitchers have come back that quickly, but only one has come back that quickly and been instantly effective: Jason Grimsley. That comparison presents a lot of issues, so I want to be clear that I am not implying anything about Ryan's recovery. We do know that Ryan has recently begun throwing from a mound, a process that normally starts about three months before a return to competition. The best estimates still put Ryan's most-likely return in mid to late May, but estimates are by necessity averages. Ryan could come back earlier, but that also could create increased risk to an already risky pitcher. I had this marked as a 60-day injury last week, so I'll split the difference with Ricciardi and call it 30 days for now. This one's going to move around a lot; I warned you that injuries were fluid!
Lyon immediately becomes a prime target in fantasy leagues with the announcement that he'll replace the departed Jose Valverde as the club's closer. The trade of the National League's saves leader implies that the very smart D'backs' front office thinks it's the role, not the pitcher. It also implies a lot of confidence in Ken Crenshaw and the Arizona medical staff. Not unlike Valverde, Lyon has always been very talented, but very fragile. However, his attrition rate (the predicted chance of a player seeing a drop of 50 percent or more in playing time) has dropped from 40 percent last season to 28 percent in our latest projections. He's been hurt off and on throughout his whole career; it's usually his elbow, due to his vicious whip in the follow-through. Of course, when he's healthy, that whip causes some filthy movement on his pitches, leading several teams to have seen him as their closer of the future. That future is now, but he'll have to do what he's never done before to hold onto it. Let someone else take the risk at your auction.
I warned you last week to just flat ignore talk of being in the "best shape of my life." It's something that proves to be a persistent meme early in spring training, but is really just easy fodder for column inches rather than something to use as reliable, predictive information. Matt Kemp says he's dropped 20 pounds, leading many to think that he'll run more. I think that it's much more sure that he'll need new jeans than that there will be any appreciable change in his game. Listed heights and weights for baseball players are notoriously unreliable. Do you really think David Wells was at 225 last season? Not a chance. Scott Kazmir's 6'0" tall? Maybe if he was standing on something three inches high. What I'd like to know is how Kemp lost the weight. Did he find a nutrition guru? Did he run more or take up Pilates? It's all information that the Dodgers might have, but they haven't shared.
The Dodgers are more happy to tell you about Jason Schmidt, who's throwing off a mound. The best news is that he's not having pain and inflammation between workouts. It's optimistic to think he's going to start the season in the rotation, and even more optimistic to think that he'll get back to his former dominant self, but signs are positive at this stage. I'm going to be conservative and say he's likely to miss the first couple of weeks of the season.
While the East Coast is talking about Curt Schilling's shoulder, the West Coast is talking about... well, OK, it's California, they're not really talking about Kelvim Escobar or his shoulder. Escobar will start the year on the DL, which some might think is bad. Well, it's not good, but the good news was buried: the MRI came back pretty positive. Escobar's shoulder is weak and there's some swelling, but there's no significant damage inside it. So why the DL? Escobar will be behind on his prep and won't be at full strength for at least a couple weeks. The Angels are already bumping up against some roster limits, so the team is simply making the best of a bad situation. They'll use some extra off-days in their early schedule as well as their pitching depth to give Escobar the time he needs to be fully healthy and fully prepared for the long haul of the season.
Freddy Sanchez did not spend the winter playing professional wiffle ball, as he thought about at one point. Instead, he spent his second consecutive offseason rehabbing from surgery. Last year, Sanchez came back from a sprained knee, and struggled that first month while moving from third to second base to boot. Aside from those first few weeks, Sanchez hit pretty much in line with expectations. The shoulder surgery he had this offseason might affect his swing a bit more, so there's some chance of another slow start, something that might be tougher to deal with on a team that was in contention. The Pirates' new leadership understands this, and understands they're in for the long haul as rebuilding projects go, so they agreed to a contract extension with Sanchez despite the issue with his shoulder. Sanchez isn't young, but his batting average and the ability to stick at second for a couple years are for real. Talk up the shoulder heading into your draft, and then steal him later on.
The idea of Manny Ramirez working out shouldn't be funny. All the guy has ever done is hit, but the "Manny Being Manny" stories have gone from funny anecdotes to the kind of thing that obscures his talent. Ramirez has played for two seasons with the same kind of knee problem that held David Ortiz back; he just hasn't talked about it. That's no slight against Ortiz, who's just a bit more gregarious than Ramirez is. The thing is, with Ramirez spending the winter in Arizona with workout guru Mark Verstegen, I can't even guess what the effect on Ramirez will be. My guess is that Ramirez is finally noticing that he's losing a bit to age and has decided that physical conditioning will slow that. As with all things Manny, this should be interesting to watch.
Yes, the MORP figure on Jeremy Bonderman is huge, but that tells you a ton about his upside. The downside is that the Tigers have put a lot of mileage on his arm before his 25th birthday. He's broken down at the end of seasons, but last season's was the worst yet. He's the linchpin of the Tigers rotation, a solid #2 behind Justin Verlander when he's healthy. If he's not, they'll be left hoping to outslug the opposition and that Dontrelle Willis will be reborn in the AL, where his deceptive delivery hasn't been seen as much. The Tigers don't get much credit for being one of the more progressive front offices, but they are, from GM Dave Dombrowski on down. How they handle Bonderman in what will be a pivotal season in his career will give us an indication of just how smart they actually are, but also maybe how lucky.
On the offensive side (no pun intended), Gary Sheffield is making solid progress coming back from a clean-up surgery on his shoulder. His power won't come back immediately, but even a reduced Sheffield will be dangerous. Expect him to get some extra rest in the first half. As for Joel Zumaya, no news is good news. His return from shoulder surgery won't hit any milestones for a while. All the Tigers want to hear is more silence, because for the next month or so, they only reason his name would come up is if there'd been a setback.
Finally, if you're going to be in the Tampa Bay area on February 23rd, I hope you'll stop by the Rays FanFest. More information and tickets are available at raysbaseball.com. I'll be there participating in some panel discussions, giving away some prizes, and talking some baseball. Stop by and say hi, I'll be the bald guy with the pretty girls.