February 22, 2008
Come to Florida
We're a week into spring training and, as you read this, I'm heading down to Florida to check out some of the Grapefruit League action. It's too early to really know anything or--unless you've got the trained eye of a scout--to see anything. It's not too early to get injured, however, and it's always surprising to me just how quickly some players find themselves in the training room. There is a flipside to that, where we start to see the signs that someone's back from an injury. Seeing Francisco Liriano snapping off some breaking balls is a good thing, for now, and seeing Eric Gagné in long-toss drills does tell us a little bit. The problem is that it doesn't tell us enough.
Treating Spring Training as a decision point is wrong; it's a data point, one to add to the other information that we already have on that player. Just as you can't make a decision about a batter from one at-bat or a pitcher from a single isolated inning, there's not enough to spring training to make informed decisions. Seeing a player play can actually confuse fantasy owners, so unless you know exactly what you're looking for, it's better to go to a Grapefruit or Cactus League game and just enjoy the sun, dreaming of the return of spring that brings baseball. For now, let's take a look at who's already dealing with injury situations.
(A reminder--the format for the top line is the player's name, days expected lost, and the expected value of that player in 2008, in millions of dollars, or MORP. As the season starts, we'll use these two figures to calculate an Injury Cost for each incident. Also, we're still using 2007 MORP values for the players, so these will change very soon. For now, what's there is just informational.)
Gallardo's knee surgery is about as minor as it comes, what orthopedists call a "scrape and tape." The bigger concern is that he's going to miss time in spring training that's normally used to build arm strength. Gallardo's injury is in his landing leg, so beyond building his arm up, pitching coach Mike Maddux and the training staff will have to watch Gallardo closely to make sure he doesn't make subtle alterations in his pitching motion, changes that could lead to more serious injuries. While Ned Yost sounds managerly in saying that Gallardo could come back in plenty of time, it's much more likely that he starts the season on the DL, then makes a couple of starts in Nashville (or perhaps another, warmer site), and then comes back to Milwaukee in mid- to late April. The Brewers go eight deep with starters and have a favorable schedule, so there's no rush to get their young potential ace back.
Ooh, drama! Guerrero has made it clear that he doesn't want to be a DH, but by protecting him from the wear and tear on his back and turf-damaged knees (from his days as an Expo), the Angels would be protecting their investment in their franchise player. Sure, playing him part-time would help, as that would allow Garret Anderson to get some rest and would keep Guerrero's arm in the outfield. The problem is that his arm, while still strong, isn't that valuable--maybe half a win over the course of a season, according to BP's Dan Fox. How Mike Scioscia handles this situation might tell us a lot about the Angels' future.
Imagine my shock when Sox owner John Henry busted out medical concepts like "nocebo" and intelligently discussed varying medical opinions on an esoteric technique like biceps tenodesis. It shouldn't surprise me, given how seriously the Red Sox have taken team health over the past couple of seasons, that it starts at the top. It doesn't help Schilling, however, as he tries to go through a course of rehab that could make or break his career. Tenodesis is a technique that, to my knowledge, hasn't been done in isolation in baseball, so I can understand the reluctance of the team, but in discussions I've had with the doctors I trust, there's no clear consensus on which course is better. This is the same sort of quandary that Schilling and the Red Sox find themselves in. I'm saying that Schilling will miss 90 days--the first half of the season--in rehab, but it's clear that it could be more.
Some people think my job is ghoulish, like the people who go to the races just to see the crashes. I don't wish ill on anyone, but I do love the quirky stories like this once. Pence fell through a sliding glass door in his Kissimmee rental and was lucky to suffer only superficial cuts. He shouldn't miss much time, if any, unlike a similar situation with David Wells and a beer glass a few years ago. Pence escapes with minimal problems, shouldn't miss any significant time, and gets a story to laugh about years from now. Just remember how much worse it could have been, and what you might have had to do if Pence were one of your keepers.
A front office type (can I start calling these FOTs?) I spoke with last week didn't understand why everyone was so concerned with Escobar's shoulder problem. "He's just a fourth starter," he said. Now, maybe Escobar is "just" a fourth starter, which says a lot about the Angels pitching depth. Much like last year with a very similar situation with Jered Weaver, the Angels shouldn't have any trouble filling the slot or simply scheduling around it for the first few weeks in the regular season. The Angels have some depth, with prospects like Joe Saunders and Nick Adenhart ready. The way the Weaver situation played out last year seems a solid model for how this will go, so don't be too worried. Just follow the Angels and get some depth, but don't be too scared of drafting Escobar.
Want to hear one of the weirdest indicators for injury? No-hitters. Just getting close, as Curt Schilling or Phil Hughes did, can lead a pitcher to push himself beyond his normal capabilities, to cause high-stress throws well past a normal fatigue point. Anibal Sanchez has never really recovered from his no-hitter, ending up losing all of 2007 to a labrum tear. He's reliant on a change, so any loss in velocity is going to be problematic, and he's already shown that the rehab program he was on this offseason hasn't gotten him back to function. Getting shut down in the first week of camp is an even worse indicator than a no-hitter; putting the two together just reminds us what might be lost. This kid was good.
It's pretty amazing how two players once marketed for their durability have become fragile in such a short length of time. Matsui, touted as the Japanese Cal Ripken, is simply aging, dealing with minor injuries like a torn meniscus. You really can't conflate this knee problem with his broken wrist without bringing his age into question. He's not old, just aging quickly. The same holds true for Johnny Damon. I've heard some say that he was able to play through minor injuries, but eventually he just couldn't and, more importantly, wouldn't. Damon nearly walked away from the game last season, but decided that, in coming back after all, he'd have to play differently. He's still valuable, but he's not likely to be a 150-game player again. I see more and more wisdom in the comparison of Damon to Andy Van Slyke. With this lineup, new skipper Joe Girardi is going to have his hands full in keeping the Yankees both productive and healthy, not to mention happy.
I'm still dubious of the suggestion that Milton Bradley is back from an ACL tear in just over six months, which leaves that 15-day mark up there next to his name. Given all the information on his recovery, it may well end up wrong. We'll see him in camp soon enough, and I'm less concerned about seeing him run than I am in seeing him hit. The legs are a key part of any swing, more so for a physically strong player like Bradley. This is what I call a "binary injury"--either he's recovered or he's not, and the minute he steps in against live pitching, we'll know where he stands. The option of using him at DH for the first part of the season (or longer) helps him as well.
Blalock is coming back from surgery to remove a rib in order to correct an arterial problem, and seems to be functional again. He's not the most predictable player and remains flawed, but he's also the Rangers' best option at third base right now. Having him healthy gives him a chance to be productive in the way he was at the end of last season, which is something the Rangers need.
We all know about Sanchez's car wreck and the drama that followed, and his lost season following surgery. What few connect it to is the late-season fade for Billy Wagner. Wagner has done it every year, and every year there's a new solution. Last spring, Wagner was talking about a changeup, but it never materialized. This year, the Mets are hoping to use Wagner less frequently and that relies on Sanchez being both healthy and effective. The modern closer has become like a couch covered in plastic: too nice to risk actually using. There's certainly value in getting more effective relievers to use in varying situations, but getting them just to protect one guy and locking them into roles, rather than unleashing beasts in high-leverage situations regardless of the inning is so much more logical (and cheaper). Look at the numbers above, you're getting roughly six times the value from Wagner, but the Mets are paying Wagner twelve times more than Sanchez. That's something to think about.