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February 29, 2008

UTK Wrap

Early Action, Early Hurts

by Will Carroll

I got the chance to see some actual baseball-assuming that you count drills and side sessions as actual baseball-last week in Florida. Hearing the crack of the bat or the mitt popping as a fastball comes in is always amazing. Standing out on the field, wet from the dew and with the fresh-cut smell is one of the most amazing experiences. I felt the grass beneath my feet ,and for just a moment, I thought I could play again. Of course, fantasy baseball is going to be as close as I come this year, and that's just fine. While the players are warming up and just starting to play games, BP is in mid-season form, with the PECOTA cards up and this year's edition of the annual on shelves. We'll take a look at all the injuries around the league-and there's already quite a few-while adding in our 2008 Injury Cost numbers for those players that will miss time.

One of the things that's tougher to judge (if not impossible) is the effect of missed spring training time, or the "ramp" time it takes to get back from injury. I'll often talk about "return to function" and "return to level," two physical therapy terms that don't seem very different. However, they're very different. "Return to function" indicates that the injury has healed to the point that the player's back to a functional level, where he can fully rehab or even participate, but there are limitations. An example of this would be Alfonso Soriano last season, who returned to function without ever getting away from the limitations they placed on his running. He was productive despite the problem, but few would argue that he ever "returned to level." That latter term indicates that the injury is not only overcome, but fully healed. Once a player returns to level, the threat of re-injury diminishes because the body is no longer guarding the injury. That's an important distinction, because we've consistently seen skills lost or impaired during the period of injury.

Why is this important? Beyond the levels of productivity, it helps gauge the effectiveness of the rehab, the ability of the player to heal within the normal parameters, and for determining any ongoing effects. Ken Griffey Jr. never returned to level, but he will crack the 600-home run milestone this year. Had he been able to return to level, maybe we'd be talking about 700 now.

In terms of measurements, the DL is a blunt instrument, but it's the best available to outsiders. We don't get the "available/not available" charts that teams have. We don't know the strength or range reduction in a pitcher's shoulder. We don't even know if painkillers are helping a player fight through an injury. That's why I have the job of trying to find all this out, but quantifying it is still something I struggle with.

Let's take a look at the most recent injuries around the league, debuting the injury cost figure, a calculation of the projected value lost over the course of an injury that uses BP's new, updated MORP figures as a base. (For players that are not expected to miss time, the figure is an obvious zero.)

Brad Lidge 15/$0.67 million
Lidge's move to Philly's closer role will be a bit delayed. Small meniscus tears are becoming downright fashionable early in spring training, a time normally reserved for dead arms and stiff backs. Like Yovanni Gallardo, Lidge will be delayed in getting ready for the season, missing a couple weeks of work. The 15 days lost that I've assigned to him is cautionary, and likely on the conservative side. That's because it's possible-though not likely-that Lidge could be ready for Opening Day in some fashion, and perhaps equally unlikely that he'll have built up Charlie Manuel's trust by that point. This is Lidge's second surgery on this knee in less than a year, and at some point there's only so much meniscus left. Bone on bone grinding isn't a good thing.

Omar Vizquel 0/0
It's the same injury, but a different player at a different position. How does a torn meniscus affect a rangy shortstop instead of a power pitcher? In this case, the minor knee injury will have a short-term effect on his lateral mobility, especially to his right, since the push would naturally come from his repaired left knee. His availability on Opening Day is in doubt, but Vizquel has been a quick healer on the few occasions he's been hurt. We should know a lot more in about two weeks. If Vizquel isn't at least running by that point, he'd likely be sidelined for Opening Day, which would shift Kevin Frandsen over to shortstop temporarily. In the long term, this shouldn't have any effect on Vizquel in the field or at bat. I'm hesitant to say this is a sign of aging, but it's another data point that says Father Time's catching up on Vizquel.

So why all the knee injuries? There's no real answer, but coincidence is the best explanation I can provide. I don't believe we're seeing any kind of trend here, just the bad luck, with some players coming up with minor knee injuries early in camp.

Scott Kazmir 0/0
Rays fans, you can exhale. Kazmir left before even throwing a pitch in the Rays' first intrasquad game. His left elbow might just be the pivot point on which a widely-anticipated Rays' turnaround season revolves. One MRI and an exam later, and Kazmir's elbow came out OK. He has a moderate muscle strain, though the Rays have been very careful not to provide too much detail. The team will be very cautious with him, though there's no reason to think that Kazmir's pronouncement that he'll be ready for Opening Day isn't correct. Beyond the initial shock, this serves as a reminder of just how tenuous even the most durable pitcher's status as a workhorse is; they're all one pitch away from sitting out a season. Kazmir's likely to be the 2009 version of Johan Santana, at least in the sense that he'll come up every time we talk about available pitchers, and he'll be glad that the Rays have been so cautious with him. Expect hard pitch limits on him early in the season, which could cost him a win or two. The Rays also had last year's number-one overall pick, David Price, come up with a sore shoulder; after being examined, he's already been cleared to throw again.

Rich Harden 0/0
The job of a beat writer is hard. Here's Rich Harden, the guy who's been hurt and disappointing for two seasons now, so you have to be a bit suspicious, even cynical, about his ability to come back and reclaim his ace status. Then those same beat writers see him make it through to the first live sessions of the spring and he looks different somehow, definitely healthy, at least at the moment, but the beat writer can't allow that rush of excitement to escape down into their pens or keyboards. So the question becomes whether Harden's solid early spring is a mirage or not. According to observers, Harden's motion looks unchanged, but it's "easy." That indicates that he's throwing without pain, something he was never able to do in the recent past. He's the very definition of risky, but so far, things look positive.

Kosuke Fukudome 0/0
Fukudome heads into his first Cactus League without having really cut loose with his surgically-repaired elbow. While this was never expected to be a major problem and the value of a cannon arm in right field is perhaps a bit overrated, it's still worth noting. There doesn't appear to be any effect on any other portion of his game, including his hitting. There's some question among scouts that have seen him, whether the arm is something teams will try to exploit, or if he's just being cautious. One scout even wondered if he was "sandbagging us into running on him so that he looks like Ichiro." That would be a calculating move, but it's also unlikely. The good news is that there doesn't appear to be any effect on his swing at all and that's what the Cubs really brought him over for. As we discussed with Vladimir Guerrero, even the best arm has minimal value.

Mark DeRosa 15/$0.57 million
Is it more amazing that you're reading about radio frequency catheter ablation on SI.com, or that Mark DeRosa is only expected to miss a minimum of time after having this procedure on his heart? DeRosa has had heart arrhythmia since puberty, but the problem has become more pronounced over the last year. While he's not in grave danger, having the procedure will improve his quality of life. The biggest question in his recovery will be how far his conditioning will be pushed back. With, say, a knee injury like Vizquel's, there would be activities he could do, like a handbike, that will keep his cardio health up. For a guy undergoing a cardiac procedure, though, it's his heart that needs rest.

Nick Johnson 0/0
Healthy for once, Johnson is reminding people that he can hit. As with Jermaine Dye, Johnson's broken leg and the subsequent complications took longer than expected to heal, but with Dye, once the healing was complete, he returned to level shortly thereafter and has been able to play at the same high level of performance without any consequence from that injury. Johnson was injury-prone before the broken femur, so he's hardly a low risk now. Add in that there's some positional uncertainty after the Nats locked up Dmitri Young in the midst of his comeback season, and Johnson's likely to go pretty low in most drafts. More than any other player on the team, he should benefit from the new park's cozier dimensions as he tries to get a new start on his career.

Adam Loewen 0/0
He has a screw in his pitching elbow. It's as simple as that. Loewen's 2007 season ended due to an odd stress fracture in his pitching arm, and it had to be fixated. This isn't unprecedented or even unusual. Every pitcher who's had Tommy John surgery has fixators in their elbow, though few have the type of screw that Loewen has. However, even that isn't unprecedented-Cal Eldred pitched much of the second half of his career with a five-inch screw in his elbow. It's far from ideal, but early in camp, Loewen isn't showing any sign that it's affecting him. Observers tell me his motion looks clean and that he's "smoother" through his release. There are a lot of positives here, but I'm not ready to stop watching him just yet; the elbow remains enough of a risk that you should be wary of him despite the upside.

Fernando Rodney 15/$0.30 million
Joel Zumaya 90/$2.29 million
If there's any weak point on this Tigers team, it's the bullpen. It's funny that Todd Jones, the most maligned member of their World Series staff, is also the most consistent and, at this point, nearly their only healthy reliever. The team has shut down Rodney, the pitcher most likely to take over the set-up role in the absence of Zumaya. Rodney has as much of a hard time staying healthy as Zumaya, he just does it in a much less dramatic fashion. A week of rest didn't clear up the inflammation in his pitching shoulder, which is what Rodney also had issues with last season. At this stage, it's going to be difficult for Rodney to get his arm strength to the point he'll need to have it at by Opening Day, so I'm giving him a minimum DL value, though that grade is very fluid, depending on his progress over the next ten days. Zumaya is said to be ahead of schedule, but I'm leaving him as a half-season loss for now.

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