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March 6, 2008

Team Health Reports

New York Yankees

by Will Carroll

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The Facts
Head Trainer: Gene Monahan
Player Days Lost, 2007: 1,081
Dollars Lost, 2007: $22.22 million
Three-Year Rank: 23

The Yankees have a tendency to bring in players that are past their prime, which would make many think that I'd give Gene Monahan and his staff something of a pass for this team's lower-third finish in Three-Year Rank category. However, while Monahan is almost an institution in New York, he's not above some blame here. The team has been behind the curve in some ways, but perhaps most telling, it's the area of maintenance where their results are the most questionable. The age question is a bit of a misdirect-older players don't necessarily skew injury stats. A younger player with known injury problems or, worse, one who racks up significant DL time-like Phil Hughes last season-is just as bad, if not worse.

Instead, it's the question of players like Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and their rapid descents. Healthy players that have never been injured, as these two were, often don't know the basic "how to" of rehab. Then it's especially up to the medical staff to maintain the players, keeping them in a state where they can be productive. Not that there's a difference between "productive" and "healthy." Some players can't play at less than 100 percent, either by choice or by talent. Players with lower levels of physical talent (or athleticism) often can't lose a step, a notch on their fastball, or any bat speed. The odd thing about the Yankees' trouble with maintenance is that they're dealing with a superior level of athleticism than any other team. Even the pitchers on this team are athletes. Yes, I know that Jason Giambi might not be the type of gazelle-like athlete you might associate with the word, but there's no question that even now he has amazing physical gifts.

So what's the problem? I think it could be tradition. The Yankees operate in an older, smaller environment for their medical staff-something that the new park will correct-and tend to resist change. While the move last year to bring in new ideas with a new conditioning coach did not work, their quickly pulling the plug revealed the extent of the internal resistance. Most of the problem seems to reside in the organization's upper levels; while solid injury statistics don't exist for the minor leagues, at least anecdotally it appears that there's been an increase in injuries at the upper levels. The team has actually had solid success with its Tampa rehab programs, which indicates they may already have all they need in place, but just need to better deploy their resources.

If nothing else, the Yankees could use the same financial advantages they have everywhere else to help solve this issue. More trainers? Sure. Better equipment? Sure. Better facilities? Already in the works, but sure. The one thing we've yet to see is an organizational focus on the issue, and that can only come from the top.

The Big Question
The bloggers from Pinstripe Alley ask: "Whose legs are in the worst shape-Jeter, Damon, Matsui, Giambi, Wang, Hughes, Mussina? Who is most/least likely to bounce back from last year?"

This is interesting, in that so many have problems in the same area. While the Yankees' struggles with conditioning last season are well-known, this goes beyond that and into the realm where we have to wonder if this is just an odd quirk, or if the Yankees front office just doesn't value good legs. I think it's mostly the former; Damon and Giambi were acquired without any previous history of problems, as was Hideki Matsui. I think it's Matsui that's the worst, descending from the Japanese Cal Ripken to multiple surgeries in a short period of time, making him the least likely to return to his previous function, but likely to improve now that he's been cleaned up. I don't see that Jeter had any problems, and I think Hughes is the most interesting name from among those on this list. Keeping his legs healthy is going to be as important a task for the Yankees staff as keeping his arm healthy, as his "reach back" injury showed us last season. Reports that he's showing increased velocity this spring could be good (if he's increased the strength in his leg without making them more problematic) or bad (if he's reaching back more often).

C Jorge Posada Yellow light: Posada came to catching relatively late as a pro, which often gets the credit for his health and durability over such a long period. However, according to one source, it's more his ease of motion. "The guy never seems to be in a hurry, on or off the field. He just makes it look like he's on cruise when everyone else has the pedal down," one AL front office type (FOT! FOT!) told me last fall.

1B Jason Giambi Red light: Giambi will get a lot of help here, whether from Shelly Duncan (red), Morgan Ensberg (red), or even Hideki Matsui. The less Giambi plays in the field, the better for him, but he's old enough and fragile enough that he's likely to see a stint on the DL this season. The Yankees have done a good job at minimizing the impact of those injuries over the last couple years.

2B Robinson Cano Green light

3B Alex Rodriguez Green light

SS Derek Jeter Green light

LF Johnny Damon Yellow light: Damon is on the cusp of a red, going from iron man to rust pretty quickly. There aren't many players with this kind of pattern, but I think the PECOTA comp of Larry Walker, a player you wouldn't normally think of in relation to Damon, might be the most instructive.

CF Melky Cabrera Green light

RF Bobby Abreu Green light

DH Hideki Matsui Yellow light: He's coming off what should be very minor knee surgery, but nothing seems minor with Matsui. He might not have known how to rehab when he first got injured (it was a wrist), but he should have figured it out by now. He's simply a slow healer who's not aging well.

SP Andy Pettitte Yellow light: This one's too easy; it's his age and the history of elbow problems.

SP Chien Ming Wang Yellow light: Assuming his ego isn't bruised from losing his arbitration case, the injuries shouldn't be that big a deal for Wang. He's another of the crop of modern sinkerballers, using a tailing near-scroogie that we don't have a lot of data on. Brandon Webb's stayed healthy, Wang's been okay, but it's Fausto Carmona that's the big test for this pitch.

SP Phil Hughes Red light: I'm not so much worried about the innings piling up and the effect on him as I am about how he injured his leg last year. Dominating the Rangers, Hughes tried to "reach back" and do something extra, popping his hamstring in the process. What happens the next time he wants to make a big pitch? Let's hope he's learned that lesson.

SP Ian Kennedy Yellow light: Kennedy's not a flamethrower, but he is a high-effort thrower. Combine that with his size and the expected innings increase, and you have a yellow.

SP Mike Mussina Yellow light: Mussina has taken to spouting off about "babying pitchers." Maybe he doesn't remember what happened to him after he was worked hard in his rookie season. It's been deft management of his career (and that odd curve) that have kept him this healthy this long.

RP Joba Chamberlain Red light: I still don't believe that they'll send him to the minors to "stretch him out." Maybe the Yanks will stick to the plan and maybe it will work. It's at least a plan, which is more than most teams with talented young pitchers have. I have no idea if it will work. If he were to stay in the pen all year, he's a very low yellow.

CL Mariano Rivera Red light: I say this every year, but Rivera's that weird red, the guy who'll have one minor injury, going to the DL sometimes, then coming back just as dominant. It's amazing that he really only has one pitch and that no one else can replicate it or even figure it out.

Lineups courtesy SportsBlogs Nation.

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