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May 9, 2008

UTK Wrap

At the Races

by Will Carroll

It's Indianapolis in May, so I'm checking in from the track. It's a big switch from 90 mph fastballs to 200 mph straightaways, and the injuries come at a different level. It's one thing to see Aaron Rowand hit the wall and a whole other thing when Danica Patrick does it. The great thing is that I can keep up from anywhere there's WiFi or even just good cell coverage. Drivers want to talk baseball more than you'd think, a reminder that for all the problems, even in an international sport, baseball is still the great American game. Many of these guys grew up playing shortstop as often as they drove go-karts. The best part is finding that commonality, where a driver with more nerve and reaction speed than I could ever hope for talks to me about his fantasy team the same way you or I do. A Yankees or Cubs cap is almost like a fraternity pin, a conversation starter in a way that, around these parts, an Andretti Green or Penske hat marks you as one or the other.

So, powered by ethanol and speed (the legal, fast kind), on to the injuries:

Justin Verlander (0 DXL/0)
Jack Morris may not be a Hall of Fame pitcher, but that doesn't mean he knows what he's talking about with pitching. Just because you're good at something based on a natural talent and a solid work ethic doesn't make you an analyst. I'll acknowledge that when it comes to the on-the-mound stuff, Morris knows more than I'll ever know, but when he ventures into my territory, Houdini-ing an injury, and does so with less evidence than he did when discussing Johan Santana's pitch selection, I have to call it like I see it. Morris claimed that Verlander looked hurt, that "he has to be hurting because he's not extending the arm"; I guess the mid-90's velocity and solid performance (albeit in a losing effort) against the Twins didn't convince him. I watched the tape of that game and Verlander's previous two starts, and compared them to a performance from last year (albeit only highlights). I don't see a significant difference. Paired with work Verlander was doing in spring training focused on movement and command over velocity and Verlander's insistence that he feels fine, I'm siding with the young pitcher over the ex-pitcher. Maybe Morris will discuss pitching to the score next.

Curt Schilling (90 DXL/$3.4 million)
Schilling is back on a mound-and his soapbox. We haven't heard a lot from Schilling since his injury, but he manned up and said that he was wrong about the Red Sox's plan for him to rehab it instead of going under the knife. Thus far, their plan has worked, and the risky surgery his doctor recommended, while it might have worked, just wasn't worth the risk. (Call me when someone has a successful result from the biceps tenodesis and comes back to pitch.) Even so, there's still a lot of risk here, not only for a recurrence, but that he's not going to be strong enough to pitch effectively, that he won't be able to recover well, or that he won't be able to adjust without causing more problems. These are all real concerns that will have to be addressed as he moves his rehab plan onto the mound and against competition. There hasn't been discussion yet of "Smoltzing" him and using him in relief, though it did work during his ankle rehab a couple of seasons back, at least temporarily. The Sox are hoping that he can come back and be effective, taking some of the workload off of young pitchers like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, and Schilling wants to win and put the team into position for another ring. Schilling's injury cost is based on a projected 21 starts, so while there is a bit of "double counting" here, it's not much and not worth algebraic convolutions to get a more accurate measure. It's going to be very interesting as a medhead to watch how this all plays out. We'll just have to see how Curt's new gyroball works.

John Lackey (45 DXL/$3.8 million)
Lackey made it through four innings and seventy pitches during his latest rehab start in High-A Rancho Cucamonga. While his results were mediocre, it was getting his work in without a setback that was the important part, and on that level it was a success. Lackey's had no recurrence of elbow pain or problems with his triceps during his rehab; he's scheduled to have one more start, likely back in extended spring training, before he gets activated. That last assignment is so that the Angels can control the number of pitches he throws, something they feel is important after Lackey came up a bit short of his 75-pitch plan on Monday. He's on pace to come back to the Angels in about a week.

Esteban Loaiza (15 DXL/$0.2 million)
The Dodgers appear to be taking the bad-a shoulder injury for Loaiza, one they're calling "tightness and muscle spasms"-and creating some good. According to both published reports and sources, Clayton Kershaw looks to be the fill-in starter; the prize prospect's big league debut should come in Anaheim on May 17. (Interleague matchups, already?) To amp up the drama a little, Loaiza protested the DL move, saying he feels fine. He did go through his normal between-starts routine, so caution and the chance to debut their phenom against the crosstown rival appear to have intersected. Loaiza should only be out the minimum-unless Kershaw locks down the spot, something that's entirely possible. In the meantime, Yhency Brazoban will take the roster spot vacated in hopes of bolstering the pen. With Kershaw's upside, this could be one of those situations where the replacement has a higher value (a $925,000 value over a projected 20 starts) than the injured starter. Heck, this could be in Wally Pipp territory.

Scott Kazmir (0 DXL/0)
As Kazmir struck out Julio Lugo on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, he was already approaching fifty pitches on what was expected to be a 100-pitch limit. I thought to myself that he was going to need to pitch to contact to get through five innings on that limit, but even with David Ortiz out of the lineup, there really wasn't a batter Kazmir could just let hit the ball, hoping it stayed in the park and where an improved defense could help him out. Instead, he looked out of gas--by the time he hit 60, he was trying to sneak a change past Manny Ramirez. Then he began to battle through and looked like the Kazmir we're used to seeing. He ended up hitting his limit after four, something the Rays clearly anticipated with their roster move and the need for an extra reliever. So how is this a positive? It was stamina that appeared to be the problem (maybe even some nerves), but facing a patient and powerful lineup was a tough assignment in his first start back. His mechanics looked normal, he had his normal easy velocity (if slightly off), he appeared to have command of all his pitches, and never seemed to be questioning his elbow. We'll have to wait and see how he recovers, but it was a solid return despite the result.

Joe Borowski (60 DXL/$1.3 million)
Just when you thought it was safe to quit complaining about the Indians bullpen, Joe Borowski is back. Not back in the closer role yet, but he is back on a mound, having started a throwing program after being shut down for a couple of weeks. If the rest and treatment both did what they were intended to do, he'll have his velocity back to a more normal level. If not, they're quickly going to know that Borowski is lost to them in terms of value. Until he throws, we just don't know, though most of the people I've discussed this with--both external medical advisors and sources within the game--seem hesitant at best. He's scheduled to throw every other day for the next week, and then a decision will be made. If his velocity is back, don't expect him to go on a rehab assignment. Late word is that his Thursday bullpen showed "some improvement" but that it wasn't "closer velocity." I'm still thinking the 60 DXL might end up a little high.

David Ortiz (0 DXL/0)
Sore knees? That's all this is for Papi--sore knees. After minor knee surgery last year, Ortiz still isn't comfortable with the new wheels, but the surgery was intended to correct a symptom, not to completely fix the joints. There's still some pain and some inflammation, and for a guy putting as much stress as Ortiz is with every step and every swing, it's not a complete surprise that he's having issues. The task for Ortiz and the Sox medical staff is to figure out how to keep him at a level where his abilities can be maximized. Terry Francona will have to trust everyone in order to figure out how to utilize him, to know what days he needs rest, and I'm sure he'll be looking at the data to find the right matchups. If there's an upside, it's that the offdays Ortiz will get will free up the DH slot now and again, and that means Manny Ramirez or Jason Varitek could get some at-bats without the wear and tear of playing in the field. For a smart team, this isn't as much a problem as a puzzle. While there's no DXL here, if you look over the course of a season, Ortiz is likely to lose around 100 plate appearances.

Russell Martin (0 DXL/0)
It shouldn't surprise anyone to see Russell Martin at third base. All they have to do is look into the dugout and see Joe Torre, who made the same switch years ago. That Torre sees a bit of himself in Martin isn't that much of a surprise, but does moving Martin out from behind the plate help his injury risk? Normally, a position switch of any sort increases injury risk; while there's no solid explanation for it, I believe it's familiarity with the new position and getting the body ready for its differing demands. However, even with a slightly increased risk at third base, getting out from behind the plate is a significant drop in risk. Martin is very athletic and with his heavy workload in his first couple of seasons, anything is an improvement. There's a downside in that, by resting him, the Dodgers put the weak-hitting Gary Bennett behind the plate, though buying perhaps 10 or 20 extra games of Martin's bat makes that seem a fair trade. We can only hope that Minnesota is watching.

Mark Mulder (90 DXL/$0.2 million)
The Cardinals watched Mulder get knocked around at Double- and Triple-A before finally saying they'd seen enough. He was checked out and found to have a mild rotator cuff strain. It's not likely the cause, but it is enough to stop his rehab and give him a chance to regroup and work on strengthening the shoulder, and then seeing if they can find what still seems lost. Shoulder injuries are tough to come back from, and seeing the course of Mulder's injury history (which really matches the run of UTK) is interesting, going from his hip to his back to his shoulder. Once again, we see the kinetic chain in effect, cascading from spot to spot and finding the weakest link. Mulder's unlikely at this point to find much that he hasn't already found, but there's still something in there, and as long as he's willing to try, the Cards have to continue giving him the opportunity.

Max Scherzer (0 DXL/0)
There's going to be a lot of talk about Scherzer's unorthodox motion, from both scouts and the video-based mechanists around the baseball world. They'll talk about his head whip, his "M" pickup, and his high back leg. I don't have joint loads or any of the things that I'd like to have, and I honestly never saw him throw before Monday night, but I like what I see. The head whip is almost a red herring, having little or nothing to do with his delivery; it's more noticeable, but he has essentially the same ending position as Hideki Okajima. If anything, it will stress his traps and maybe his back over time. I love the compact, efficient motion, the great hip rotation, and the incredible arm speed he generates with what looks to be little effort. It's not perfect-one friend noticed an inconsistent landing point, while Kevin Goldstein points out that his delivery has been cleaned up over the last year. He got knocked around a bit by a good lineup and the D'backs defense didn't help, but he made a heck of a first impression.

Quick Cuts: The Nats got a double dose of problems at catcher. Paul Lo Duca is out for a month or more with a broken finger, while Johnny Estrada heads to the DL with a painful elbow. Rule 5 find Jesus Flores is the man and a possible fantasy pickup if you're looking for at-bats at catcher. ... Jimmy Rollins should come off the DL when eligible and leave the ankle issue behind him, even as mishandled as this situation was. ... Pat Neshek felt a pop in his elbow on Thursday. Early word is that he's got a strain, but follow this closely. He had elbow problems at the end of last season and his motion is, well, let's just call it unique. ... Conor Jackson was having some vision problems after his collision and likely concussion, but the symptoms are mild. He's expected to return as early as Friday. ... Like the Nats, the Jays have an injury stack in one day. David Eckstein hits the DL with a hip flexor strain while John McDonald couldn't talk his way out of a DL stint after spraining his ankle. Marco Scutaro is the first choice to replace them. ... Omar Vizquel is expected to return to the Giants lineup this weekend after missing an extended period after knee surgery. ... I'm kidding about Schilling and the gyroball.

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