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July 4, 2008

UTK Wrap

Big-Ticket Bang-ups

by Will Carroll

It's been a heck of a week, for baseball and for me. From a birthday party with 200 of my closest friends in New York City to an amazing meal at Mesa Grill to a Rays sweep over the Red Sox, it's been pretty amazing. Unfortunately the injuries keep coming and altering the landscape of baseball, turning contenders into panic-stricken seekers in one traumatic moment or that final straw that pushes someone from pitching ace to patient. Powered by Amp, on to the injuries:

Todd Helton (0 DXL/0)
Jason Varitek (0 DXL/0)
If there's a baseball equivalent to "never fight a land war in Asia," Vizzini might tell us "never buy the decline years of a player." It doesn't take a Sicilian to know this, but timing it out is something that general managers do with little more than a guess. Advanced systems like PECOTA try to divine it, but with closer knowledge, that decision can be made pretty accurately. Of course, "pretty accurately" is a nicer way of saying the mistake wasn't as bad as it could have been. I disagreed with the decision to sign Jason Varitek to a multi-year extension at the time, thinking the decline would come more quickly than it has. Another World Series ring and three-plus productive seasons behind him, Varitek and the Sox front office are up on me (and the many others who saw things my way). The one problem is that it was a four-year deal that the Sox signed Varitek to, and it's beginning to look like the age, leg, and back problems are catching up with him. Is the contract still a "good" one? Yes, of course, but fighting off the Rays with a catcher whose production is weighing them down certainly takes some of the shine off. The Sox have been very good about not being sentimental. Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon were allowed to leave when the same Sox decision makers didn't like what must have been very similar information over similar time frames.

The same can't really be said for the Rockies, who gave out contracts like beads at a Mardi Gras parade back in 2003. Now, with Helton dealing with back pain, giving a then-29-year-old a nine-year deal, one that gets really expensive in his age-37 season, looks even crazier. Sure, Helton was good for most of it and good enough to help his team get to the World Series at 33, but the downside of this contract is huge, especially if the back injury continues to linger, sapping more of Helton's power. Helton will avoid the DL, but watch for him to get occasional days off, especially around the All-Star break.

Roy Oswalt (0 DXL/0)
I've talked to a lot of people in trying to understand what's up with Oswalt, and one name keeps popping up-John Smoltz. It's not that he's headed for arm surgery, but the attitude and toughness are similar, as well as the desire to pitch through injuries rather than allowing himself to be shut down. Everyone seems to admire the trait inside of the game, but the doctors... not so much. Oswalt has had a lot of leg problems, though none recently, and certainly no events that make me think that his recent hip problem is related. As with any pitcher, the concern isn't for the injury itself, but rather for the changes to his mechanics if he's forced to adjust in order to compensate. Despite a no-trade clause, a few teams have been watching Oswalt as a possible target, so keeping him healthy has to be a priority for the Astros. Initially, I thought he'd make his weekend start, but a couple of extra days of rest was the better choice, especially with the break coming. It looks like the Astros listened, pushing Oswalt back to a Tuesday start, rather than tomorrow.

Felix Hernandez (15 DXL/$1.0 million)
The Mariners did the smart thing here, protecting Hernandez from himself by pushing him to the DL, rather than letting him try to pitch through his sprained ankle. Hernandez's mechanics are already enough of a mess without throwing a tender landing foot into the mix. Until he's solid on the ankle, the M's won't hurry him back, making it tough to tell exactly when he'll return. I'm putting up a 15 for his DXL, but with the All-Star break complicating things, I wouldn't be surprised if the Mariners made him sit until they're past the break. There's really no compelling reason to rush him, and keeping him healthy long term should be the much larger priority.

David Ortiz (50 DXL/$4.9 million)
Ortiz won't to be back before the All-Star break, though he is making progress in leaps and bounds. He's gone from soft swings on a tee to full swings with soft-toss drills. Some have asked what soft toss is, so here's a video that shows the drill. It's not quite the "live pitching" that some have described, but it's definitely a positive step. Ortiz has had little problem beyond the expected soreness, but the worry is that he'll either push too hard, or, with the teams' recent slide, the Red Sox will get a bit desperate. While these are valid concerns, the Sox are not a short-term team, and their flexibility is going to keep them from making any hasty decisions. The Big Papi is still on track to come back in late July, though a more immediate post All-Star break return is looking like a possibility.

Matt Capps (45 DXL/$2.4 million)
If Pirates fans want to feel good about something, check out Neal Huntington's quote at the end of this article. Caught early? Proactive? Non-surgical return? All of these are terms that have not exactly been strongly associated with the Pirates in recent years. I'm starting to see signs that Huntington and the front office of the new-look Bucs not only get it, they're getting it done. Capps' tight shoulder capsule changes the internal workings and relationships of the various moving structures, often leading to labrum damage. Once the inflammation is out and the range of motion is back, the Pirates will need to get to work on adjusting his motion to a point where this doesn't become a regular occurrence. That won't be an easy task, so I'll say this might take a bit longer than the month we're hearing.

Travis Hafner (60 DXL/$4.0 million)
Half as strong? That's never good, and shows just how far Hafner's right shoulder had gone, that it is only half as strong as the left after weeks of treatment and therapy. Dick Martin Award-winning trainer Lonnie Soloff was quoted as saying he's convinced that Hafner will be back this season, but he wouldn't venture a comment as to when. The slow pace of the effort to strengthen the shoulder aside, it'll trend upwards after it hits some trigger level, but there's no clear evidence that Hafner is making that kind of progress. If it's at 50 percent, there's little chance that Hafner could be effective, but no one seems sure at what level he could be. One of the doctors who advises me said that's all on Hafner: "It's what point he has to be at to get the bat through, what adjustments he can make, and so much more that's completely dependent on [Hafner]." An interesting point is that Hafner has dealt with shoulder problems for years, but this injury is an acute one, making any adjustment tougher. While I'll trust Soloff's prediction that Hafner will be back, I'm still not sure what version of Hafner we'll see when he does.

Troy Percival (30 DXL/$0.7 million)
It didn't seem to surprise anyone, including Percival, when the Rays pushed him back to the DL. His hamstring has been bothering him since his return, which just ended after he was pulled in a save situation. The leg injury isn't serious, it just needs to heal up. Percy doesn't have enough oomph on his fastball to get away with being less than his current best, which is something very different from his days as a dominant closer. The Rays will give him some extra time if he needs it, and with the All-Star break in play, I'd expect him to be out a little beyond that, though many will disagree with the 30 DXL I'm giving him. Grant Balfour will handle the save opportunities in the meantime, though Percival will get the job back once healthy.

Micah Owings (7 DXL/$0.2 million)
Eric Byrnes (25 DXL/$1.1 million)
Chris Snyder (15 DXL/$0.4 million)

Injuries have played their part this year in the slide of the D'backs from first place all the way back to... oh, they're still in first. So far, the rest of NL West has given the team enough of a cushion to deal with minor injuries, but things are beginning to snowball a bit. Byrnes came back from the DL only to re-injure his hamstring, a definite frustration for any team, and a terrible sign for an aging speed player. Byrnes wasn't hitting, and he may have been trying to do something positive by stealing third, but instead he just hurt himself. There's no solid time frame on this, but if he misses a month, I won't be surprised. Owings is dealing with an injury that seems to move around. Described variously as a groin strain or a hip issue, it's actually a mild strain of his gluteus, or simply a pain in the butt. Owings did it covering first base in his last start, though with his past few performances there's been some speculation that he's dealing with something more. He's expected to miss just this start, and with the team down to 12 position players, he'll function as an emergency pinch-hitter. In addition, Juan Cruz is dealing with an oblique and then there's Snyder. Don't click this! OK, if you did, I warned you and Mark Grace warned you. Snyder will have surgery to correct the issue and is still expected back in just fifteen days.

Quick Cuts: If you haven't read this yet, go do it now. I'll say it again: it might be the best article on pitching that I've ever read. ... Carlos Zambrano will be limited to around 90 pitches on Saturday, which is pretty high given that he's coming back from a shoulder strain. ... Rafael Furcal was scheduled to have surgery next Thursday on his back. Sources tell me Furcal pushed for the procedure that will likely end his season. ... Brad Penny won't make his start this weekend as expected. Instead, the Dodgers are now looking at late next week for his return. ... The Dodgers are keeping their trainers busy, pulling Jeff Kent from yesterday's game with back spasms. ... Ryan Braun's recent power slump is due to residual pain in his hand. Expect it to last through the All-Star break, where the Brewers will try to buy him some rest just before to give him almost a full week off. ... Jason Bartlett hits the DL with a mild knee sprain. He should be back after the break, and won't lose his job to prospect Reid Brignac yet. ... Dave Roberts will start a rehab assignment, but coming off major knee surgery, he could be fool's gold for those chasing steals. ... Why Jerry Manuel tried to play Luis Castillo in both games of a doubleheader is beyond me. It was enough to aggravate Castillo's lingering hip injury and push him to the DL. ... Moises Alou had yet another setback, making many wonder if he can make it back to the Mets for any extended period this season, though he'll keep trying. ... Goodbye, Bozo. He's the only clown I ever liked.

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