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February 23, 2009

Team Health Reports

Detroit Tigers

by Brad Wochomurka

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Head Trainer: Kevin Rand
Player Days Lost: 824
Total Dollars Lost: $16 million
Injury Cost: $23 million

Trend: Negative. Since their near-perfect record for team-wide health health during the World Series run of 2006, the Tigers have spent the last two seasons scrambling to fill holes created by injuries-especially to their pitching staff. The key word in Detroit this spring seems to be "if": if Jeremy Bonderman can return from a blood clot, if Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney can return to '06 form, if Gary Sheffield is finally ready for a healthy season in the Motor City after an offseason without surgery, if the move to left field will be easier on Carlos Guillen's knees and back, if a healthy and effective fifth starter can emerge, and finally, if all of this can happen without anything else going wrong. There's a good chance that several of these scenarios will play out in Detroit's favor, but counting on all of them to do so may be asking too much of Rand and his staff. After all, that's a very long list with some very big "ifs".

The Shape of the Season:

graph

The Big Question: Lynn Henning of the Detroit News asks: "Can Joel Zumaya return to his 2006 form after two straight injury-plagued seasons?"

I'll give a tip of the cap here to Will Carroll who, whenever we discuss the Tigers' flamethrower has always claimed that, "Zumaya's injuries are all that the human body can handle." We may not see a clearer picture of that statement than the one before us in 2009. At Dr. James Andrews' recommendation, Zumaya did not undergo surgery for a non-displaced fracture in his throwing shoulder. While the injury healed through rehab, a shard of bone continues to hang from the area of the fracture in Zumaya's shoulder. Sounds bad, right? Well, not so fast. Andrews assured Zumaya that several NFL quarterbacks have recovered from similar shoulder trauma and gone on to throw the football at their previous strength. Should Zumaya feel some discomfort, doctors can perform arthroscopic surgery to remove the piece of bone. He has also put on about 15 pounds after pitching last year at 20-30 pounds lighter than he had been during his standout rookie season. Tigers' officials believe that Zumaya is more stable at a higher weight, since it helps to better support his violent arm action. Henning notes that Zumaya has had no trouble throwing in camp, and if healthy, he becomes the most valuable arm in Detroit's bullpen. Andrews seems confident that Zumaya can be the first pitcher we know of to return to form after the kind of shoulder injuries he had, and if he does, he'll prove to be the new standard of just how much the human body can handle.

Fantasy Tip: All those "if" scenarios above make the Tigers a potential source of bounce-back candidates in fantasy baseball. Justin Verlander will likely be undervalued on draft day, and if nothing else Brandon Lyon should be a solid but cheap source of saves. This is just a personal vice (one that I seem to have every year), but I still think that Gary Sheffield can be a key contributor to the Tigers, and to your fantasy team; best of all, he'll be practically free on draft day. Perhaps I walk that line alone, but I'm still walking it. Keep third baseman Brandon Inge in mind on draft day; in the three years he was the team's regular third baseman from '05-'07, he averaged 19 home runs and 75 RBI while hitting .251. That's nothing special for a third baseman, but give those numbers to a catcher, where Inge figures to qualify in most leagues after last season's time behind the plate, and you've got a valuable fantasy commodity.

SS Adam Everett: Red light Everett's signing was the epitome of the Tigers' offseason-one that represented a complete about-face from their off-season moves the previous year. Brought in to shore up what was one of the worst defensive left sides in baseball in '08, Everett does carry significant risk. He's played in just 114 games the past two seasons with Houston and Minnesota. Two years ago it was a fractured fibula that derailed his season, while last year it was tendonitis in his throwing shoulder. The shoulder's the bigger concern at this point, but Everett claimed to be pain-free when he reported to camp. Now that offense at shortstop isn't a top priority, the Tigers do have another strong defensive option in Ramon Santiago should Everett be sidelined for a third straight year.

LF Carlos Guillen: Red light Another year means another position switch for Guillen. The Tigers are hopeful that a move out to left field will help to alleviate the strain on Guillen's back, a problem that limited him to 420 at-bats last season. There's generally a risk period of about 40 games for a player when switching positions, so if Guillen can adapt to left over the first two months, the move will likely ease the stress on his back and knees. This may also be as much about resource allocation as anything. The Tigers need Guillen's bat in the lineup, they have better defensive options on the left side of the infield, and a $14 million DH in Gary Sheffield. Agree with it or not, that decision tree made left field the only option for the 33-year-old Guillen, who is seen by the system as a significant risk coming off of his second significant injury in four years, and his third position change in two seasons.

DH Gary Sheffield: Red light For all of the talk about injuries to the Tigers' pitching staff, Sheffield's shoulder injury in the middle of '07 may have been as significant as any that the team has dealt with over the last two years. Sheffield was having an outstanding year in the first half of '07 and the Tigers had one of baseball's best won-lost records at the break, but a shoulder injury suffered in a collision with Placido Polanco rendered Sheff ineffective for the rest of the year, leading to off-season surgery that revealed a slightly torn labrum. Although his power did return in the second half of '08, he was never able to get into a healthy rhythm, and he even spent a month on the DL due to an oblique strain. For the first time in years, Sheffield has had an offseason without surgery, and both he and the team have talked up his health this spring, but Sheffield's age (40) and recent injury history still make him a big risk in '09.

SP Armando Galarraga: Red light Tigers fans seeing his name here may do a double take, as Galarraga was the one pleasant surprise for Detroit in 2008. It's purely and simply a matter of his workload that brings out a low red here. The 27-year-old went from 8 2/3 big-league innings pitched in '07 (but 152 1/3 minor league frames) to 178 2/3 last year. Galarraga also has a complex delivery that he was never really able to lock down until his move to Detroit. How he responds in his second season in the rotation as he continues to become more efficient with his mechanics under new pitching coach Rick Knapp will tell us a great deal about Galarraga going forward.

SP Nate Robertson: Red light There is a three-way battle for the final spot in the rotation between Robertson, Dontrelle Willis (Red light), and Zach Minor (Yellow light). Robertson became a Pilates fiend this offseason after being told that he had to "get more flexible" in an effort to add a fuller arc to his motion. The team also hopes it will add more life to the fastball and slider that had both flattened out and became far too hittable last season. From an injury standpoint, Robertson's knee tendonitis isn't as much of a concern as the lat strain that he had to deal with early last year might be; an odd injury that can often point to a real breakdown (think Ben Sheets). As for Willis, the system sees him as having fallen off of a cliff last season, and tends to interpret that as an injury and not just poor performance. His knee injury last year shouldn't be a factor in '09, but if Willis can't get his control issues straightened out, the red light may shine permanently on his career whether he's injured or not.

CL Brandon Lyon: Red light Lyon has a long history of significant arm injuries, and even though he's put together three straight relatively healthy seasons, he was being handled very carefully by an excellent medical staff in Arizona. It's now a task that the Tigers' medical team will now have to take on, which is why it's fair to assume one of two things happening with Lyon this season: either his luck will run out and the injuries that had plagued him early in his career will resurface, or he'll follow the successful path of another 29-year-old pitcher who became Detroit's closer after three productive seasons with another club. That pitcher was Todd Jones in 1997-a reliever, like Lyon, known for great control but not overpowering stuff.

RP Joel Zumaya: Red light See today's Big Question.

2B Placido Polanco: Yellow light Polanco is a low yellow, with his age (33) and past minor injuries as the primary reasons that he carries some risk this season. He's also entering the final year of his contract, and Detroit does not appear ready to talk about a new deal at this point. You may see him pushing through an injury or two, should they pop up, in order to secure himself a deal for 2010 and beyond.

C Gerald Laird: Yellow light Laird is a rather low yellow for a catcher, and he's actually helped by Pudge Rodriguez, who had maintained outstanding health during his four-plus years in Detroit. Laird's only season as a starting catcher came in 2007, and there was a noticeable dip in his production, but the move away from the scorching summers in Texas should be taken into account for a 29-year-old who still has relatively fresh legs behind the plate. Matt Treanor was signed to back up Laird, and the Tigers will likely use two catchers far more than they did during Pudge's run with the club.

RF Magglio Ordonez: Yellow light Very few 37-year-old players are able to sneak through the system without getting at least a yellow, and Ordonez is no exception. However, it's worth noting that he's been remarkably healthy during his tenure in Detroit, and he's been one of the game's best hitters over the past three years. Remember, this was the guy who signed with the Tigers while coming off of a relatively unknown surgical procedure on his knee in 2005, and then promptly developed a hernia that limited him to 82 games in his first year with the team. He did have a a brief DL stint last summer due to a pulled oblique, but Ordonez has been much healthier the last three seasons than had been anticipated.

SP Jeremy Bonderman: Yellow light This is a stunner, given his age, workload, and last year's surgery to alleviate a blood clot. Bonderman underwent three procedures-a thrombolysis to correct a problem that was causing a vein in his right arm to plug, an angioplasty to adjust the blood-flow, and surgery to remove the rib that was pinching the vein. The system looks at Bonderman and sees a series of odd injuries attached to a high age-adjusted workload of almost 1,000 big-league innings before turning 26. Regardless, there is growing sentiment in the Detroit organization that the blood clot may have been building for some time, and now that it's been taken care of, he'll be able to return to the promising form that he showed in 2006. Bonderman has admitted that his arm began to feel stiff to the point that he eventually could no longer feel the seams of the baseball in his hand. Time will tell if the operation will help him get his promising career back on track, or if Bonderman will ultimately be remembered for his unfulfilled potential.

1B Miguel Cabrera: Green light His weight is often discussed, but the fact that he's still just 25 and has now settled in at first base may buy him a few more years before it becomes more of an issue. Until then, and as long as the numbers are still there, I don't see a reason to worry.

3B Brandon Inge: Green light Inge gets the green light based on the understanding that he's back to being a one-position player now that he'll be the Tigers' everyday third baseman; getting out from behind the plate takes away some of his potential risk.

CF Curtis Granderson: Green light He dealt with the first significant injury of his career last year when he missed the beginning of the season with a broken hand, but he showed no ill effects from the injury, nearly matching his '07 numbers while cutting down on his strikeouts.

SP Justin Verlander: Green light Verlander is close to a yellow given his age and workload, but outside of a "dead arm" period last year, he's shown that he can handle the heavy innings. Last season's decline is being attributed more to mechanical changes than to fatigue or injury. New pitching coach Rick Knapp is now working with Verlander to try and iron out the flaws that surfaced last year. He still pitches uphill with a release point generally higher than his layback position, and one of the things Knapp has worked on is getting Verlander to lower his arm slot in order to improve the balance throughout his delivery.

SP Edwin Jackson: Green light We mentioned above how Galarraga was able to make mechanical adjustments that led to a breakout season. If Jackson can do the same thing in '09, then the Tigers will have filled a hole in their rotation in a big way. As for Jackson's health, he passed a major test last year by staying healthy following a huge increase in workload the season before. He's had the stuff. Now he's proven that he has the durability. If he can maintain his mechanics and pitching acumen, Detroit will have one of the year's biggest breakout candidates on its hands.

Brad Wochomurka is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Brad's other articles. You can contact Brad by clicking here

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