June 12, 2009
Under The Knife
Not as Bad as You Think
I've ended up talking about steroids as much as injuries in my day. I won't complain; while The Juice opens with the statement that I didn't want to write the book, I'm still proud of it. When it came out, it didn't sell that well, up against the more juicy naming of names in Jose Canseco's Juiced. In this column, I've tried to help baseball fans understand the issues, but despite my best efforts, it's still a subject that's handled more with emotions than facts. People throw syringes at Barry Bonds, but they ignore other players. Fans jeer Alex Rodriguez, but they cheer Andy Pettitte. The media covered the story poorly in the '80s and '90s, but we're not doing much better now. We've rapidly gone from "guilty until proven innocent" in speculating about Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds-and yes, I believe it's likely that all three used, but I have no evidence-to a new rule of "you'd better not even speculate." Rick Reilly famously challenged Sammy Sosa to pee in a cup, and there have been rumors about Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Brady Anderson, Cal Ripken, and... well, just about everyone that's any good short of Greg Maddux. Watch the commercials for "Fanarchy" where some guy on a webcam screams "Who cares? Everyone was juicing!" Read any story that involves handwringing over the Hall of Fame. The fact is that we don't know, and when we don't know, we should probably just shut up, but that's not really an option in this media landscape. There's going to be speculation, no matter how good the MLB Drug Testing policy is, and thinking that experience or a journalism degree makes you above the same kind of speculation is wrong. Cork Gaines of Rays Index said it best: "Garbage is garbage, whether it comes with a media credential or not." There is no anti-speculation rule that's suddenly gone into effect, no matter how much I wish there was. We live in a TMZ era, where standards of sourcing and decency are both lowered, and we have transitioned from the Steroid Era to the Speculation Era. I don't feel good about either.
Powered by what might be the coming-together of that dream BPR episode that I've been whispering about-yes, it has been months in the making-on to the injuries:
Hanley Ramirez (1 DXL)
The Marlins had a nice lead, but Ramirez is still having some trouble with his groin. Fredi Gonzalez decided to mix the two and a planned offday for Ramirez to get him some extra rest. The groin strain isn't significant, just lingering and annoying. "He's feeling it with every step he runs and push he makes laterally," said one team source. He's able to be productive even with the injury because he starts at such a high baseline, but of greater concern is the constant aggravation. If Ramirez can't get some rest-or rather, if the Marlins can't find ways to rest him without losing him from the lineup-then the worry is that he'll weaken with fatigue and end up hurting himself even more. The Marlins are looking hard at the All-Star break as their best chance, so whether Ramirez makes the team or not, it sounds as if he won't be headed to St. Louis.
John Maine (15 DXL)
Maine is back on the DL, but if this can be spun into a positive, it's that this may be a signal that he's getting closer to normal. After off-season surgery to remove a bone chip from his shoulder, Maine has had continued trouble with stamina in his pitching shoulder. This isn't unusual, considering the surgery and the disruption to his schedule. That he's gone this far into the season and has pitched through a fatigued state without causing any sort of structural damage shows how solid his mechanics are. The alternative view is that he was pushed too far and too fast at the beginning of the season, and they might have avoided all of this by focusing on strengthening his shoulder back then. The Mets wish that all of their problems are this minor. Maine should be back in the rotation at or near the minimum.
Chien-Ming Wang (0 DXL)
Wang has been bad this year. After one start, he was sent down and an injury was discovered-a hip imbalance-that was blamed for his issues. Oh wait... he had the injury and then went down. The order is important, I guess. The problem is, that if the hip imbalance really was a problem, it was not the problem. Wang is going to make one more start before the Yankees push him back to the bullpen, or maybe elsewhere. The trouble with mechanical issues is that they don't act in isolation. Like in the old song where the this bone's connected to the that bone, it's a holistic process, a kinetic chain that often has a weak link. Fix one link, and now some other point is the weakest. Change one thing, and you'll almost always change something else. If Wang's next start isn't something special, we may start hearing the Joba Chamberlain arguments applied to Phil Hughes; Hughes has looked filthy pitching out of the bullpen, and is Wang's likely replacement.
Kelvim Escobar (10 DXL)
I've warned you all along that I didn't expect Escobar to do much as a starter this season. It didn't take long for Mike Scioscia to come to the same conclusion, as Escobar came up sore after one short start. Even though the team has announced that he'll move to the pen for the remainder of the season, it might not happen just yet; his arm is still sore enough from that start that the DL remains a possibility. The question with something like this is always: Why did one outing in the majors affect him any differently than any of his rehab starts? While the activity is the same, it's never exactly the same, in no small part due to psychological pressures. Escobar can't be counted on to do much of anything for the Angels this season, though with their bullpen more unsettled now than it has been in the past few years, he'll probably get several chances to find a role in it.
Franklin Gutierrez (3 DXL)
Gutierrez "got the whammy". One of my best advisors, an old-school college athletic trainer, speaks of "the whammy" often. It's his name for the tendency of an injured body part to somehow make itself available for re-injury. The theory goes that in trying to protect a certain part, it's often exposed unintentionally. With Gutierrez, it's hard to think this was anything other than bad luck. He had been dealing with patellar tendonitis, and so naturally he fouled a ball right off of the area. While it's not serious, it does point to an interesting phenomenon that I've been talking with some teams about. With more and more organizations trying to focus on defense, the correlation between speed and defense often comes up, but as we know, players that rely on speed have even more at stake when they sustain even minor leg injuries. Defensive stats aren't granular or large-sample enough to do game-to-game analysis, leaving most of this to the eyeballing of advance scouts. Ranked as one of the five best outfielders this season by some stats, Gutierrez is considered something of a test case around the league, so you should be watching as well.
Brad Lidge (20 DXL)
Lidge received a cortisone injection in his knee, an attempt to relieve the synovitis that has plagued him this season. They'll also have him off of the leg as much as possible. One source indicated that he might be on crutches for a couple of days, but this couldn't be confirmed. This isn't something that indicates the injury is any worse, but it is just the type of aggressive treatment made possible by the DL move, and by the deeper bullpen once J.C. Romero returned. The treatment will continue to be aggressive for the next ten days or so, before they start getting him ready for a return. After that, they'll just try to maintain the knee through the season, but don't be surprised to see the Phils giving Lidge blocks of time off if Manuel gains some confidence in Ryan Madson.
Jeremy Bonderman (30 DXL)
Bonderman has had a long comeback from shoulder and circulatory problems, and now that he's returned, it hasn't gone according to plan. His first start was enough of a mess that Jim Leyland preferred what he'd seen from Dontrelle Willis and wanted to move Bonderman to the pen to build up his arm strength. Once there, multiple sources tell me that Leyland still wasn't happy, and he wanted to get Bonderman some more time in the minors. Bonderman allegedly declined an assignment, and the team felt that his shoulder was enough of a problem to DL him instead, and push him in that direction. It will be interesting to see if Bonderman can return, or whether all of his issues have depleted what was once there. The Tigers will be especially interested because they used the best practices in bringing Bonderman along, the same type of thing that they're doing with Rick Porcello now, but Bonderman nevertheless couldn't avoid an arm injury. If he can't make it, then the current system is nothing more than a dice roll for pitcher's health.
Jason Bartlett (20 DXL)
Things are going so well for Bartlett in his rehab that he could be back as soon as Tuesday. He just recently began taking grounders this week, and is now headed out on a rehab assignment. He'll be a Stone Crab (great logo and unis!) this weekend, then could be right back in the lineup. Bartlett's return would come exactly at the 20-day mark that I expected. It's not slow, it's just the conservative nature of the Rays medical staff. They're methodical and they err on the side of moving deliberately, which often works out. There is some concern over how Bartlett's ankle will deal with the turf versus grass, but the schedule helps. The Rays head out to play two NL teams next week (Colorado and New York), and they both play on grass. That should give him a little adjustment time, so there's not likely to be as much of an issue once they return to the Trop.
Pat Burrell (25 DXL)
In something of a surprise move, the Rays activated Burrell off of the DL. He says that his neck problem has cleared up, but he admits that he's still dealing with the effects, and that the root cause hasn't really been addressed. This is definitely something that could recur, though I don't think there's any reason to say that it's more likely to recur because of this episode. Burrell struggled at both Double- and Single-A this week, but the team thinks that he can work through his issues while DHing and continuing to work with the major league staff.
Quick Cuts: John Smoltz's scheduled rehab start was rained out. No word on when he'll make that "full out" start, but it will be soon. ... Scott Kazmir will throw three innings in a simulated game on Friday. If all goes well, he'll head out to make the first of three minor league rehab starts. ... Brandon Webb will throw in the bullpen this weekend. His results will determine the next step, though he's "not on any fast track" according to a team source. ... Justin Duchscherer will throw from a mound sometime next week. His return could come more quickly than expected, but only because it looks as if the A's are considering putting him in the bullpen. ... Scott Eyre "blew out" his calf, according to Charlie Manuel. He was already talking about retirement after this season, so an extended rehab might push him over the edge. ... More or less? The injury stats show that injuries are relatively stable year to year. I'll have a lot more on this soon, likely around the All-Star break.