Team Health Report: Baltimore Orioles
by Will Carroll
Looking at the Orioles' roster gives Lou Piniella new hope. What isn't injury prone--or actually injured--simply sucks. The Orioles have a great ballpark and great fans, but it appears that the team has actually downgraded from the one that closed the season with a 4-32 collapse. With a rotation including two current labrum injuries and a recent Tommy John survivor to a lineup without a single threat, the Orioles look like the anti-Yankees. For all Peter Angelos' talk about how moving the Expos to D.C. would make it impossible for his team to remain competitive, not to worry, the team's not competitive anyway. The two-headed GM duo of Flanagan and Beattie have a task worthy of 10 men ahead of it.
While the tragic death of Steve Bechler should not factor into an evaluation of the O's team health, it is sure to cast a pall over spring training in much the way that Darryl Kile's death did in St. Louis. Losing a player in this manner is much more common in football, but if any good can come of this, it will be an increased watch on players in the heat. It is not an easy job to be responsible for the lives of scores of men, but that is one of the main responsibilities of Athletic Trainers. It is now up to the teams to provide these men with all materials necessary to do that job effectively--and most importantly, to have the best trainers on the field.
On the field, the rotation looks brutal and I'm not sure where to start, so I'll just go from the so-called top down. Rodrigo Lopez is one of those players who came out of nowhere, surprised with his performance, and faded as the season went on. Considering he threw about 300 innings last year including his time in Mexico, it's actually a positive that his arm didn't fall off. A restful off-season should help return some velocity, but watch his workload closely. I don't expect him to be near the pitcher he seemed to be in the first half of 2002, if only due to teams picking up on his odd motion. He gets a yellow light based on workload.
The words "torn labrum" are beginning to be the most dreaded in pitching. The diagnosis is a sure ticket to a red light. Few players - if any - come back fully from the injury and the medical treatment is so hit and miss that nearly half the players that have one procedure are forced to have a repeat procedure before returning to the game. Sidney Ponson tore his labrum at some point in 2000 when he was worked mercilessly in his age-23 season. Looking back at the stats, one can almost see the drop-off happen. It's a wonder he's been able to remain effective with such an injury--it's another data point in the argument for non-surgical treatment of labrum injuries. It's my educated guess that Ponson is limited to about 80% of his potential value due to the injury. If that's not enough, Ponson dealt with bicipital tendonitis for nearly half the season. It's less likely now than two years ago that Ponson will break out, and more likely that he will break down. In another case of what might have been if sports medicine was more science than art, Ponson should be one of the main exhibits.
That a team is heading into the season relying on one injured pitcher is astounding, but two? That's borderline insanity. The Orioles diagnosed Scott Erickson's torn labrum in the off-season, about six months after it probably occurred. While the injury was disguised by all the hoopla surrounding Erickson's altercation with his girlfriend, it likely occurred in mid-July, as is evident in his game logs and obvious in his velocity. Again, the O's think Erickson can go without surgery and expect him to be able to pitch, but bringing in an innings sponge like Rick Helling sounds to me like management is smartly hedging their bet. Erickson's a flashing red light, and I can't imagine a scenario where he'll be able to succeed this season.
Pat Hentgen gets his red due to proximity to his Tommy John surgery. He'll get better as the season goes along, assuming he follows a normal rehabilitation pattern. By the All-Star break, he should have about as much command back as he's going to get; the O's will want to either trade him for anything of value they can get at that point, or just cut bait.
The biggest signing the Orioles were able to pull off this off-season was Omar Daal. Daal has been an up-and-down pitcher, going from great to good to traded to decent to good in three uniforms. He worked better in relief last year, but sources tell me that had more to do with Jim Tracy's handling of the pitching staff than Daal himself. At the end of 2002, Daal was in the rotation and clearly fatigued. A full Spring Training should help him build up his arm strength, but I'm still going to put a yellow light on Daal due to his change of roles and fatigue.
Jason Johnson is in the mix for the fifth starter role and should pitch better this season. He gets a yellow light based on his shoulder injury, not the two freak fractured fingers (say that three times fast) he suffered. The first injury qualifies him for the UTK Hall of Lame. During a bullpen drill, Johnson jammed his hand into the dirt, breaking his middle finger. Not quite like John Smoltz burning himself trying to iron a shirt while wearing it, but covering injuries is seldom boring.
As bad as the rotation looks, the O's don't look much better in the field. David Segui, the erstwhile first baseman and likely platoon DH, symbolize the team's woes. Segui hasn't been healthy for years, as he's suffered through a degenerative back condition. But last year, his situation worsened, and he lashed out publicly at team doctors as a result. Segui was told he had a torn tendon in his wrist, but then team doctors told the press it was only tendonitis. Hargrove pressed Segui to play and he gamely tried, fully knowing the risk he was taking. The team finally bowed to the truth and allowed Segui to have wrist surgery, where it was discovered that he had torn tendons and cartilage. Not done torturing him, Segui was rushed back, only for the team to change its mind and decide to hold him out for the season. Adding this episode to his thick medical file gives Segui another red light.
Segui's likely platoon partner, Chris Richard, is also a red light. Richard missed most of the 2002 season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery. He'll likely be limited to DH duty at the start of the season. Even during his rehab, Richard showed an inability to stay healthy. The shoulder, until fully recovered, will limit Richard's power and reduce what value he has.
The O's have cornered the market on questionable 1B/DH types with Segui, Richard, and Jeff Conine. Conine's been very consistent in his career, but over the past two seasons, he's shown an inability to avoid or play through minor injuries. He missed nearly two months with a strained hamstring that was initially thought to have a three- or four-day recovery period. Extended recovery times are something that normally comes with age--that alone gives Conine a yellow light.
I'll go quick with the rest of the yellows. Geronimo Gil wore out at the end of the season and seemed beat up, including a shoulder injury that never fully resolved itself. Jay Gibbons didn't lose much at the plate despite a wrist injury. He had surgery in the off-season and is red due to the poor track record of players coming back from this surgery in the first few months following the procedure. Gary Matthews Jr. also had wrist problems, but avoided surgery. His yellow is based on the lack of resolution to the injury and his chronic hamstring problems.
No other THR has worn on me like this one. Writing about the Orioles' injury situation produces a feeling of complete gloom and doom. Nate Silver's PECOTA prediction for the Orioles this year runs at 68-94. After digging through the system and talking to sources, I'll be surprised if the Orioles are that good. The best they can do now is try to rebuild the franchise from the ground up. I hope the two-headed GM can take advantage of the few advantages this team has.
Will Carroll is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.