The Facts

Head Trainer: Roger Caplinger
Player Days Lost, 2007: 520
Dollars Lost, 2007: $11.2 million
Three Year Rank: 3

For a small-market team like the Brewers, the margin for error is considerably narrower when it comes to being able to bear the cost of injuries, so it’s no surprise that the team’s fortunes on the field have closely tracked the team’s health in recent years. Under head trainer Roger Caplinger and head team physician Dr. William Raasch, the Brewers won the 2005 Dick Martin Award while finishing 81-81. When three-quarters of the starting infield was done for the year by the following July, the team fell back to earth, winding up a disappointing 75-87. Last year the Brewers rebounded in terms of both wins and injuries–they finished with their first winning season since 1992, and in terms of dollars lost to the DL dropped from seventh to 14th, with 51 percent of the salary and 35 percent of the days lost attributable to Corey Koskie, who missed the entire season due to post-concussion syndrome, but who was more than adequately replaced by rookie Ryan Braun.

Under Caplinger and Raasch, the Brewers have been one of the most progressive teams when it comes to health, committed to a proactive approach regarding injuries, and able to expand GM Doug Melvin’s options when it comes to player acquisitions. The staff’s excellence allows them to take on manageable injury risks, thereby taking advantage of situations where a player’s market value is depressed by less than stellar health. The one-year contracts the Brewers doled out to Mike Cameron and Eric Gagné this winter exemplify this strategy.

The Big Question
The bloggers from Brew Crew Ball ask:
“I don’t know to what extent you can answer this, but I’d like to know whether you think Weeks’ second-half success is due to better health, learning to play through pain, or something else, and as far as his health problems are concerned, which of the Rickies we’ve seen in the last couple years we should expect in 2008.”

You can chalk up Weeks’ second-half performance (.251/.422/.481) to better health. Wrist injuries are notorious for sapping power and bat speed, and while Weeks wasn’t horrible during the first two months of 2007 (.243/.345/.432), he did battle pain caused by the breakup of scar tissue in his surgically-repaired right wrist. The pain compromised his bat control and generated fears of a cascade injury, but once the team figured out exactly what was hurting him and was better able to manage the injury’s aftermath, Weeks displayed some of the talent that made him the second overall pick in the 2003 draft. He won’t sustain the power and walk-rate spikes he showed after returning from the minors, but if he’s healthy enough to top last year’s career high of 118 games, he should provide the Brewers with a multi-dimensional offensive weapon.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of other concerns for the Brewers. The team’s young core of infielders presents some challenges; the keystone combo of Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy have been dogged by injuries for most of their major league careers, and if the Brewers are to get over the hump and back into the postseason, they’ll need the medical staff’s vigilance and a bit of luck as well. The same is doubly true for a rotation headed by perennial DL resident Ben Sheets and also featuring youngsters like Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva, and Manny Parra in increasingly important roles.

C Jason Kendall Green light: His bat may be near death, his glove may be lousy, but at 34, at least he’s got his health, right?

1B Prince Fielder Yellow light: The system doesn’t like his size, but for a big man, Fielder is more athletic than people give him credit for, and he’s proven quite durable so far.

2B Rickie Weeks Red light: Not much of a surprise here, given that Weeks has missed significant time due to hand injuries in each of the past three seasons, averaging just 103 games per year. What’s interesting is that what dogged him in 2007 was actually the aftereffect of the previous year’s season-ending surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right wrist (see today’s Big Question).

SS J.J. Hardy Red light: Hardy managed to play a full season for just the second time in the last four years, but the system interprets his second-half dropoff (falling from .280/.338/.495 down to .273/.305/.423) as fatigue. Yes, fatigue certainly beats the alternatives of sprains and tears, ‘scopes, and knives, but it still translates to lost time and productivity, and thus rates as a reason for concern.

3B Bill Hall Yellow light: Hall rates a very low yellow, mostly due to his latest position change, but the fact that he’s returning to a more familiar spot than last year’s move to center field probably mitigates that.

LF Ryan Braun Green light: Another position change, Braun’s shift from third base to left field rates as a lower risk because it’s to an easier position to play. Still, he’ll have to learn how to deal with fences, warning tracks, and communication with his fellow outfielders, adaptations which don’t happen automatically.

CF Mike Cameron Yellow light: This one is mostly due to Cameron’s age (35), though the playing time estimates, which include his season-opening 25-game suspension for a positive amphetamine test, make the system think he’s getting hurt.

RF Corey Hart Green light: This is contingent on his not wearing sunglasses at night, which makes tracking fly balls a bitch.

SP Ben Sheets Red light: A stunner, right? Sheets has averaged just 21 starts a year over the past three seasons due to a litany of maladies, most recently a torn tendon sheath in his right middle finger and a hamstring strain. The finger problem isn’t particularly likely to recur, but PECOTA still sees Sheets as good for just 24 starts. Caveat emptor.

SP Yovani Gallardo Red light: No sooner was I set to tie a bow around this THR and send it to our editors than the news broke that Gallardo would undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee, something which will knock him out of action for a month. While this is a minor surgical procedure, the real danger is if his return compromises his mechanics, along the lines of Kerry Wood in 2006.
Assuming Gallardo’s not rushed back and doesn’t encounter any mechanical hiccups, the injury may actually help by moderating his workload. Prior to the knee problem, Gallardo already turned up red; between Nashville and Milwaukee, he threw 188 combined innings last year, the highest total among 21-year-olds in organized baseball this side of Felix Hernandez. Intuitively, the Rule of 30 would suggest he’s got headroom to maintain or slightly increase his workload without excessive risk, but the hitch is that the Rule of 30 is based on major league innings, not a combination of major and minor league innings. Even using the Davenport Translations or a similar adjustment, those minor league frames just don’t bear the same predictable relationship to risk as the major league ones, all of which means that the risks increase for Gallardo beyond 140 big-league innings–a cap that suddenly doesn’t look too far out of line when you factor in some extended training and minor-league rehab.

SP Jeff Suppan Green light

SP Dave Bush Green light

SP Carlos Villanueva Red light: He’s young (24) and may see a big innings increase, and the red reflects the assumption that he’ll stay in the rotation all year. With Chris Capuano (Yellow light, albeit an odd one as he’s recovering from a surgically-repaired torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder), Claudio Vargas (a low Green light that could go yellow, depending on his workload), and Manny Parra (Red light) in reserve, the Brewers have perhaps the game’s deepest rotation, albeit one that’s fraught with concern. While it’s reasonable to expect Melvin to thin the herd via a trade, we can see that the Brewers are carrying enough risk that they’ll almost certainly need their sixth and seventh starters sooner rather than later.

CL Eric Gagné Red light: Limited to just 16 games in 2005-2006, Gagné didn’t escape the DL last year, doing two stints in the season’s first six weeks, one for his elbow and the other for a hip strain. The system flags his late-season drop-off in Boston, and also the indications of shoulder trouble after years of elbow miseries; it’s a common occurrence among post-Tommy John cases, and not all that dissimilar from the problems Randy Wolf has had.

RP David Riske Green light: The top candidate for closer duty if Gagné requires a stint on the DL, Riske thankfully doesn’t live up to his name.

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