One of the failings of baseball sports medicine is the lack of a database. Those that follow statistics have several choices, but if someone is trying to do even the most basic of injury studies, there's no source to go to. Some of this is necessary – medical information deserves some level of privacy. Under the umbrella of new federal regulation, teams have threatened to shut off even the trickle they now let out. But as with many things, this tack would have teams cutting off their own noses to spite the media.
The first thing I'll do when such a database is built is start looking at an odd phenomenon that several people have noticed – the fact that some injuries appear almost viral. Several years ago, an inordinate number of Atlanta Braves were having Tommy John surgery. The Reds and Blue Jays have had an outbreak of Tommy John recently. Most damaging is the outbreak of labrum tears that Seattle underwent in the last two years. It wasn't just three pitchers; it was the Mariners' three best pitching prospects that went down. Would the emergence of just one of these pitchers have made a difference in last year's race? Quite likely. In that case, what is the monetary value of the loss of a prospect? These are questions worth studying, but the lack of data makes it near impossible.
The spate of shoulder injuries in the M's system not only has an on- and off-field cost for the team, but perhaps shows something of their attitude towards injury. Where some teams are gaining advantages by reducing DL time, preventing injuries to key players, and developing healthy players, some are stuck in the past. Rubbing a little dirt on it or toughing through an injury may have worked in years past, but today it's the equivalent of not showing up prepared.
The Mariners have an interesting situation. Each and every one of their pitchers is a significant injury concern. Only one of their positional players has a significant concern, and he's protected at DH. Even if pitching is less than half of the baseball equation, having a pitching staff filled with injured or replacement players cannot be good mojo for a contending team. They could win the injury lottery and have none of them come up lame, just as easily as they could lose all of them. But the odds favor the house, and the house puts guys on the DL.
Only Edgar Martinez is a concern in the lineup – and he's never on the field, even in interleague games. Martinez came back last year from experimental hamstring surgery with no major ill effects. Speed was a non-existent part of his game anyway, and range at DH is not a concern. While Edgar's age is a significant concern, his smart approach to hitting should allow him to maintain his trademark consistency. Yellow light, but not red.
Some time during the Piniella years, the Mariners were known as one of the harsher organizations when it came to handling young arms. Of course, while the emergence of pitching coach Bryan Price has managed to alter that reputation, it's tough to tell at this point how much of it remains true. Most of the injuries to top prospects came while Price was minor league pitching coordinator, and several have been injured under his watch.
Freddy Garcia has been worked hard in three of his four major league seasons, and missed time due to injury in the other one – he clearly wore down in spots throughout last year. Garcia gets a yellow based on workload issues and loss of velocity during the latter stages of 2002. Loss of velocity is a major indicator of fatigue, and as his velocity slipped, his workload actually went up. For some pitchers, a winter off will give them all the rest they need, but one thing we do know about pitching injuries: abuse is cumulative.
Joel Pineiro has electric stuff, but the comparables really worry me. He was handled pretty well last year as his innings count didn't increase a brutal amount, and he didn't lose significant velocity. His mechanics remain a bit worrisome, and if Pineiro makes it through 2003, he'll likely have escaped the injury nexus. All pitchers with that kind of curve under 25 make me cringe.
Accuse me of ageism if you will, but it's tough to find pitchers Jamie Moyer's age who can stay healthy. He's never had many injury problems, but at some point, it's likely he will. The yellow is precautionary and dim. The same cannot be said for the five slot, likely to be manned by massive risks Gil Meche or Rafael Soriano. Soriano was rushed to the majors, overworked, and came up lame. Sent back to the minors, he was asked to pitch again and came up lame again. With the M's track record, this was extremely worrisome. Meche is coming off not one but two surgeries for a torn labrum. Some M's instructors and fans have grown giddy over his work in winter ball, but the track record for returning from severe labrum problems is weak at best. Both these players are major risks.
Kazuhiro Sasaki gets his yellow light based on off-season elbow surgery. He's had surgery for the same condition – bone chips – twice before and come back fine. This is more a reminder yellow, and a note that the problem will likely recur in the future. For more on Sasaki, check out this UTK.
The Mariners are playing injury roulette. With some luck and good work by the medical staff, the team could contend. If luck breaks the other way, the M's could be ravaged by the All-Star break and left with no depth and a plummeting record. The Mariners are just hoping that the 2003 spin of the wheel comes up teal.