Does that yellow light next to Jim Thome's name scare you? Have you already hit the button to e-mail me without even reading the text?
The Phillies' signing of Jim Thome to a long-term deal is a perfect example of how taking injury into consideration is a major portion of any roster decision. Thome's big-money deal was complicated by the Phillies' inability to obtain insurance on the contract for the entire term. As well, most reports indicate that there is an exclusion in the contract regarding Thome's back.
Over the past few years, the explosion of huge contracts and huge insurance payouts to players such as Albert Belle and Darren Dreifort has forced insurers to crack down. This off-season, teams were unable to obtain coverage for periods longer than three years, a fact that impacted more than one major signing. While there are many criticisms one could hurl at insurance companies, the one thing they do well is measure risk. If actuaries are saying three years is as far out as they will go, why should we believe baseball executives know better?
One thing that many people have missed in these THRs is that a yellow or red light does not mean the flagged player is someone you don't want on your roster. Thome is a perfect example. While the length of his contract worries me, especially in concert with the new deal given to Pat Burrell, there's little question that Thome is a player you want on your team.
On my radio show last year, Lee Sinins tabbed Thome as his 2002 AL MVP. I was a bit surprised, having given my hypothetical vote to Alex Rodriguez. Lee pointed out that Rodriguez tied Thome for the AL lead with 152 runs created, but Rodriguez used 112 more outs than Thome did. Rodriguez also needed 117 more plate appearances to rack up his numbers. Given that Thome did all that with a bad back, he's a player on whom I'd be willing to gamble. The Phillies know what they are getting into–Thome's disc problems are no secret–but the reward will outweigh the risk, at least in the near-term.
There are rumors regarding Pat Burrell's shoulder, having played most of last season with it sore. But looking at the numbers he put up, more players should have shoulders like Burrell's. I couldn't find any substantive information regarding his shoulder beyond the general report of soreness, so he'll remain a green light for this year. But any further problems with Burrell's shoulder, combined with his already shaky outfield play may push him to a lesser defensive position–if one were available. With Burrell and Thome locked up for the same period of time, there's a great likelihood that one or the other will need to change positions to continue playing. Their sizeable contracts may make that sort of move more difficult.
Mike Lieberthal, like most catchers, seems to be constantly injured in some way. Though many of his hurts have been minor, major injuries have bitten him more than once. Lieberthal made a successful return from major knee surgery in 2002–enough to get a long-term extension worth big bucks–but had more surgery this off-season after injuring the knee while stepping out of a golf cart. Lieberthal should be ready for Spring Training, but his latest injury bears watching. He needs an adequate backup, regular rest and some luck to play a full slate of games.
The Phillies' pitching staff is both young and powerful, especially with the club's big off-season pickup. Kevin Millwood came over to the Phillies thanks to an inexplicable trade with the Braves, and will now play for a new contract. He's been wildly inconsistent since his breakout season in 1999. Millwood will show flashes of dominance, then follow up with mechanical or physical breakdowns. He's had recurring shoulder problems, including a 2001 mid-year "dead arm" which raised many eyebrows. The trade to Philly opened up a lot of speculation that Millwood was injured and the Braves knew something no one else did. There's no evidence of this, but his past ailments still net him a yellow light. Millwood has reportedly been working hard this off-season and with plenty of games against the Braves ahead, he may just pitch angry.
Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla find themselves in similar situations. Both are solid young pitchers coming off 200-inning seasons. Both visibly tired last year. Larry Bowa worked both of them hard. Neither came up with any injuries last year, an especially encouraging sign for Wolf, but both have workload issues. They've both escaped the under age 25-injury nexus, so an injury-free first half would be a great sign for both. I'm putting a cautionary yellow on both pitchers to remind Larry Bowa not to slag them.
At the bottom of the rotation, Brandon Duckworth and Brett Myers have similar profiles. Duckworth is older, but hasn't been able to find his control and ends up running up high pitch counts early in games. Without close monitoring, Duckworth can overstress himself despite low innings totals. Brett Myers is more of a power pitcher, but he's also inefficient with his pitches. Both have immense talent but need to hone their mechanics to stay healthy and find more effectiveness. Myers is also a worry due to his age and Bowa's usage patterns.
The entire pitching staff should benefit from new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Vern Ruhle, after being lauded for his work in Houston, never seemed on the same page with either Larry Bowa or his pitchers. While Kerrigan was a failure in his managerial stint (as are most pitching coaches who ascend to the job), his work as a pitching coach has always been praised.
The Phillies, using the power of a new stadium, revenue sharing money, and a John Schuerholz tantrum, become the preseason favorite in the new-look NL East. Prior to bagging Millwood, I would have thought their rotation was just a little too young and fragile to topple the Braves, but one trade changed everything. The Phils look to have just enough beyond the injury nexus to not let all the money they're throwing around go to waste.