With only weeks to go until Spring Training gets into high gear, Collateral Damage takes a look at the baseball players (three pitchers, three position players) who have spent more time on the disabled list over the past decade than anyone else. Up first: Chris Snelling
"I'm a little guy who gets hurt a lot. That's why they call me Seabiscuit."–Mariners outfielder Chris Snelling on his injury-marred career.
Being a top prospect is not an easy label to wear, not when every scout and organization is looking to find a way to build you up or tear you apart while you’re at an age where most American boys are in high school or college. Any little thing you do wrong is magnified a hundred-fold; heaven forbid if you get hurt, your potential value goes up in smoke, and with it your chance at a lasting career.
Take a look, for example, at the arc of former Mariners’ OF prospect Chris Snelling’s career by reading through the BP player comments: in 2002, BP remarked that Snelling was a “legitimate five-talent prospect” and that he “hits for average and power, has decent plate discipline, surfs, and is a hawk in the thrift stores.” By 2005 the narrative had changed to “ It's been so long since he's played regularly that predictions are meaningless,” and by 2008 Snelling had “officially become a journeyman.” For most of his career, Snelling’s talent was never in question, but all the talent in the world doesn’t matter when you can’t stay healthy. So, what happened? How did Snelling go from being an upper echelon prospect to one of baseball’s greatest failed prospects of the last decade?
Snelling spent time every year from 2002 to 2008 on the disabled list, but his injury troubles started well before that. While in the minors in 2000 and 2001, he broke his hand, broke his ankle, and sprained his wrist. In June 2002, Mariners’ third base coach Dave Myers was waving Snelling around third when he gave the stop sign, which meant that Snelling had to slam on the brakes. Snelling felt a pop in his left knee, the result of his ACL tearing. Season-ending surgery ensued. Time lost: 117 days. Rehabilitation cost Snelling the first month of the 2003 season; on April 30th, he was activated from the 15-day disabled list and optioned to San Antonio. Snelling only lost 37 days at the major league level due to injuries that year, but played only 65 games in the minors.
The outfielder's hand and wrist bothered him during the winter and early spring training in 2004; it turned out that he had broken a hamate bone in his right wrist, and he would need to undergo a procedure to repair the fracture. While rehabbing, the wrist continued to be painful—not the normal soreness that comes along with rehab, but new pain entirely. More tests revealed damage in the wrist's ligaments and cartilage; he had another operation on April 20th and ended up missing the entire season, a total of 182 days. His 2005 was not much better. Limited because of soreness in his surgically repaired left knee in early spring training, Snelling underwent an MRI. The test revealed meniscal damage, probably from a new tear unrelated to his 2002 ACL injury. Cut again on March 1st, he would be on the disabled list to start the season. He was activated on April 14th and sent to Triple-A Tacoma.
Snelling made the All-Star team in Tacoma, and even said that his knee was almost 100 percent at the end of June. A little more than a month later, on August 10th, he had to leave the game in the 14th inning after tweaking his knee. An MRI suggested damage to the ACL graft; surgery was delayed while doctors tried to find an appropriate cadaver graft and so he could allow an abrasion to heal. Snelling underwent a revision ACL reconstruction in the left knee at the end of September; the procedure ended his season. Snelling lost 71 days of the season to injury.
Still recovering from the September ACL surgery, Snelling began 2006 on the disabled list. After starting the season in the minors, Snelling was brought up from Tacoma near the end of June. Before getting in a single game, however, he was placed on the disabled list with left shoulder impingement. The June stint on the DL was a short one, but Snelling still lost 70 games on the year. By 2007, Snelling was no longer a prospect, but baseball's equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan's Mr. Glass. Having signed with the Nationals, Snelling was able to stay off the disabled list on Opening Day for the first time in five years. The Nationals traded Snelling to Oakland in early May for Ryan Langerhans, but Snelling’s (and Oakland’s) luck ran out less than two weeks later, when the outfielder ran into a wall and bruised his knee. While on a rehab assignment, his knee still didn’t feel right, and he went under the knife to clean out his knee and fix cartilage damage. It was his eighth surgery on the left knee; the total time lost in 2007 came to 142 days.
After undergoing season-ending surgery in July 2007, Snelling got another chance in the majors from the Phillies when he replaced Shane Victorino when the latter was place on the disabled list with a strained calf. One week later, however, Snelling was again placed on the 15-day disabled list with left knee inflammation. After being activated on June 2nd, he managed to hit a double before he was sent down on June 7th; Snelling ended up losing 43 days in 2008.
All told, Snelling missed 662 days while on the major league disabled list, or three and a half total seasons. We have been told time and again that prospects can’t develop if they don’t have the playing time; while this is often used to lambast poor management, it also holds true in the case of injury-marred careers. Baseball players will only get so many chances to prove their worth, and the difference between being an All Star or being labeled a journeyman may come down to nothing more than a late stop sign from the third-base coach.