If there’s one thing we can say with certainty about the Oakland A’s, it’s that the organization holds injury information very close to the vest. From rumors of Eric Chavez dealing with a broken hand early last season to the off-season struggle to get good information on Mark Mulder’s hip, either the A’s don’t leak or they just don’t like me. I’ll hope for the former. In any case, the A’s are clear leaders in keeping their players healthy. From their ‘prehab’ rituals that continue with new pitching coach Curt Young to a consistent place below the league average in days and dollars lost to the DL (and in this case, being below average is good), the A’s seem to have the processes down.
The key to their health is well known. In association with Dr. Glenn Fleisig and the American Sports Medicine Institute, the A’s pitching staff suffers almost no arm injuries. In a day and age where over half of all pitchers will be on the DL at some point in any three-year period, reducing pitching arm injuries to nearly zero is not just evidence of excellence, it’s almost evidence of a miracle. It’s one thing to have knowledge–the basic research and tools are available for all teams–but quite another to apply it so successfully. With Rick Peterson moving to the Mets organization, there is some question whether the success can continue, but in an organization that understands fungibility and organizational consistency, there is no reason to believe that this process will change.
The health of the “Big Three” starters is still the key to the success of the team. Hudson, Zito, and Mulder have put up big innings as relatively young pitchers, and should be moving into their best seasons. But only healthy pitchers win championships. For Hudson and Zito, they are as healthy and strong as ever. Their teammate, Mark Mulder, is the question mark, but please note that none of the questions are about his arm.
Mulder returns from a fractured hip (femur, near the ball of the hip to be technical) suffered due to a faulty mound. Call it random or call it the fault of the Phillies’ grounds crew, but there has never been a pitcher that has returned from this type of injury. While the A’s and Mulder have insisted that he could have returned for last season’s ALCS, there is no evidence to back this up. I don’t want to say that Billy Beane, Larry Davis, or Mark Mulder were lying, because I simply have no reason to believe that, but I also know the A’s often seek any competitive advantage they can. In the absence of objective knowledge that Mulder can pitch–either last October or this February–I’ll continue to be cautious. It’s only when Mulder takes the mound in spring training that we will know for sure. His red light is based on the lack of any comparable returns only. His arm should be well-rested if possibly slightly rusty for the 2004 season.
Mark Redman comes in to take over the No. 4 slot that has been a revolving door for the team, but could be the strongest pitcher they’ve had. Redman had a good, if overlooked, 2002 campaign in Detroit and was a consistent performer for last year’s champions. As another lefty that has shown an ability to take the ball regularly, he allows Rich Harden to slot back to the No. 5 slot and perhaps reduce some of the innings that Harden could face. (Reducing innings, of course, is no guarantee of health. The causations are far too multi-factorial to be so simply addressed.) Redman gets his yellow light based on the innings he’s put up over the past three seasons, and some minor injury history; while Harden earns his for age and an expected increase in stress.
On the positional side, the A’s are once again expected to be below average. While there are open questions about Eric Chavez’s hand/wrist from last season, the worst-case is a traumatic fracture–and if known, this wouldn’t affect him this season. Meanwhile, Jermaine Dye returns from a series of injuries that all appear to have one root cause: the brutal spiral fracture of his tibia he suffered in 2002. Dye has had knee, hamstring and shoulder problems, but has been working out with renowned trainer Mark Verstagen, hoping that he’ll do more to earn his hefty contract in 2004. Dye remains red due to the difficulty he has had making a full recovery to function, but signs for a comeback are positive.
The A’s brought in Mark Kotsay for many reasons, including his defense, but none of the positives will help if he has to deal with some of the back problems that held him back in 2003. The A’s knowingly took on some injury risk with Kotsay, but they also did their homework, not finalizing the trade until Kotsay was thoroughly checked. Kotsay certainly earns his yellow light based on his injury history and comparables, but there are times when knowing that someone else has had a good look at the player and his medical file means more than any prediction.
Damian Miller comes over carrying a yellow light. At age 34, he’s reaching an age where few catchers make it without problems. Miller isn’t a typical 34-year-old catcher, however. His career was slow to develop, not reaching the majors until 1997, but he also wasn’t heavily used in the minors. Yet again, the system says yellow, but I’m not quite as sure that this one is correct.
Overall, the A’s have very few concerns in number, but the riskiest players are the ones they can least afford to lose. The success of the A’s is based on many things, but no one will question that the key is the efficient use of resources. Any resource that cannot perform is a lost opportunity and the A’s may understand that better than any other baseball club.