Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What could still be

(Originally written on 4/11/08 for FSU's The Bottom Line here)

The Major League Baseball season is only a few weeks old, but some teams have already failed at managing to avoid injuries to star players while also slowly beginning to weather the long, difficult 162-game season. John Lackey won’t return for the Angels until May, Pedro Martinez of the Mets is out four to six weeks with a left hamstring strain, and Mariners closer J.J. Putz is currently on the 15-day disabled list after suffering inflammation in his right torso.

Avoiding significant injuries for an entire season is nearly impossible for any team, but solid, deep organizations can usually handle the loss of certain players by trading for more talent or utilizing strong farm systems.

Teams that lose star players always have the chance to recover at some point down the road, but many injured players simply don’t recover at all. Injuries always seem to come at inopportune times; no athlete ever responds to an injury by saying, “Well, I had a feeling I’d get injured today. I’m okay with it.” Injuries rob athletes of the chance to perform well in something they love, and they rob fans of more opportunities to witness those remarkable athletes. But they also force athletes to dig deep and develop a level of mental toughness and strength they never thought they had.

Recently, Rich Harden of the Oakland A’s was placed on the 15-day DL with a strained right shoulder. Harden, only 26 years old, has been placed on the DL six times in the last four years and has not been able to stay healthy so far. In his brief yet injury-riddled career, Harden has shown flashes of brilliance. In 2004, Harden’s second season, he finished with 11 wins, a 3.99 ERA, and 167 strikeouts, and in 2005, he won 10 games, registered a superb 2.53 ERA, and struck out 121 batters, despite only pitching in 22 games. Harden surely would be an incredible pitcher year-in and year-out if he could only stay healthy, but ifs don’t sound too reassuring after six DL stints.

Harden is one of a few baseball players who still have the chance to revive their careers. Mike Hampton of the Atlanta Braves and Rocco Baldelli of the Tampa Bay Rays are other examples, but the most talented player who can’t stay healthy may be Mark Prior. When Prior was drafted with the second overall choice by the Chicago Cubs in 2001, he was projected to win multiple Cy Young awards and team with Kerry Wood to lead the Cubs to the promised land. In 2003, his second season, Prior dominated the competition, finished 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts, and helped lead the Cubs into the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. The Cubs lost in heartbreaking fashion, but Prior had shown his potential by finishing third in the Cy Young award voting.

Prior’s injury concerns began in 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury. He had a disappointing season, but he seemed to return to form in 2005 (11-7, 3.67 ERA, 188 Ks) except for being sidelined briefly in May when he suffered a compression fracture in his elbow from a comebacker to the mound. After straining his shoulder in 2006, though, Prior was never the same. Many people blamed former Cubs manager Dusty Baker for allowing Prior to record high pitch totals so early in his career, and others just thought he morphed into another injury-prone pitcher. Prior, who is now on the San Diego Padres, is still recovering from major shoulder surgery and hopes to somehow become the same pitcher he was in 2003.

Another routinely-injured player, Nomar Garciaparra, seems to be entering the twilight of his career. Coming up through the farm system of the Boston Red Sox, Garciaparra could always do one thing -- hit. As a rookie in 1997, Garciaparra hit .306 with 30 home runs, won the Rookie of the Year award, and earned the Silver Slugger for the shortstop position. But Garciaparra, who was supposed to be just as good, if not better, than Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, had only showed a small portion of his potential. In his next three seasons, Garciaparra finished with batting averages of .323, .357, and .372, respectively. In 1998, he finished second in MVP voting while hitting 35 home runs and knocking in 122 runs. He never stole many bases and didn’t play particularly good defense at shortstop, but Garciaparra could always hit the ball.

Garciaparra suffered a serious wrist injury in 2001 while with the Red Sox, but he managed to recover, and he continued to post solid offensive numbers. After being traded to the Cubs in 2004, he hit well for average, but his slugging and on-base percentages dropped off significantly from earlier in his career. Then, Garciaparra tore his left groin in 2005, and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy since.

Now a member of the L.A. Dodgers, he has spent time on the DL with knee injuries and oblique strains. He’s currently on the DL with a microfracture injury in his right hand. With all of the injuries, Garciaparra has been forced to play first base, yet he still may be on his way out of L.A. with the emergence of highly-touted prospect James Loney. Only time will tell whether or not he can return to the field and be able to consistently perform once again.

But then again, the question seems to be the same for all injured athletes: what happens next?

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