Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 21, 2010

The Agony of the DL

Two stories out of Spring Training this weekend serve as powerful reminders that for all of the hard work, planning, and preparation that go into getting a team ready for the great game’s long season, fate wields a heavy hand in the ultimate outcome.

First it was announced that Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan, who was injured twelve days ago while pitching against the Red Sox will undergo Tommy John surgery and is out for the year. Then came word that Kerry Wood, the closer for the Cleveland Indians, will be sidelined for up to two months with a muscle strain in his upper back. Just like that, the seasons of two AL Central foes, one the defending division champ and the other a team hoping for a reversal of recent bad fortune, are both thrown into disarray.

These twin tales also illustrate the capricious nature of fate’s heavy hand, because the career arcs of Nathan and Wood could not be more different.

The thirty-five year old Nathan began his career with the San Francisco Giants, working as both a starter and out of the bullpen before being traded to the Twins prior to the 2004 season. Immediately assigned to the closer’s role for Minnesota, he has thrived in that position. His 246 saves over the past six years leads the majors. Throughout that period, he has always been available when summoned.

Originally signed by the Chicago Cubs, Wood exploded onto the national baseball consciousness in 1998. On May 6th of that year, in just his fifth career start, the then-20 year old threw a one-hit, no walk, 20-strikeout masterpiece against the Houston Astros. In doing so Wood became just the second major league pitcher (Bob Feller being the other) to strike out as many batters as their age in one game. Wood remained dominant through the summer, but his season ended a month early when he complained of elbow soreness. The following spring he underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of the 1999 season. In the years since he has at times pitched brilliantly and been utterly dominant. He remains the fastest in both appearances and innings, to reach the 1,000 strikeout mark. But he has also made repeated trips to the disabled list and undergone a variety of surgeries. In 2007 he accepted a move to the bullpen, but even that did not prevent further trips to the DL. Finally released by the Cubs after the 2008 season, Wood signed with Cleveland. Closing for a bad Indians team in 2009, Wood had 20 saves in 26 chances.

So Joe Nathan going down comes as a shock, while another trip to the DL for Kerry Wood is almost to be expected. Be that as it may, two Central Division GMs must now quickly come up with a Plan B. Of course, dealing with the adversity of unexpected injuries is as much a part of the game as hot dogs and overpriced beer. Between now and November, there will be GMs and field managers in some cities that will be forced to work a good deal further down the alphabet than just “B” as they juggle lineups, starting rotations, and bullpen assignments.

No one should question the impact injuries, or the lack of same, can have on a team’s fortune. As a Yankees fan, I’d of course like to think that the Bombers won their 27th championship last year simply because they were superior to every other team in the league. Without question, they were and are an extremely talented squad. But I’d be foolish not to acknowledge that the good health of their starting pitchers contributed significantly to their 2009 success. Last year the Yankees had four starters make at least 31 starts. That is such freakish good fortune that it was the first time in the entire history of the Bronx franchise that it occurred. And while any fan would intuitively think that healthy starting pitching bodes well for a season’s outcome; that intuition is backed up by statistics. As Tom Verducci recently pointed out in SI, over the last five years only forty percent of all teams have had at least three starters make at least thirty starts. But in the same period eighty percent of World Series participants met that standard.

So it’s a tough start to the 2010 season for Twins’ General Manager Bill Smith and Mark Shapiro, his Cleveland counterpart. The only certainty is that as the long season unwinds, at one point or another they’ll be joined by most of their GM brethren in having to scramble. The ones who do it well will have earned their keep while perhaps saving a season. Those who do it poorly will ensure a season lost. The rare one that escapes having to scramble at all will count himself extremely lucky.

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Responses

  1. Hi Mike, This is why I never draft a closer higher than about the 8th round in my fantasy baseball league. With just a couple of exceptions, (Joe Nathan had been one of those exceptions), they are basically cannon-fodder. I’ll take my chances with Valverde or Soria. Nice post, Bill (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com).


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