Joe Maddon and Ron Porterfield check on an injured player.
Will Carroll has produced an annual Team Health Report for each MLB team for 12 years. The report gives risk ratings for every player in the expected starting lineup and starting rotation, plus two relievers. A proprietary formula sets a baseline according to a player's age and position. It is adjusted by 12 factors, including injury history, team history and expected workload.
This risk rating is classified into three tiers—red (high risk), yellow (medium risk) and green (lower risk). It should be used as a guideline and is about probability, not prediction. To learn more about how the Team Health Reports are devised, click on this article.
2012 Rank: 19th best of 30 teams in DL days and dollars lost
Biggest Injury: Jeff Niemann, $5.9 million lost value
Head Athletic Trainer: Ron Porterfield
For the first time in the last decade, the Tampa Bay Rays dropped into the second half of the injury rankings. It's easy to see why, with significant injuries to Evan Longoria and Jeff Niemann. It's just as easy to see that the system that Ron Porterfield has maintained for the last decade will get right back on top. Moreover, it's still the top ranking in the AL East.
Longoria is not an "injury prone" player as many wanted to tag him. Last season's hamstring was bad and the setback was worse, but this is hardly a harbinger of doom for Longoria. His 2011 had one minor injury and the rest of his medical history is negligible.
The same is true for most of the key players on the team. David Price is a top-level ace, as his Cy Young shows, and his health is pristine. The pitching staff of the Rays, at every level, avoids Tommy John surgery, preferring to pay Jim Andrews to be their medical director and look at big-picture things rather than cutting open an elbow.
Avoiding the 180-day injuries alone is a good strategy for staying at the top of the injury stat leaderboards, but did it truly help the budget-constrained Rays win for the better portion of a decade? Absolutely. Moreover, they didn't make many mistakes. While they can't afford multi-year deals, they also can't afford lost years more. They can afford a Longoria or a Price, but they also can afford to deal a James Shields because they haven't lost half their minor league pitchers to arm injuries.
The holistic approach the Rays have is cost effective and has an immediate definable outcome. It's not just dollars, it's wins—though it's clear there's a balance between them.
Click ahead for the Rays. Here are links to all the teams' reports.
|AL East||Baltimore||Boston||New York||Tampa Bay||Toronto|
|AL Central||Chicago||Cleveland||Detroit||Kansas City||Minnesota|
Miami ||New York||Philadelphia||Washington|
|NL Central||Chicago||Cincinnati||Milwaukee||Pittsburgh||St. Louis|
|NL West||Arizona||Colorado||L.A.||San Diego||S.F.|
Will Carroll is the Lead Writer for Sports Medicine at Bleacher Report. He has written about sports injuries and related topics for 12 years. His column is called "the industry standard" by Hall of Famer Peter Gammons.
It's easy to catch glimpses of how a front office thinks. I'll admit that I know the Rays better than most since several of their top guys are former co-workers of mine. James Click has been looking at catcher defense longer than most, and if he hasn't found an answer, then Jose Molina's place on the Rays makes less sense to me. Molina regularly gets praise for his handling of pitchers, though this is one of those things that is hard to quantify in the whole.
Molina wasn't bad, but he's clearly better suited for the backup role. The downside there is that no one better emerged. Several got chances ,and even on the free-agent market, the right fit never emerged. Molina gets another year as the primary, though even that role won't take him far beyond 100 games.
Even at 37 years old, and perhaps because of it—there's a definite "survivor effect" to some of the upper reaches of age cohorts—Molina is a green rating. At the heart of it is the pure predictability of what Molina can and can't do.
Tampa has become like a rescue organization for first basemen. It can resuscitate those that seem destined for failure, like Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman. James Loney might be a tougher job for all concerned as he's slid down to below league average for a while, but cratered after the deal to the Red Sox and is downright replacement level, if that.
The plus here is that he's healthy enough to take the shots he's given, still plays a solid 1B in the field, and does have a platoon split that could be exploited. At this price and with nothing on the horizon that's better, Loney will get lots of chances to show that he can still play, even if he can't.
Ben Zobrist ended up splitting 150 games between three positions. Saying he's the starting second baseman is just a shortcoming of our thinking. Zobrist is no more the second baseman than he is the right fielder. Kelly Johnson will probably end up with more games there. In the end, it's just a construct to put these pages in some semblance of order.
Zobrist's versatility makes him tough to put into context, but the shifting location is seldom on the bench or in the training room. A fifth straight season over the 150-game mark is downright likely, which gives him value above what his bat alone would give him.
"Andrew Friedman's just messing with us," said one longtime scout. "He's sick of people trying to read his mind and grabbing Yuni is just a red herring."
There's some merit to that idea. The Rays are a sabermetric magnet for a reason, with books and web sites combing through their every move and subtext in hope of figuring out what some of the brain trust inside Tropicana Field are working on. There are as many people watching the nerds in the back room as there are fans in the stands on most nights.
Yunel Escobar does normally have a pretty solid OBP and should be able to use the turf at the Trop to the same advantage he had in Toronto. Anything north of a 650 OBP should be enough to keep him valuable, especially to the pitchers.
The injuries that Evan Longoria has dealt with the last couple of years aren't the normal ones. Last year's hamstring strain wasn't the result of running, as is normal, but getting into an awkward position on a slide. There's no way to protect against that, and the cautious approach that the Rays took in trying to get him back is likely to pay off this season and forward while the days counted heavily against last season.
There's the chance that we're seeing a decline phase for Longoria, where traumatic injuries follow on to chronic until some physical skills are sapped. Given the way Longoria hit, fielded and ran when he was healthy, there's no evidence of that. The risk of injury is there, amplified by two years of losing production to them, but I'll take the chance that bad luck is balanced by good in the longer term.
Wil Myers was the big part of the haul for James Shields, but again, the team is set up in a way that virtually assures that he won't be the Opening Day starter in left field. He could end up in right field once he works his way up and some have wondered whether he could be the longer-term answer at first base if easing him in with James Loney would help transition him to the majors.
Joe Maddon will mix and match Myers and the rest of his puzzle pieces in order to find the best lineup on any given night. Myers has been healthy along his quick trip through the minors, but the adjective "aggressive" keeps getting mentioned in relation to how he plays. Having the Rays medical staff will help, while Dave Martinez's deft touch will work to teach him that attendance is valued more than effort at times.
The shift to center field on top of the streaky season Desmond Jennings had in 2012 is enough to get him almost to yellow, but he is still within the green tier. The knee sprain that cost him a month adds to the rating as well, but he clearly showed he had no issues with that after coming back.
It's the OBP that hurts his value inside the Rays' system, but like all relatively healthy players, especially ones with the kind of defensive range that Jennings has, he'll get his chances to fix that or to find a role further down the lineup or in one of the myriad platoon possibilities in Maddon's mind.
Matt Joyce may not lose at-bats to his platoon mates this season, just due to depth and the way the Rays are constructed at this point, but there's little doubt that they'll find someone to pair with him if he doesn't pick it up against lefties.
Joyce also needs to avoid the nagging injuries, like last season's severe oblique strain, that the rest of his teammates usually avoid. Joyce is a bit more max effort than most, but we'll see whether another acquired OF in Wil Myers has the same sort of issue, indicating that there's a health-focused "Rays Way" that starts deep in the minors.
Luke Scott almost got to the red tier, given his injury history and seeming quick decline with age, but he's in the yellow tier. Even the vaunted Rays medical staff couldn't seem to slow the decline. It's hard to expect anything aside from more of the same, and that's what The System sees.
What Maddon and the Rays see might be different. Eighty to 100 games of solid production might not make Scott an All-Star, but it could help the Rays fight for a playoff slot. Maddon understands as well as any manager in the game today that it doesn't matter how many games, innings or outs someone plays as long as the maximal output is gained from that playing time. Whether that's from a standard platoon, a gut feeling about the hot hand or a printout from the back room, Maddon often seems to make that happen.
Scott's unlikely to make it through the season unscathed, but the Rays themselves won't be hamstrung by Scott's ongoing injuries. As for that facial hair, that may be causing far more damage.
David Price might be the best pitcher in the game. The Rays didn't so much develop him as not get in the way. Then again, he didn't follow a normal path, even for a 1-1 pick. Price tore through the minors, dominating each short stop, but then shifted to the bullpen for the Rays' surprising first run to the World Series. It utilized one of their best pitchers while still monitoring his workload. You'd think that successes like Price and Adam Wainwright might cause more usage of this kind of pattern, but so far, nope.
Price made a closely monitored jump from 150 innings to 200 the following season. Even under the injury nexus, the Rays' close watch on Price's mechanics, stuff and fatigue level kept him healthy. It continues too, as he is entering the early peak phase at the top of his game. Price is efficient on top of his dominating stuff, which allows him to go deeper into games. A bit more efficiency also led to a bit more velocity, knowing that he doesn't have to pace himself in quite the same way. A bit more efficiency would turn him into peak-phase Roy Halladay.
Price sprung from Vanderbilt fully formed, but perhaps this is the pattern that more should be following. There's not many David Prices out there, anywhere, but if you want to grow roses, plant rose bushes.
Jeremy Hellickson isn't a dominating pitcher. He gets by on good enough stuff, deception and defense. The big worry and one that puts him very near the red is that without that dominating stuff, he still came up with a sore shoulder last season. His velocity and command held up in the average, but there was a definite problem there that the Rays were aggressive with. Shutting him down seemed to work, and he came back solid if not improved.
At 26, Hellickson gives the Rays more or less what they got from James Shields at a much lower cost. Hellickson doesn't have the experience or the resume, but he's definitely a Shields starter kit. If he can do what Shields did—stay healthy and pitch to his strengths—he could have the same kind of results.
If Hellickson could end up the next James Shields, it's possible that Matt Moore could end up the next David Price. They both are power lefties, both shot through the minors and both started their careers in the playoffs. Moore didn't make a huge step forward last season, but he also didn't take a step back despite the age and workload.
Moore went through three years in the minors, progressing from 120 to 140 and then to 160 innings, including nine in the majors, not including his playoff start. That's as progressive a development as you're ever going to see. While Russell Carleton has laid into the idea of innings jumps as a performance indicator, I still believe strongly that gradual innings increases like this facilitate the development of healthy young pitchers. (The question is can a team take this to it's next logical progression?)
Moore was managed well, it seems, but he's still a young pitcher and those are inherently risky. He's a low yellow, but the upside is massive here.
That Jeff Niemann has a career at all is a testament to the Rays medical staff going back almost a decade. Drafted out of Rice, Niemann's arm was shredded and his mechanics, complicated by his height, were terrible (but effective). It took a while to get him healthy and functional, but there was a solid payoff for the Rays. Niemann gave the team three solid years of starting in return for all the work and medical help.
He has a chance to add a fourth, but his injury history from last season invokes a dangerous pattern. Niemann was injured by a comebacker, breaking his leg. That kind of trauma is easy to come back from, if painful and unnecessary. The downside came when he quickly developed shoulder soreness. That implies that there was a change in his pitching mechanics, even a subtle one, that led to the issue. Either way, his 6'9" frame complicates everything about the mechanics.
If Niemann can put together a decent campaign, that's a huge win for the Rays and the Rays medical staff. If not, he's a relatively cheap risk that can at least hold place for one of the younger pitchers like Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi.
We all have that friend who only dates blondes, or tall girls, or astrophysicists... OK, maybe I don't hang around normal people, but the Rays understand having a type. It's downright Jungian how they handle pitching selection, and it's clear that they're doing this systematically.
Alex Cobb is essentially a clone of Jeremy Hellickson. They may not look alike, but they pitch alike. Of course, Hellickson is essentially a clone of James Shields. It's a repeating pattern in the best way. Like a recipe, the Rays know what succeeds and more importantly, what they succeed with. McDonald's isn't huge because they have the best burger in the world, but because whether you're in Greenwood or Moscow, a Big Mac is a Big Mac. The Rays have a pitching special sauce.
Cobb should be healthy, but again, his age, position and relative inexperience puts him solidly in the yellow tier. He's not going to be dominant, but he's definitely predictable and has enough upside to be worth the time.
The setup guy in Tampa is often a better pick than the closer. Maddon and the Rays have shuttled through closers year after year, finding a new one along the way. Joel Peralta is the same kind of player, not exactly a scrap-heap guy reclaimed in the way of Kyle Farnsworth (who's also in the mix, along with Jake McGee), but close.
Peralta's stuff ticked up last year, which was largely credited to mechanical changes. The movement might have been the result of something else, as he was busted doctoring the ball and took a suspension. He's healthy in general and the bullpen is deep enough that he shouldn't be overworked.
The sideways hat isn't what helped him rack up one of the most insane seasons not just in modern closer history, but pitching history. His ERA was 0.60, and no matter what you think of ERA as a tool, that's impressive. He won't do that again, but what he does do could have him at the top tier of closers again.
The key isn't the fastball/change combo, since plenty of pitchers work with that out of the pen. The difference between the two is what ties hitters in knots. Rodney throws a 96 mph heater and comes back with a pitch that looks the same, but comes out at 80 to 82. As long as Rodney has the deceptive motion and the 12 to 14 mph separation, he'll be more than fine.
The worry is that Fernando Rodney has been known to lose his mechanics, overthrow and tax his pitching arm by doing so. The Rays were great about keeping him from making that mistake and even better at teaching him how to self-correct his mechanics when he was out of whack. It didn't take a mound visit or a bullpen session to fix Rodney as it had in the past.