MLB's Riskiest Players for 2014 Season

Will Carroll@injuryexpertSports Injuries Lead WriterFebruary 25, 2014

MLB's Riskiest Players for 2014 Season

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    To understand the ratings here and why these specific players are risky, first you must understand risk. This is not a general term, but a very specific term of art most closely related to the insurance industry. While we all know Flo and the Geico gecko, few of us have learned how insurance works or why it's so profitable. If you want to know why Matt Kemp, Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer—three of the biggest names in baseball with contracts to match—are risky, please let me explain before you blow up in the comments.

    The Risk Ratings are based on a system that I have been developing for the last 14 years. I was lucky enough to be given access to the actuarial tables created by baseball back then from their actual injury data. Those "Red Books" stopped being published a while back, but the data continue to be developed. Much like you have a rating when you go to insure your house or car, players have the same type of rating. 

    If you drive a Corvette, your insurance base will be higher than if you drive a Camry. If you're a teenager, your rates will be higher than that little old lady from Pasadena. The same is true for baseball players. Age, position, injury history and several other factors go into the ratings. They begin with an actuarial base and then are adjusted up or down by the various factors.

    The ratings are then simplified into bands. While there is an underlying number from 0-110, I collect them into three bandsred for high risk, yellow for medium risk and green for low risk. It's simple and while people often ask for more specific numerical ratings, I don't feel that it adds significantly to the value of the Risk Ratings.

    (Also, I'm admittedly paranoid about people trying to reverse engineer the system! It's been tried.)

    I'll have the full ratings for you on Friday, in plenty of time for your fantasy drafts, but for now, here are 10 top players whose risk is such that you'll need to really think about them before putting them at the heart of your team. Of course, the managers and general managers of these teams have real concerns as well. 

Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    No one will be surprised that Matt Kemp is this year's riskiest player. Yes, a center fielder (or at least he was) over Derek Jeter and pitchers, which tells you just how high the risk is rated by my proprietary system. In fact, it's one of the highest rankings I've seen in the decade-plus of doing this. 

    Kemp battled through ongoing issues with his surgically repaired left shoulder last year. While that didn't go well, two consecutive ankle/foot injuries were worse.

    He ended up needing microfracture surgery on his foot, a procedure that has no precedent in baseball. For some reason, microfracture just doesn't seem to work well in the sport, which is odd since there's some success in the NBA and NFL, where the physical demands should be higher. 

    Given those surgeries and the downswing in his performance, it's no wonder that Kemp is off the charts for risk. As he got to spring training, Kemp said all the right things, but wasn't yet running well. If he's lost some speed, that can be handled, but if the foot is going to take away some of his base at the plate, that's far tougher to overcome.

    The powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers have the depth to overcome Kemp's absence again this season, but Don Mattingly and Stan Conte are going to have to figure out how to keep him on the field and productive if they want to get their money's worth. Until Kemp is running and slugging, it's tough to dream on his potential.

    Look for Kemp to show burst, especially digging out a double. His ankle was initially injured on a slide, so watch to see if he shows any reluctance to do so. Throwing is an issue, but again, that's one that the team can deal with. Where it could affect him is at the plate, so look for good extension on swings.

    There's still talent and a lot of it in Matt Kemp. The upside is there, but the downside is clear as well. His work ethic didn't help him last year and he could be one of those players who tries to work through injuries that would better be served by rest. That may be the key for him in 2014. If Kemp were allowed to be productive in 120 games, he might well be better off than trying to push himself for 140.

Derek Jeter, New York Yankees

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Things went from "Oh Captain" to "Ow Captain" quickly last year and in early work, Derek Jeter hasn't convinced me that he's entirely beyond the ankle issues. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but Jeter's long rehab back from what seemed to be a painful-but-simple injury is definitely troubling.

    Jeter's broken ankle should have been cleared up by last spring at this time. He had surgery to avoid the exact problems he had, which is as red a red flag as can be. Surgeries don't just fail and given the quality of care and rehab, the worry that something structural has broken down must be considered.

    He was able to return late in the season, but he was clearly hobbled. So far this spring, he's done well in the field and at bat, but running the bases was the real problem. Until Jeter shows us that he can dig out a hard double and come up without a limp, I'm not going to be able to get rid of the worries that The System and I have for him.

    Jeter has always been a symbol of the New York Yankees and in injury, too, he's the face of the franchise. The Yankees have never been at the top of the rankings for injury stats, but the last couple seasons have been brutal. The Yankees have bought injuries (really, Brian Roberts?), but even with their top-tier internal guys like Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner and more, the injuries have piled up high.

    If Jeter can get back on the field and be more than a symbol, the Yankees will have a chance in a tough division. If not, he'll hobble off into the sunset, where he'll likely remain the face of the franchise. Behind him, though, the Yankees will have to make a lot of changes, starting with their medical success.

Clay Buchholz, Boston Red sox

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    Jeff Curry/Associated Press

    Boston Red Sox fans will probably clog the comments, but they should remember that Clay Buchholz was one of the reasons their World Series win was surprising. Buchholz has shown enough over the years to be tantalizing, but he's never been healthy enough to be a strong, reliable option. 

    Buchholz's 2013 season was derailed by a shoulder injury. While he's avoided surgery so far, shoulder injuries are tough on any pitcher that relies on velocity. By the time Buchholz hit the DL, it was clear that he had lost a significant amount of velocity and wasn't recovering between starts, the hallmark of a labrum issue.

    He came back, but his work in the playoffs was weak, at best, and showed toughness. It also showed the lack of depth that the Sox have in the rotation. They didn't make that mistake again this season, going eight deep into spring training, which means Buchholz won't have as much of a leash this season or as big an opening to come back diminished. 

    Buchholz didn't make it back to long toss before January, so his early work in camp will be key. Look to see if he's able to make all of his work, or if he'll need extra rest. Watch to see that he has normal or near-normal velocity and that his pitches have movement, which was gone when he came back last year.

    If healthy, Buchholz has ace-level stuff, but at 29 and coming off a shoulder injury, it's more likely that we've seen what Buchholz will be: a guy who flashes good stuff and makes us wonder what if. 

Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Wrist injuries follow a predictable path. They hurt, they get fixed, perhaps surgically, and then they heal. As they heal, there's a predictable path there as well. For at least six weeks, there's a clear loss of power. We've seen this time and again, most clearly with Pablo Sandoval, who's had the hamate bones on both wrists removed. 

    That pattern is the upside for Mark Teixeira, who's just another reason that the World Baseball Classic is hated by teams and athletic trainers around the game. If Teixeira can regain the power and the whip in his bat, the Yankees will be happy. However, Teixeira already appeared to be in decline before the wrist injury.

    Add in just how much he pulls the ball, how much of his power comes on both pulls and the short fence at Yankee Stadium and there's more to worry about. Any slowdown is going to affect both of those, which will amplify the effect we see.

    Teixeira has always been a slow starter, so if he doesn't get into games before mid-March, that slow start could be there longer. The Yankees don't expect him to play before then and as of yet, he hasn't even taken live batting practice. This is definitely a worry for the Yankees. Losing another big player for the year could have them plummet despite their payroll. 

    Watch to see when Teixeira is back in games, whether he's able to pull the ball and whether he can generate any power. Even doubles/gap power is a positive sign, though with his age, putting them over the fence and trotting would be a much better one. 

Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Matt Harrison might seem like a bit of a gimme, but the Risk Ratings locked earlier this year. You'll have to trust me when I say that even before his latest back problem, Harrison was the second-riskiest pitcher in baseball according to my proprietary rating system.

    The back injury this spring turned out to be muscular and related to a bad mattress, but it shows just how this could go. Harrison could be the ace, but Ron Washington and Mike Maddux will have to hold their breath with every start. Harrison is one of those "if healthy" guys who could be the difference between another World Series run for the Texas Rangers and a disappointment.

    With a series of back and shoulder problems, Harrison's kinetic chain appears to have a major breakdown. This is a terrible series and if followed with lower back or leg problems, it's among the worst. Force transfers along the kinetic chain, from foot push to ball release, and weak links in the chain take away not only force, but control and command. 

    Watch to see if Harrison is able to keep his normal arch in his delivery (as you see above) and if he can freely follow through. If you find yourself saying "bend your back!" every time he releases the ball, that will be a bad sign. 

    At just 28, Harrison is at a crossroads. He can make adjustments, focus on getting and keeping the back healthy and remain a top pitcher, or he can be swallowed up like so many before him. While risky, Harrison has both upside and a great support team. If Maddux and Jamie Reed can get Harrison up near 180 innings this year, it will be a big win for them and the team.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Johnny Cueto has some hurdles to deal with in '14.
    Johnny Cueto has some hurdles to deal with in '14.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Reds have some problems at the top of their rotation and at the back, but unless Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos are healthy, figuring out the back won't matter.

    Cueto might have been the ace, but his various injuries are piling up to the point where Latos was the de facto ace by the end of last season. Unless two minor surgeries have erased that, Cueto will head into the season as the No. 1, but Homer Bailey got a big deal in large part because he was the one pitcher the Reds could count on start after start.

    Cueto's season was derailed by a kinetic chain problem, going straight down from his shoulder to his oblique to his back. Cueto and new manager/then-pitching coach Bryan Price blame the situation on his twisting delivery and worked to change it in-season, which didn't work at all. Cueto worked in the offseason to make the same change and we'll have to see whether it took this time without diminishing velocity.

    This is key since Cueto's strikeout rate has never been special. He's gotten by with good defense, a heavy sink on his pitches and a lot of luck. That runs out in most cases, though as long as he keeps opposing batters beating it into the ground, he should be tolerable. Then again, to be a solid fantasy pick and a plus for the Reds, he'll need to go more than 60 innings.

    Cueto went 217 innings in 2012, but that's his only season above 190 innings. It's a very odd career pattern and one that doesn't match up very well with others. Cueto might be a one off or he may be headed down a path that would see his peak come early and then have a major down period before a secondary peak. Players like Dennis Martinez and Scott Sanderson are the upside. I think Dan Szymborski has it more right with his ZiPS comp of Charles Nagy and Jason Schmidt.

    ZiPS also has Cueto getting only to 136 innings this year. If I used ZiPS as the projection base in The System, Cueto would be even riskier. The System uses early iterations of Steamer for the second year and while Steamer gives more innings to Cueto, he's also worse on most rate and peripheral stats there.

    Watch to see if Cueto is showing less twist in his delivery early on in camp while maintaining both velocity and his groundball-inducing stuff. That's going to be a tough combo, especially given issues with his conditioning. Maybe this will be a wake-up call for Cueto or maybe this will be where the Reds put him to sleep. 

Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Big extension? Hold on a second, Dodgers. Let's have a talk about why Hanley Ramirez remains one of the riskiest players in baseball. In fact, why don't you just sit Carl Crawford next to Ramirez every time you think about handing out the next big-dollar deal?

    Ramirez comes into his age-30 season off an injury-plagued year. He was very clearly damaged by the World Baseball Classic (detecting a theme yet?) but he's been in physical decline for a while. He's slowing and at shortstop, he's probably overtaxed. Paying him as such and hoping he stays there a while, even as the team reallocates its depth behind him, is folly.

    Granted, the Dodgers brass has plenty of brass as well as gold. That means they can focus more on the upside than the downside and Ramirez certainly still has a lot of upside. He produced well when he could get out there, but that's only about half the time in two of the last three years.

    I'm unable to find what would change significantly if Ramirez signed a big-dollar deal. Sure, he could move over to third base, but the delta is small. Any leg injury will indicate that the decline is coming. 

    If the Dodgers really want to maximize Ramirez, they'd sign him to a short extension and hold him at shortstop. Of course, that would increase the risk, but the Dodgers are nothing if not a boom-or-bust team.

    If Stan Conte can keep this team healthy, they'll run away with the division. If not, they could still win the way they did last season. Shooting the moon isn't a long-term plan.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Joe Mauer is moving from behind the plate in order to keep him from being as risky or as injured as he's been in the past. The concussions were the final straw for the Minnesota Twins, though his knee and lower back problems should have been. The downside here is that the damage might be done and that catcher conversions don't tend to work very well.

    Admittedly, the conversions are a small sample and that for every Victor Martinez, there's three that are shot by the time they get there. Few players move out at their peaks, but instead are moved to extend their careers or at least squeeze some value out of them. 

    Mauer should be fine at first, though with his athleticism, I'm surprised they're not trying to move him down the defensive spectrum. While Mauer could handle left field, he could also handle third with his height and arm. 

    In the long term, moving out from catcher to first should help Mauer, but in the short term, this is something he's never done. He fought to stay a catcher and is used to the game there. The footwork and standing might not be good for his back, making the shift moot. It's a complete unknown, which is the very definition of risk.

    The System rates Mauer as a half-time catcher, which acknowledges that if one of the catchers is injured or struggles, Mauer is probably keeping his catching gear handy. Ron Gardenhire could be tempted, but if he is, I hope someone in the Twins organization keeps it from happening. 

Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Dave Tulis/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Phillies are used to this, but it's been Ryan Howard and Chase Utley that have been risky. Jimmy Rollins was always the steady one...until he wasn't. Age catches up fast with some players and Rollins appears to be one of those. 

    At age 35, Rollins has missed significant time in only one season, but the signs around what he's done are all trending negative. Shortstops don't age well, speed players don't age well and the Phillies haven't aged well at all. That they've been on the field at all is testament to their solid medical staff, which is one major point in Rollins' favor.

    Of course, one of the other issues is around Rollins. Utley and Howard are going to require a lot of maintenance, leaving less time for Rollins and others to get the kind of preventive care they need to keep from ending up alongside the others. 

    Rollins has always been one bad hamstring strain away from losing his key skill. Since his power hasn't increased as he's lost speed, the decline is coming and The System thinks it's coming quicker than most. 

Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Gio Gonzalez may only be a yellow risk on the upcoming Risk Ratings, but he has an interesting series of underlying issues that makes him a worry. First, he's more or less the ace of the deep Washington Nationals rotation and losing him or any member of that solid-but-not-deep rotation is a huge problem for the Nats. 

    Gonzalez is a curve-reliant pitcher who's coming off a season where a tenuous connection to the Biogenesis situation is going to be used against him if he regresses. It shouldn't since there's plenty of other reasons. His 2012 had ridiculous and untenable peripheral stats. 

    For The System and I, the bigger concern is the slight decline in his innings totals. Some of this is beyond his control. He comes out when the manager takes him out and he was caught up in the quick hook that Davey Johnson developed with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Since we have no idea how Matt Williams will manage his pitchers, this introduces yet another uncertainty, though The System doesn't have a variable for this.

    It sees a simple, apparent reduction in capacity, sliding toward the 190-inning mark that is much more telling than the 200-inning mark that most people note. Pitchers that stay above that 190 mark tend to stay above it until they don't. Once they don't, they very seldom come back, absent a return from surgery. 

    If Gonzalez dips even a bit, the pattern will be that he'll start a steep decline, just at the time that Washington is collecting enough arms to make a deep run. Gonzalez's arm will be tied up with a new manager, a medical staff that hasn't been good at preventing injuries and aging, which attacks everyone. That's not someone I'm going to build a fantasy roster around.