Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Mole

Right now, the person on the Hot Seat more that anyone, including Jim Riggleman, has to be Head Trainer Lee Kuntz. All other retained personnel have shown improvement as the season has progressed. Steve McCatty has exceeded every expectation with a AAA rotation plus Lannan. Randy Knorr has patched and righted a brutal bullpen situation. Rick Eckstein has had hits at every position except right field. Even Riggleman has shown the Nats can be motivated to win a few games here and there.

However, the misdiagnosed injuries are piling up faster than the National Debt. First off, everybody who watched a baseball game and picked up a sports section knew Scott Olsen was hurting. The trade is obviously not Lee Kuntz's fault. Allowing Olsen to struggle on the mound for almost two months was. Olsen looked rejuvenated coming off the DL, but was quickly back on with a career threatening torn labrum. A disastrous revelation, to say the least... though the question should be posed: was the labrum already torn, or was it caused by Olsen compensating for another injury? Either way, he should NOT have been allowed to pitch at the end of June.

Next we have the tragic case of Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann jumped into the rotation in the middle of April and never looked back, burning down batters with a nasty 95 mph fastball and displaying remarkable control for a rookie. He missed a start in early June with general elbow soreness, and the blogging world was afire. All reports from the Nats was that it was nothing but precautionary measures. Flash went back out and made several more starts, including jumping spots over the All-Star break, before being skipped at the end of July for more elbow soreness. Then he was placed on the DL. Then he made a minor league start. Only then, after persistent elbow soreness for over two months, was an MRI ordered. A second and THIRD opinion concluded that Jordan needed Tommy John Surgery. How this escaped the Head Trainer for two months is a question only he can answer. Another horrible setback for a young player.

Let's change gears for a moment and consider the case of Austin Kearns. First, Kearns has not been hitting since 2007. Many explanations have been submitted, and Austin pops in with a couple nice at bats once a month. However, his production at the plate has NEVER demanded that he be in the lineup every day, even when healthy. Rather than sitting him down and working out what could be causing a two-year disaster, he kept trotting out there four or five times a week, cringing in the batter's box like a troublesome child awaiting his spanking. Of course it was revealed in AUGUST, of 2009, that he had been dealing complications from thumb surgery in 2004. In Kuntz's defense, Kearns is a bit of a lunkhead, and probably thought he was playing through just another bruise to avoid the "injury-prone" label reserved for Nick Johnson. However, this is exactly why Kuntz is retained by the Nationals, to review a player's medical history, diagnose injuries, and properly rehab them to avoid future injuries. So now Kearns will likely never play another game for the Nats again, and will struggle to get back into the league once his thumb is repaired. At least he'll get his buyout.

I noted Craig Stammen's issues beginning in late July in a blog post a couple weeks ago. They noted the mechanical differences in Stammen's delivery from early in the year and during the period in which he struggled. The post foolishly focused on the effects of the change, decreased control and more fly balls, instead of the cause. When a pitcher makes an unexpected mechanical change the cause, of course, is always pain. In this case, it was pain in the freakin' elbow, which should always trigger an alarm. The cause of the pain, revealed about six weeks after he began experiencing it, was bone spurs. It is foolhardy to believe the Head Trainer can prevent bone spurs, but he needs to be in better tune with the players and coaches who are experiencing the pain and mechanical difficulties.

Now of course the reason for this post is the news that Jesus Flores, relegated to the DL since May, has now been diagnosed with a torn labrum and will be out six months following surgery. Flores was knocked on the shoulder in the beginning of May, after which he was day-to-day with discomfort. The pain was attributed to a contusion suffered from the foul tip. No problem, that is why the Nats carry Wil. After hitting the DL with no improvement, Dr. James Andrews (whose name may as well be The Plague) was called in to diagnose where others had failed. The revised diagnosis was a stress fracture of the shoulder, a serious upgrade in severity. The timetable for recovery was set at three months, which would have put Flores set to be activated in early to mid-September, depending upon his rehab assignments. The smart money would have been to shut a young player down for the year during a lost season, allowing him extra time to rehab and report to fall ball. The Nats instead pushed ahead with a more aggressive approach, and Flores was in the lineup in September. He was then diagnosed with a torn labrum shortly after returning. The tear wasn't there in August, clearly Flores did the damage when returning to baseball activities. It is almost impossible to conclude that one injury is not related to the previous, considering they are in the exact same area. Now a simple foul ball will have kept Flores out at least eleven months. Holy crap.

This is not a witch hunt to indict Lee Kuntz in for everything from JFK to 9/11. This is strictly an assessment on the progress of five players under the age of 30 and how they are coping with injuries. Right now, the the training staff has done a poor job with these five players. I am not a doctor like Rany, so I am not pointing the finger or recommending anybody's dismissal. The team cannot keep selling this as "bad luck" though. That shit only sells so long before it begins to stink. The front office has done everything to coddle and slowly bring along these young starters with strict inning and pitch counts, and the injuries still mount. Mike Rizzo needs to come forth and conduct a thorough audit of the past two seasons (remember what Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman endured last year) and see how this rash stacks up with other teams. He has proven himself savvy in identifying talent and value on the field, and had no issue firing Bobby Williams. It is up to him to identify value and talent by keeping players off the DL as well, at that starts on the training table in DC.

Making the Nats competitive for 2010 and beyond is much more than adding a LOOGY with good ground ball numbers. Agents will not recommend their clients sign with an organization that has a history of mysterious horrible injuries. Agents make a lot of money to do what is best for their clients. It is tough to believe, but in the end, Scott Boras got his players signed. And if Strasburg promptly shreds his elbow, you can guarantee the next one will not unless it is for the moon and a time machine. The bottom line is that the credibility of the organization is at stake when it does not believe it is hiring and retaining the best personnel in the industry. Yes, it is near impossible to compete with the industry giants due to financial constraints, but teams like the Marlins and Twins prove that it can be done. The Nats cannot allow themselves to become the Clippers or Bengals of the MLB... or worse, the Royals.

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