Notes from the Cactus League
March, 19, 2008
By Stephania Bell | ESPN.com
I have decided that it's only fair to give equal time to both leagues. After spending some time with the Grapefruit League in Tampa, Fla., I felt compelled to visit the Cactus League in Phoenix, Ariz. I spent my days traveling to various stadiums to observe different matchups, hoping to catch a glimpse of those coming back from injury (or to get some scoop on how they are progressing when not in that day's lineup). The challenge during exhibition games is trying to figure out who will actually show up to play on any given day, since the lineups during spring training are very fluid. After several days on the job, here are some items to report that may be of interest as you prepare for your fantasy baseball season.
I went to see the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (really, could their name be longer?) play host to the Diamondbacks. This matchup was interesting to me because Randy Johnson was pitching for the Diamondbacks. My position on Johnson is that I have been a big believer that he will come back from this second surgery to deliver 20-25 starts this season. The advantages for him this year are several: he has had longer to rehabilitate from this surgery compared to last year, he has a better understanding of what the rehab process entails and what to expect as far as how his body responds after going through a similar process last year, and frankly, after this third surgery (he originally had a disc surgery at the same vertebral level back in 1996), there is less disc material left to herniate, making a repeat of that unlikely. Sure, he's 44, going on 45, but everyone acknowledges that his arm looks as good as those of the young guns. The concern is how the rest of his body will hold up.
So how did Johnson look? From my vantage point in the press box, he looked good, right about where I would expect at this point in time. He had a nice smooth delivery, although he did not appear to be throwing his hardest, but he did have a few well-placed sliders. There was no speed clock available on the scoreboard so it was difficult to tell how hard he was actually throwing, although manager Bob Melvin told me later that he reached 93 mph several times. He pitched three innings (43 total pitches), giving up a solo home run to Gary Matthews Jr. (Johnson's only earned run), and managed two strikeouts. After his outing, Johnson shared several comments about his status, which Diamondbacks public relations director Mike McNally then shared with me. Johnson emphasized his slow, gradual buildup of activity, adding roughly 10-15 pitches per outing. He reports feeling better now than at the same time last year, which is not surprising, given the extra rehab time he has had, and which is, of course, good news. Johnson also added that he did let a few pitches go Saturday, which he did not do in his first outing against the Colorado Rockies. The important thing for Johnson is to see how his body responds after each time on the mound. (Translation: How does his back feel when he rolls out of bed the next day?) Johnson reiterated that he is still working on building up his stamina as well as his location.
For his part, manager Bob Melvin said that the entire organization is playing it a bit more cautious with Johnson's return this time around. The feeling is that Johnson was "mentally rushed" last year, meaning in an effort to get back to help the team, he likely pushed himself too hard and too fast, perhaps setting up his eventual injury recurrence. He believes that the extra couple of months Johnson has had to recover this time (six months since surgery as opposed to four months last year) have really helped. Melvin said that although the speed Johnson showed on this occasion was better than at the same time last year, the presence of his slider in particular reduces the need to rely on the aggressive top-speed fastballs. Melvin added that since Johnson "knows how he's feeling better than we do," it is critical that he evaluate how his body feels after each outing, and that his throwing progression is adjusted accordingly. There is no recipe for his return, no pressure to have him every fifth day, if he is not yet ready to meet that schedule. In fact, this week the Diamondbacks have a day off, giving Johnson potentially six days before his next scheduled outing. Johnson's next start then looks to be Friday (March 21st) if all continues well, at which point I would expect to see a few more pitches (that 10-15 increase, perhaps a few more) as well as a little more willingness to let it go.
Vladimir Guerrero was in the Angels lineup as DH. He has been hitting the ball well this spring, but the concern has been the lingering presence of soreness in his triceps. Remember last season his triceps strain affected his ability to throw the ball, and so far, the team has controlled that activity by limiting his outfield play. When he has been in the field, Guerrero has shown no limitations as far as the arm and looks to be in good shape heading into the season.
Unfortunately, the triceps strain appears to have been contagious as Guerrero's teammate, starting pitcher John Lackey, has been diagnosed with this ailment. Per the Angels, Lackey had some soreness in the back of his arm after throwing on March 12 and then felt his arm really lock up by Friday. Team physician Dr. Lewis Yocum examined Lackey and diagnosed the triceps strain, and an MRI reportedly confirmed that assessment. Lackey was shut down from throwing and will rest and rehabilitate until he is allowed to resume baseball activities (currently projected at 3-4 weeks, meaning mid-April). At that point he will just begin light throwing but will need to build up his strength and endurance via several minor league rehab starts before rejoining the rotation. That would put his return to the team at roughly mid-May, presuming no setbacks. Up until now, Lackey had not missed a start in six years, so his overall health is good, which bodes well for a solid recovery here. Additionally, this is a muscle strain, which is not uncommon for pitchers to develop as they increase their activity during the spring. At this point there is no suggestion of ligament damage, so it is primarily a matter of resting the triceps for several weeks, and then gradually building up the throwing strength. The Angels are also without Kelvim Escobar, who has been battling some shoulder tendinitis. He has been playing catch and is scheduled to begin some light throwing this week, with his targeted return looking like sometime in May.
I watched Tim Lincecum throw two innings against the Padres. Lincecum, who had skipped a start because of a minor groin strain, threw 59 pitches, 39 of which were strikes in his outing. He gave up four runs and also hit a batter, but managed 4 strikeouts as well. After the game, Lincecum spoke with reporters and indicated that the groin was fully healthy and that he had no awareness of it while pitching. He felt that he was on track as far as his arm strength and just needed to continue to work on getting his location under control. I asked Lincecum how he used the offseason to prepare his body to endure the long baseball season. He indicated that he always used the offseason to rest his throwing arm to some degree (Do you hear that, all you young baseball players out there? Time off to rest!) and he reminded me that he had been shut down completely through the second week of January in an effort to proactively protect his arm. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Lincecum did resume throwing from the mound in February.
Lincecum said that ever since he injured his back in high school (which he was quick to point out gives him no trouble whatsoever these days), he focuses on maintaining his core strength and flexibility. This makes complete sense as Lincecum uses his trunk rotation significantly in his delivery. The extra advantage he gains from his trunk results in decreased strain on his arm. Lincecum added, "You can probably tell that I'm not big into the weights" but he also feels that despite the respite he takes from throwing each offseason, it doesn't take him that long to get back into throwing shape (Again, are all you young ballplayers listening out there?). Lincecum struck me as extremely calm, sensible and very much in tune with the requirements of his body in order to meet the demands he places on it. That kind of insight and self-awareness is bound to help him preserve his health and extend his career, just what a physical therapist (and San Francisco Giants fan) wants to see.
You may be aware that not everyone in the Giants' lineup is younger than 25 years old. On that note, I wanted to see how second baseman Ray Durham looked running. Sidelined much of last year with various muscle strains (hamstring in particular), Durham's durability was a question mark coming into this season. I saw Durham try and grind one out to first on a short chop up the middle, and although he was out, the fact that he was running hard, quick and without hesitation was a sign of encouragement. Third baseman (and perhaps soon-to-be first baseman) Rich Aurilia, who had soreness in his right hamstring, also managed to put in some time, and looked to be feeling well. According to a report on the Giants' Web site, Aurilia was bothered by a neck injury much of last season, following a car accident, and spent a good deal of the offseason addressing that issue. His neck reportedly feels much better; let's hope that the hamstrings follow suit. Shortstop Omar Vizquel is sidelined while he recovers from his surgery to address a meniscus tear and will likely be out for the first two weeks of the season. He has recently begun throwing and swinging the bat, making that a realistic timetable.
Not running so well was catcher Bengie Molina, who has been dealing with a strained left quadriceps muscle. Molina worked several innings behind the plate and appeared to function well there, with no obvious limits moving in and out of the crouch position. Batting, however, was another matter. Well, actually, he looked good swinging the bat and definitely put the ball in play, but he could only muster up a light jog to first. At one point, a nice RBI single (which should have easily been a double), was a labor for Molina just to reach the base. He was immediately replaced by a pinch runner. Molina has not been, nor will he ever be, known for his speed. It was obvious, however, that the quadriceps was still holding him back. This has clearly been a source of frustration for Molina who, according to a recent AP report, wants to play all out. This will definitely impact the Giants' offensive production if it is not under control by opening day. The quadriceps is a large muscle group and can be slow to return to full power, so this may be something that Molina and the Giants have to contend with for the next month or two. Molina is correct in saying, though, that the important thing is not to suffer a setback at this point. Although he is still having soreness in the muscle, he is optimistic that this will improve as Opening Day approaches. The Giants can only hope that this is the case.