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Thursday, May 14, 2009
Disabled-list conspiracy theories

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Dontrelle Willis made his dramatic return from the disabled list Wednesday night. And who among us wasn't happy to see him back in the big leagues?

Uhhhhh, except, that is, for all those people in baseball who are still trying to figure out how the Detroit Tigers maneuvered him onto the disabled list in the first place.

"It was pretty obvious, wasn't it?" said one longtime front-office man. "They invested $29 million in the guy. They had $22 million left. He's a good kid. They'd already eaten [Gary] Sheffield's money. So they needed some extra time to see if they could get the guy straightened out before they went to [Tigers owner] Mike Ilitch and said, 'You've got to eat the rest of it.'"

So if you believe the theories of the skeptics around baseball, the Tigers sneakily finagled Willis onto the disabled list with an ailment known as "anxiety disorder." But is that what really went on? Was it really that obvious?

The Tigers, naturally, dispute the conspiracy theories that they sneakily finagled anything. (More on that later.) But already this year, we've heard more grumbling about the disabled list -- and the way certain teams have used it -- than we've heard in years.

Chien-Ming Wang's hips … Oliver Perez's knee … Willis' anxiety disorder, etc.

"I think there's some tremendous creativity now in our game," one National League executive deadpanned. "What I like is the verbiage. We've got some very educated general managers in the game now, and they've come up with some tremendous verbiage to explain these guys' going on the DL. It's just a plot to get everyone to go to Webster's and say, 'What the heck is that?'"

OK, no it isn't. But it does generate massive conversation around the sport. And the heart of that conversation boils down to one pivotal issue:

When a guy is playing lousy, and nobody says anything for weeks about any aches, pains or swine flu outbreaks, and then he suddenly winds up on the disabled list, is there reason to be suspicious? Are these injuries just remarkably convenient, or are they all legitimate ailments that just look a little funky to the untrained medical eye?

"We can't talk about specific cases," MLB's vice president for public relations, Pat Courtney, told Rumblings. "But what we can say is that each DL placement must be supported by sufficient medical evidence, and it has to come from a highly qualified physician."

In other words, the commissioner's office is reviewing every case. And doctors are signing every form. And the players in question, their agents and the union have to be on board with every trip to DL purgatory.

So why are the conspiracy theories still flying? Let's take a closer look, by examining the three most hotly debated DL placements of the season (so far):

Chien-Ming Wang's hips

The plotline: On April 25, the Yankees placed Wang -- who, as other clubs keep pointing out, was out of options -- on the DL with what was described as "weakness in the adductor muscles in both hips." The cynics, of course, thought that was a synonym for "inflammation of the ERA" (which was 34.50 at the time).

"The day before he went on the DL," said one disgruntled American League exec, "he said, 'I'm healthy. I want to start tomorrow.' And the next day, he was placed on the disabled list. It's a little strange, don't you think?"

The Yankees' side of the story: It's never hard to find people in baseball who think the Yankees are trying to get away with something. But in this case, "there's nothing to hide," Yankees GM Brian Cashman emphatically told Rumblings.

Initially, Cashman reminds the critics, Wang wasn't even placed on the DL. First, he was skipped in the rotation and sent to Tampa, Fla., to pitch in an extended spring training game for a "mental" break. But after Wang arrived, Cashman said he got a call from Alex Rodriguez, who was also in Tampa rehabbing with Dr. Mark Lindsay, who was described by the GM as a "lower-extremity expert."

Cashman told Rumblings: "Alex said, 'Dr. Lindsay says he worked with a runner who had trouble coming back from a Lisfranc fracture [the injury that sidelined Wang last year], and he knows what's wrong with Wang.'" So the Yankees had Lindsay examine Wang. And the report, Cashman said, was that Wang needed to embark on a program to strengthen his ankle, "and he needed to do it now." And only then was he placed on the DL.

"So I don't really care what anybody on the outside thinks," Cashman said. "If I have a doctor who tells me a player has to do physical therapy and it could take him up to six weeks to do it, that's not 'convenient.' The fact is, we need our No. 2 starter, but we need to get him right."

The dangling question: From spring training right up until Wang journeyed to Tampa, nobody from the Yankees -- not Wang, not manager Joe Girardi, not pitching coach Dave Eiland -- said publicly that Wang had a physical problem or had any weakness related to his previous injury. So if the cynics out there were looking for ammunition, the Yankees provided them with plenty. But Cashman says that's because Wang never told the team he was hurting.

"Players are like pets sometimes," the GM said. "If they don't express themselves properly or fully, it's all guesswork trying to figure out what's really going on."

Oliver Perez's right knee

The plotline: As Perez unfurled one gruesome start after another right after signing a three-year, $36 million contract, the Mets fired away with lots of hypotheses on what might be wrong with him. But none of them included the word "knee."

Then, in a whirlwind 48 hours this month, Perez went from a guy who might be headed for the minor leagues to a pitcher who was going to be exiled to the bullpen to a fellow with a knee so hurting he had to go on the disabled list. And don't think the rest of the National League didn't notice how fast that knee flared up.

"I'll tell you who should be serving the DL time," one NL exec quipped. "The guys who gave him that contract."

The Mets' side of the story: Mets GM Omar Minaya told Rumblings that just because the Mets never talked about Perez's knee issues until the day before he hit the DL doesn't mean they never existed.

"He was on our medical reports the whole time," Minaya said. "But it wasn't something where he could not pitch. … If a guy has a problem, these things are not revealed all the time. I don't expect clubs to reveal every little medical problem. They don't have to. And we don't have to."

The skeptics keep mentioning that it sure looked funny that it wasn't until after the Mets said Perez was being bounced from the rotation when his knee suddenly became a public topic. But Minaya said that was all a matter of coincidental timing. Perez's final start came on a Saturday, on the road. So "we didn't have [the option to do] an MRI," the GM said. "When we came back home, he got the MRI [the following Monday]. And the MRI revealed the full extent of [the tendinitis]. And that's when we put him on the DL."

The dangling question: Minaya says the proof that Perez is legitimately injured is that he didn't go right out on a rehab option, and he hasn't done anything more than long toss. So "if it was a phantom injury, he'd probably have been pitching in one of those [minor] leagues right away," Minaya said.

But is that enough to satisfy the conspiracy theorists? Of course not.

"When you get into the season, almost everyone has something wrong with him," said an official of one club. "And let's just say if you want to make something of it, you can. So does Oliver Perez's knee hurt? OK, it may hurt. But is that why he's on the DL right now? I'm pretty sure that's not all there is to it."

Dontrelle Willis' anxiety disorder

The plotline: This case is the most complicated of them all. What the outside world saw this spring was a high-priced pitcher who had a 12.46 spring ERA, allowed 26 baserunners in 8 2/3 innings and couldn't be sent to the minor leagues.

Then, just as people were beginning to speculate openly that Willis could be released, the Tigers announced he was being placed on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder. That was confusing enough. But Willis then added to the confusion by revealing that the condition was diagnosed through a blood test.

"When Dontrelle said they found it with a blood test, I said, 'Can you do that?'" an official of one club wondered. "If a guy has an anxiety disorder, does it show up in his blood? I never heard of that."

The Tigers' side of the story: Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told Rumblings he knows people on the outside have questioned this. (And sources say other clubs actually called the commissioner's office to raise those questions.) But Dombrowski said sternly, "Be careful. This was very legitimate. This was a very in-depth, in-detail situation. This was not a phantom-DL type thing at all."

True, the Tigers never said anything about Willis' condition until he headed for the DL. But the commissioner's office was "aware of this situation for a while," Dombrowski said. "I'm not going to share all the medical information [in public], but this wasn't out of the blue. … We approached them well before we put him on the DL because we knew they'd have to look at this. We gave them very detailed information.

"The reality is, this is not a unilateral situation. You just can't place a guy on the disabled list by yourself. It has to get approved by the commissioner's office. In a situation like this, you need to get everything documented by medical experts. They're not going to let you make moves just to make moves. You have to provide all the medical information."

The dangling question: It's always a sensitive issue questioning someone who has been publicly identified as having an anxiety disorder. How can any of us ever know, really, what's going on inside anyone's skin? A guy with an anxiety disorder doesn't limp, doesn't wear a cast, doesn't head for the operating table.

But on the other hand, Willis' comments have only heightened the skepticism. He said at one point that he's "never depressed." And he said just this week that "I have no condition."

So no wonder you hear people from other teams saying stuff like, "I never heard any talk about this before it happened. None. I just saw a guy who had all that money coming. They weren't sure how to get him on the DL. They didn't want to claim it was his arm because they were trying to trade him. And they couldn't put him in the bullpen because he couldn't throw strikes. So it looked funny. That's all."

But Dombrowski responded, "If somebody called me into court and said, 'You've got to show me what you have to support this,' I feel very comfortable in saying I could show exactly why we put him on the disabled list.'"

The question du jour: Is this cheating?

Once upon a time, Braves manager Bobby Cox told Rumblings, these phantom DL crises never were an issue, "because nobody went on the DL unless they had a broken leg." In fact, he said, 30 years ago, players were even afraid to go into the trainer's room out of terror they might wind up on the dreaded "injured list."

But times change. And, especially, the figures next to the dollar signs change. So at last look, 162 players were on the disabled list, according to the commissioner's office. Which is a lot more than zero. But, just for perspective's sake, it's actually 18 fewer players than were on the DL at the same stage of last season.

Still, is every one of those injuries 100 percent legit? Depends on whom you ask.

"What the hell are the Yankees supposed to do with a guy like Wang?" one rival GM asked. "He's 0-3 and giving up 15 [runs] a game. What are the Tigers supposed to do with Dontrelle? They know he can't make the team, so what are you gonna do? They've got millions of dollars invested in the guy. So you put him on the DL, and if the commissioner's office doesn't like it, they can call you a no-good liar."

But Brian Cashman said, "I've never once called the commissioner's office and said anybody's injury wasn't legit. If a physician who took an oath is willing to sign the certification, that's good enough for me. I'm not looking to run around questioning what any other team is doing. I don't have time for that."

Just because teams don't raise more of a formal stink, though, it doesn't mean that some of these afflictions aren't more, uh, convenient than others. We all know that.

"I know they're not all legit," one GM said. "But I'll be honest. I don't find that to be hard-core cheating -- because the player's got to be willing to do it. If the player's willing to go on there, it means the player knows he's not right. Whether it's physical, mental or mechanical, something's wrong -- and there's no other way around the rules."

So are we allowed to scratch our heads, arch our brows or even laugh out loud at some of these trips to the DL? Heck, why not? We're just watching the growth, right before our eyes, of another hallowed baseball tradition.

"It's kinda like the seventh-inning stretch," one GM said, laughing. "Except it's the seventh-inning oblique stretch."

Mannywood rumblings

• The next 43 days: Joe Torre says he has talked to Manny Ramirez "probably four times" since Ramirez's suspension. And the message Torre has tried to deliver is that the Dodgers want to support their man Manny, but "he's got to let us help him."

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez

The fact is, though, the Dodgers haven't had much success in connecting with their once and future left fielder beyond the basics. So they haven't even begun formulating a plan for what Manny will be doing these next six weeks.

About the only thing it appears they've settled on is this: They don't think it makes much sense to force him to take batting practice or play in extended spring training games for the next month and a half.

"That's like another spring training, and he doesn't need that," one Dodgers source said. "He doesn't need 43 days to get ready. But what does he need? That's something we've got to figure out. And there aren't a lot of road maps."

So the Dodgers' tentative approach is to give Ramirez some time -- somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of weeks -- to clear his head. After that, they'll want him to start gearing back up toward July 3. But how and where? Those are two questions they still haven't answered.

• What's Manny's motive? Now let's raise another issue: How motivated will Manny be once he comes back?

"I looked at this season as no different than I looked at last season -- as a monstrous contract drive," said an official of one club that wanted no part of Manny this past winter. "Now that's out the window, because no one else will take him, and he's got a 100-game ban if [he] gets caught a second time. So I'm really interested in whether the guy who comes back is the guy they had before. Now he's in an environment where no matter how well he plays, it won't put one dime in his pocket. And [money] is a carrot that's always good for him."

• He'll manage: For all those who thought Torre got the Dodgers' job in November 2007 because he was a big name in a star-driven town, our advice is: Watch him now. At times like this, Torre's ability to hose down fires is exactly the kind of leadership the Dodgers need.

"I've been fortunate to play for a lot of great managers," says Doug Mientkiewicz, who also played for Torre in New York. "But with all due respect to those other guys, he's the best I've ever played for.

"He's been through everything. He knows what it takes to win games. He knows how to handle every situation, every kind of personality. He's had veteran-laden teams, and he's had young teams. And he's really good at defusing bombs before they even get lit, if that makes sense. A lot of people are reactionary. He's proactive in situations before they even happen."

You'll never hear us criticize teams for giving great young baseball minds a chance to manage. But every once in a while, clubs like the Dodgers will see their world explode around them. And when that happens, "It's great to have those old-school guys," Mientkiewicz said, "because when situations like we're going through right now come up, you need the status quo. You need guys who understand. …

"This is a great opportunity for us to prove we're not just one guy -- we're not Manny and 24 other guys. We have a chance to grow as a team. We have a chance to grow as individuals. And we'll be better off in August and September because of this right here. So do we want Manny? Damn right. Do we need him? Sure. But this is a man's game … and it's great to have a guy like Joe who won't let things spiral out of control."

• Now starring: So without Manny, where will the Dodgers' run production come from? The emerging young thumper on this team whom scouts and opponents talk about most is clearly Andre Ethier.

"He's right on the edge of becoming something special," Torre said. "He's actually something special right now."

But can he put up numbers without Manny? That's the question. Before Ramirez arrived in August, Ethier was hitting .248 with a .396 slugging percentage. After Manny showed up, Ethier's average jumped 76 points (to .324), and his slugging percentage leaped all the way to .507. But then, in his first six games after Ramirez's suspension, Ethier went just 3-for-28 with no RBIs and only one extra-base hit.

"Last year, he hit in front of Manny a lot," Torre said. "This year, we figured he could do it on his own, so we put him behind Manny. … I think sometimes he thinks he hit well because Manny was hitting behind him. But I think this year he's sort of discovered that he's out there on his own, and he's done a pretty good job. So it's just a mental thing."

Ready to rumble

• Jake-ing it: Jake Peavy met Wrigley Field this week. How poetic. It almost felt like the schedule-maker's way of reminding the world it might not be the last time.

Jake Peavy
Peavy

The Cubs' ownership limbo now looks as if it might stretch until Christmas Eve. So who knows whether Cubs GM Jim Hendry will even be released from captivity in time to pursue another Peavy deal come July. But whether it's the Cubs or someone else, just about everybody we survey now believes that, with the Padres' recent plummet in the standings, a Peavy trade looks practically inevitable.

"I don't see how they can't trade him," said one of the sources in that survey.

Even though the Padres, unlike the Cubs, do have a new owner, they're in an impossible spot. There have been no promises of injecting more money into the payroll. They just drew three of the four smallest crowds in the history of Petco Park. They've gone 24 straight games without having a starting pitcher win a game. And Peavy's salary is about to high-jump to $15 million next year (then $16 million and $17 million the next two years). So keeping him around would seem to make zero sense for a team facing this much transition.

"I know how, when you've got to move a guy, you play poker for a while and try to drive a hard bargain," said an official of one club who talks to the Padres regularly. "But they're in a tough position. They're not going to keep Jake in the situation they're in. I can't see it happening. And everybody knows it."

But how long could the list of suitors possibly be? This, remember, is a man who will have $52 million left on his contract after this season -- $70 million if his 2013 option gets picked up. And we remind you for the 998th time that he also holds a complete no-trade clause.

There was a time this past winter when Peavy was willing to go to only the Cubs or Dodgers. From all indications, he hasn't added any destinations to that list recently. But then again, the Padres haven't asked, either.

If there's a hang-up to a deal's getting done in midseason, it's that the Padres thought they were getting seven players back in December if their four-team trade with the Cubs, Phillies and Orioles had gone down. And it might be tough for GM Kevin Towers to lower that bar.

But we wish them luck trying to make a deal that humongous in July, especially when the buyer also would be asked to take on all of Peavy's salary.

"They're going to have to realize that kind of deal isn't happening," said an exec of one large-market club. "The way the game is now, you can't have it both ways. If you want anybody to take all $60 million, you can't get their four or five best prospects, too. But I don't think they want to be on the hook for all that dough. So they're going to have to come to grips with what kind of deal this will have to be."

• Math-major alert: In a related development, one of America's finest columnists, The San Diego Union-Tribune's Tim Sullivan, wrote a fascinating column the other day connecting the dots between Manny Ramirez's suspension and a potential Peavy trade to the Dodgers.

The logic, in general, was that the $7.7 million the Dodgers would save by not paying Manny during his suspension would work out to almost exactly the number of dollars left on Peavy's salary this year once June arrives.

Well, that deal may still get done. But there's only one problem with the logic: The Dodgers won't be saving $7.7 million -- not this year, anyway. That's because 60 percent of Ramirez's 2009 salary is deferred and because Manny's overall hit is closer to $7 million, not $7.7 million. So the actual dollars saved in '09 comes to less than $3 million.

In other words, although the Dodgers will clearly be shopping for pitching in a few weeks, they won't be doing it with a get-Jake-Peavy-for-free Monopoly card in their pocket.

• Hello, Houston: As clubs begin sketching out their July shopping lists, no one can figure out the Astros.

Jose Valverde
Valverde

Pudge Rodriguez
Rodriguez

They could have a bunch of marketable veterans (Jose Valverde, Pudge Rodriguez, LaTroy Hawkins, Tim Byrdak, Doug Brocail if he gets healthy and maybe even guys such as Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler and Russ Ortiz). They also could put one of the hottest names on the market, in Roy Oswalt.

But what are the chances that always-upbeat owner Drayton McLane would agree to a sell-off? No one is too sure.

"Based on the history?" an executive of one club said, laughing. "I'd say zero."

Granted, the Astros are famous for their slow starts and furious finishes. But where are the signs that this team can contend? It has allowed the second-most runs in the league and scored the fifth-fewest.

"Face it, they're the oldest team in the league, and they're not winning," the same exec said. "They need to get younger and more athletic. So how do they do that? They need to start getting those older guys out of there. Move some veterans. Move some money. Get some younger blood in there. Drayton needs to come to grips with the idea that, from a baseball perspective, that's what they need to do."

The Astros do have no-trade issues, however. Oswalt and Lance Berkman have total no-trade clauses. And Carlos Lee has one through 2010.

• Texas Hold 'Em: Meanwhile, across the state, scouts who have followed the Rangers have a completely different vision of where Texas' other team might be headed.

Texas Rangers

"I think they've got a chance to steal that division," one scout said. "What I'd love to see them do is reach down, call up that kid Neftali Feliz and say, 'We're going to give it a run in September.' I know they don't want to push him. But this kid has electric stuff. It's about the easiest 100 [mph] you'll ever see. It's like he's having a catch, except it's 100 miles an hour."

A second scout sang the same song, saying, "I'd like to see them do what Colorado did a couple of years ago with [Ubaldo] Jimenez and [Franklin] Morales -- put Feliz and [Derek] Holland in the rotation and go for it. I think they could pull it off.

"People haven't noticed, but their pitchers have pitched a lot better. Nolan [Ryan] has brought a different philosophy, and Mike Maddux is as good a pitching coach as it gets. They're pitching more aggressively with their fastballs, and they're pitching inside a lot better. Look at [Vicente] Padilla and [Kevin] Millwood. They were given up for dead a year ago. Right now, they're pitching their butts off. I'm starting to think that team could be one of the nice little stories of the year."

One reason the Rangers can't think about calling up Feliz any time soon: He's been out for the last week and a half with a sore shoulder.

• Heeere's Johnny: We're not sure whether the Yankees, or anybody else, figured Johnny Damon would be outhomering the entire Tampa Bay outfield (9-6) a month and a half into the season. But Damon is "just locked in right now," Brian Cashman said. "I don't know where we'd be without him."

On the other hand, Damon is not locked up beyond this year. And although Damon keeps saying he would love to stick around, he's a Scott Boras client who is a cinch to test the market. And Cashman isn't ready to make any commitments at the moment -- to Damon or any other potential free agent.

"He's been a tremendous signing," the GM said. "But what we do going forward, I don't know yet. All that is stuff we have to focus on in the winter. It's hard enough to figure out the true market value of players like that after last winter without projecting where we'll be next winter."

Danys Baez
Baez

• Birds of prey: In the Andy MacPhail era, the Orioles have never been a team other clubs could turn to for a quick-strike trade bargain. But this team will have relievers to deal come July. And although the interest in closer George Sherrill is already building, we might hear more buzzing about former closer Danys Baez than any arm on the roster.

"His stuff is back," one scout said of Baez. "He's throwing hard, with life. His split is bottoming out at 89-90 [mph]. And he's added a cutter that cuts in on left-handers. He's really become an attractive guy."

• One and not done: For all the talk of owners' pushing for a zero-tolerance, one-and-done steroid/performance-enhancing drug policy in the wake of Mannymania, it's highly unlikely that would ever make it past the think-out-loud stage. But how about a one-year ban for a first offense? Don't be shocked if management pushes for that sentence in the next round of labor talks. What's unclear, for now, is how open players would be to stiffening penalties even further.

"I'd have to ask a lot of players for their opinion," Dodgers player rep Russell Martin told Rumblings. "But that definitely would get people's attention. Sitting out a whole year -- that's a long time. But 50 games is a long time, too.

"But I can see where they're coming from," Martin said. "They're trying to make it as fair as possible for everybody. There shouldn't be any cheating. And I think everybody agrees with that."

The Rumblings Scouting Bureau

Once again, the great scouting minds out there tell us what they're seeing:

Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez

• On Alex Rodriguez: "His defense has been terrible. He doesn't look like he could move off a dime. He's a dead-stand-up stationary third baseman right now. But his biggest problem, I think, is at the plate. He can't get to the low, outside fastball or the slider away. He normally takes those balls the other way, but he can't get there. And as word gets around the league, he may have more holes than he's ever had."

• On Jimmy Rollins: "His approach is horrible. He's trying to pull everything, from both sides. He's rolling over more balls than I've seen him in a long time. He's a lot easier out now than he's been at any point in the last three years. I haven't seen him look this bad since about 2005."

• On Matt Wieters: "He's going to have to make adjustments, because he's still got holes in his swing. He could still hit his way to the big leagues by June or July. But by August, I'd give him a first baseman's glove. I really think that's where he ought to end up. I've learned never to give up on catchers because, if they work hard, they can get better. But … I don't know if I'd risk that kind of switch-hitting bat worrying about trying to catch."

• On Marlon Byrd: "One of the best-kept secrets in the American League. He's got so many bangers around him, he doesn't have to carry the load. But he's a player. He just keeps his mouth shut and he plays."

Jay Bruce
Bruce

• On Jay Bruce: "I've always been a Jay Bruce fan. The reason you're seeing all these home runs now is, he's getting some leverage in his swing. He always hit a lot of doubles in the minor leagues. Now those doubles are turning into home runs."

• On Ryan Zimmerman: "The big change is, he's not hooking the ball as much as he used to, especially breaking stuff down and away. Before, he tried to pull that pitch. Now he's taking it the other way. He's really using the whole field. And he understands he doesn't have to swing from his butt to hit the ball out the other way."

List of the week

Teams that have played the five easiest schedules so far, as measured by opponents' winning percentage:

Quote of the week

From lovable Phillies pudgeball Matt Stairs, after the Manny Ramirez news broke, on why all that work in the gym is clearly overrated:

"People are going to have to stop taking all this health stuff and get back to being chubby and having fun. It's too much work being in shape."

Headliner of the week

From the new edition of the always-hilarious Chicago parody publication, The Heckler:

Pittsburgh Pirates taken hostage by Somali pirates

Late show of the week

Those Manny Ramirez one-liners were flying this week, so here come the best of the late-night Manny quips:

• Third prize: From Jay Leno: "Manny Ramirez got some good news over the weekend. It seems he has taken so many female hormones, he can now legally celebrate Mother's Day."

• Second prize: From David Letterman: "The Dodgers are saying they became suspicious a couple of weeks ago when Manny missed a game because he had to go to a Lamaze class."

• First prize: From Jay Leno: "Manny Ramirez is being suspended for 50 games for taking a banned substance believed to be a woman's fertility drug. While some people are calling it a suspension, Manny's calling it maternity leave."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.