Commentary

Baseball's biggest stars are hurting

Disabled list is overflowing with some of the highest-paid players in the game

Updated: June 2, 2012, 12:05 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Jered WeaverRoy HalladayChipper Jones.

It isn't quite true that every multi-time All-Star in baseball wound up on the disabled list this week -- but it seemed like it.

Matt KempTroy TulowitzkiCarl Crawford.

In another time, in another place, in another year, you might have seen those names and thought "Hey, better cast my All-Star ballot." But in this time, in this place, in this year, your only thought is: "Are those guys ever going to play again?"

It's been a crazy, mixed-up season, all right -- one that has left us not too sure about much of anything. But you can be certain of one thing:

The head-scratching, season-altering blockbuster injuries just keep on coming.

And it hasn't been confined to a bunch of setup men and utility guys, either. We're talking an astounding number of trips to the disabled list by the biggest stars alive:

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Howard Smith/US PresswireRoy Halladay is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a right lat strain.

• Of the 10 highest-paid starting pitchers in baseball, four have already visited the DL this season: Halladay, Weaver, John Lackey and Cliff Lee.

• The highest-paid closer in the game -- a fellow named Mariano Rivera -- is also on the DL, as are three of the next six highest-paid closers: Ryan Madson, Brian Wilson and Huston Street.

• The highest-paid first baseman in baseball (Ryan Howard) has been out all year.

• Two of the five highest-paid second basemen (Utley and Brian Roberts) are stuck on the DL, with Dustin Pedroia (No. 6) trying desperately to avoid following them.

• Two of the four highest-paid third basemen have done DL time: Chipper and Ryan Zimmerman.

• And five of the 10 highest-paid outfielders now do all their shagging on the DL: Crawford, Jayson Werth, Kemp, Vernon Wells and Jason Bay.

It's a stunning list of names -- even to men who deal with this stuff every day.

"I just talked to another general manager whose team is getting crushed, and we both said the same thing: 'It's amazing,'" says Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., whose team is one of six clubs with at least 10 players on the DL. "I've never seen anything like it."

But this isn't just about which names aren't appearing on the lineup card. It's also about all the money this epidemic is draining from the sport.

Try to imagine the millions of dollars it's costing teams to pay players just to hang out in the trainer's room. Then ask yourself this: Isn't it time for this injury-ravaged sport to do something about this mess?

That's a question that Stan Conte -- the former head athletic trainer for the Giants and Dodgers, and now the Dodgers' senior director of medical services -- has been asking for over a decade now. It's shocking that more people aren't asking it with him.

"I've been trying to get people interested in this for years," Conte says. "It hasn't happened."

Well, now seems like an excellent time. And maybe some of the staggering research Conte has been doing -- mostly in his spare time, by the way -- over the last 15 years will get people's attention. So here it comes:

• First off, this is a trend that didn't just start this week or this season. It's been building (except, interestingly, for the steroid era) for two decades. In fact, total disabled-list placements aren't even higher this year than last year at this time. Teams had used the DL 250 times this season through Wednesday. And that's actually down slightly from the same point last year, when that number was 265.

• But time spent on the DL is up dramatically. Total days spent on the disabled list this year: more than 7,900 (an average of 32 days per stay). Last year at this time, it was only 7,400 (an average of 28 days). What that clearly tells us, Conte says, is that we've seen a wave of more severe injuries this season than in the past.

• What really jolts your eyeballs, though, isn't either of those figures. It's the dollars lost to DL time. Dollars in salary paid to players on the disabled last year topped $430 million. If you factor in the cost of replacing those players with players merely making the minimum, that figure inflates to $487 million -- not far below the all-time high of $505 million, in 2008.

[+] EnlargeTroy Tulowitzki
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyRockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hit the DL on Thursday with a strained left groin.

• So do the math. If you add up the total of lost salaries, plus replacement-player salaries, for the four seasons from 2008-11, you get a number that should be causing Bud Selig to purchase all his Tylenol by the case. Would you believe it has cost teams approximately $1.9 billion to pay players just for their DL time over the last four seasons? And yep, that word was "billion."

Now you would think the news that teams are wasting almost a half-billion dollars a year on guys who aren't playing would be causing baseball to launch an intensive, industry-wide effort to address this issue. But heh-heh-heh. You're kidding, right?

Baseball has formed a research committee, made up of team doctors and athletic trainers. It also has retained Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, the team physician for USA Soccer, as director of medical research. So at least it has finally acknowledged there is a problem.

But mostly, MLB has left it up to individual teams to deal with this stuff on their own. And many of them are relying, to a great extent, on guesswork -- because guessing always seems to be cheaper than the kind of exhaustive studies that are really required.

"What's happening in baseball, basically, is that we're hoping we get lucky [with injuries]," Conte says. "And that, to me, is a bad way to go. … I have no problem with teams taking risks if they understand the risks they're taking. But I'm not sure they do."

So what are the risks? Conte has broken them down by position. The results are eye-opening:

• The position that produces the most injuries? No shocker here. It's starting pitching. Believe it or not, Conte says, about 50 percent of all starting pitchers spend at least some time on the disabled list in any given year. "When I first [computed] that," Conte says, "I thought, 'This can't possibly be right.' But it is."

• Surprisingly, starting pitchers get hurt at a much higher rate than relievers -- despite what all of this year's closer injuries might make you think. Relief pitchers, he says, head for the DL at a rate of "only" 34 percent.

• The lowest injury rates? This is another surprise. It's a tie, at 28 percent, between outfielders (which makes sense) and catchers (which makes no sense). That appears to be an indication that catchers play through more minor injuries than anyone else -- because, when they do hit the DL, they tend to be out for a longer period of time than other players. But baseball hasn't studied that issue, either.

Some of the smarter teams -- teams looking to quantify anything and everything -- are doing their own risk/reward studies. But it's hard not to wonder: Why isn't Major League Baseball doing those studies? Wouldn't it be worth the price tag?

"How much are we spending on research in baseball? I don't know," Conte says. "But I know we're losing $500 million a year. So we need to spend significant money and do extensive research, not do isolated studies."

And if they ever do those studies, think of all the questions that need answering:

How many of these injuries are due to strength and conditioning training that isn't suitable for players at a certain position, or baseball players in general?

How many are due to ridiculous scheduling, insane travel and sleep deprivation?

How many are due to how managers over-use or under-use their players?

How many are a result of coaching that results in "bad mechanics?" And while they're looking into that one, shouldn't somebody try to define what "bad mechanics" really are in the first place?

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesThe Nats' Jayson Werth had surgery on his left wrist in early May and won't be back anytime soon.

We know that PED testing and amphetamine testing have had a big impact -- but how big? ("Not having greenies is killing these guys," one scout says. "I look at some of these position players, and they're exhausted.")

And we know that the massive years and dollars -- all guaranteed, of course -- that elite players rake in these days are playing a major role in who hits the DL and how long they stay. ("If players don't want to come back too soon, I get that," one GM says. "I totally understand what's at stake for a lot of these guys.")

But would teams be giving out those massive dollars, over eight or nine or 10 years, if baseball was doing extensive risk/reward studies, and educating teams about which kinds of risks make sense and which don't? Great question, isn't it?

Then again, these are all great questions. And important questions. Yet the sport has studied only a fraction of them. Now take a look at that disabled list one more time -- and ask yourself whether ignoring most of those questions makes any sense.

Jayson Werth … Chase UtleyPablo SandovalChris CarpenterLance BerkmanDaisuke Matsuzaka … etc., etc., etc.

"I'm trying to ring a bell here," Conte says. "I'm just trying to say: We've got a problem. But until we study it, we're not going to solve that problem."

We know somewhere, some bureaucrat is arguing: "Can't afford to do all those studies. Too expensive." But you know what's really too expensive? Paying out half a billion dollars a year -- for nothing.

"We're talking about $500 million," Conte says. "And when you're losing $500 million a year, that's just not acceptable."

Ready to Rumble

Phillies

• Is there a contending team out there with more pivotal decisions to make in the next few months than the Phillies? What's the impact of Roy Halladay's injury on Cole Hamels' future? How does Carlos Ruiz's sizzling start (.371/.422/.615) affect his team's interest in getting him signed long-term? Are the Phillies now more likely to be a seller at the trade deadline? Here's how their GM, Ruben Amaro Jr., responds to those hot-button issues:

On Hamels: "Our value [assessment] on Cole hasn't changed. We've always thought he's a valuable player. He's one of the better left-handers in the game. … And we still want to sign him. He's a priority, no question. But the biggest thing is all the other decisions we have to make, with the other potential free agents we have coming up -- at third base [Placido Polanco), in center field (Shane Victorino], and at right field [Hunter Pence] and catcher [Ruiz] in two years. And we haven't solved our left-field situation, either. We've got all those things to deal with. So we have to be deliberate. We have to make sure we take our time. It's not just one decision. … We have to think about all those decisions, and how all the pieces fit together."

On Ruiz: "It's all part of the master plan. It's all part of the many decisions we have to make. We can't have 10 players who make $15 million above. We can't do it. We've got to pick and choose. We love Chooch. But he's also an older player (33), and he's playing a very demanding position. So he's another case where we have to take our time and make that decision when the time comes." (The Phillies hold a $5 million club option for next year on Ruiz, who then would reach free agency on the verge of his age-35 season.)

On the likelihood he'd pull the plug and sell: "We've got a lot of baseball left to play. We'd have to fall out of contention pretty significantly, and I don't see us doing that. We've still got two of the best left-handers in baseball [Hamels and Cliff Lee] in our rotation. I actually like our bullpen a lot, contrary to popular [wisdom]. … We're getting [Halladay] back, and we'll get him back before the deadline, which is great. We'll get [Ryan] Howard and [Chase] Utley back at some point. So if we keep hanging around, which I fully expect to do, that's three pretty good trades to make. That's the way I'm looking at it."

Marco Scutaro
Scutaro

Phillies

• The Tigers haven't had much luck in their hunting expedition for an upgrade at second base. So they might want to consider waiting around for a guy who might be the best option available before the deadline: Colorado's Marco Scutaro. Clubs that have checked in with the Rockies say they're still at least a month away from hanging the "For sale" sign. But Scutaro, Rafael Betancourt and Jeremy Guthrie are all likely to be on the shelves when they do. For now, though, Scutaro figures to play a lot of shortstop with Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list.

• We hear a surprising amount of speculation about the Twins trading Josh Willingham. But teams that have kicked the tires on him say they've been told that Willingham just started a three-year, $21 million contract, that he's exactly the kind of right-handed masher they envisioned placing between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and that they expect to keep all three of those guys. So unless that stance changes, it doesn't appear that Willingham is relocating anywhere.

Pirates

• As the Pirates continue to hover around .500, they're telling other teams they're likely to approach this trading deadline much the way they approached last year's deadline -- and look to add, not sell, if they think they have a chance to finally end their painful streak of 19 straight losing seasons. They've sent signals they're likely to trade arms for bats, especially hitters they can control beyond this year. But what potential shoppers wonder is whether they'll be willing to move enough quality to make a significant deal. The Pirates are hinting they're inclined to keep James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, and probably even Erik Bedard, if they have a shot to win. That means they'll be shopping guys like Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens and longtime prospect Rudy Owens (2.30, with a 0.93 WHIP in Triple-A). But it will be tough to add an impact bat with that group.

• Brewers owner Mark Attanasio wasn't just delivering media happy talk this week when he said "We still think we can win." He has also sent that message, loud and clear, to his front office. An exec of one club that checked in with the Brewers reports: "I wouldn't count on them selling. Their owner doesn't like cashing it in."

• After Roy Oswalt signed with Texas, reports surfaced that he rejected recent offers from the Phillies and Cardinals. But a source who spoke with the Cardinals' brass claims they had zero interest. And Phillies GM Amaro says his team never went beyond "poking around the edges" on bringing back Oswalt. So in reality, while there was other "interest," this was pretty much a one-team negotiation with the only club Oswalt truly wanted to pitch for -- the Rangers.

• Several scouts who questioned during spring training whether Roy Halladay was healthy are now wondering why the Phillies weren't more proactive in getting his shoulder checked out back then, especially after pitching coach Rich Dubee admitted this week that his own concerns dated back to spring training.

"Maybe in spring training, they should have pursued it more," said one of those scouts, "because, between his stuff and his history, the way he was throwing didn't add up. His arm angle was lower. It was obvious. He looked like guys I see with a bad shoulder, trying to come back in Triple-A. When he couldn't get through the third inning of his second start of spring training, against the Minnesota Twins, at that point I'm sending him to a doctor, getting an MRI, saying, 'That's not you. You're wild. And you're never wild. You're Roy Halladay.'"

But Amaro says there's nothing to second-guess: "There was no indication he had problems. So I don't have any reservations. I don't play Monday morning quarterback. I know we took every precaution necessary. We knew mechanically, he wasn't quite right. … But at no point was there anything significantly wrong with the guy. Was his velocity down a tick? Yeah, it was, but not to the point where it was alarming. It wasn't like his velocity was dropping dramatically, during his outings, as he went along. So I have no reservations about the way this was handled."

R.A. Dickey
Dickey

• It's hard to be a secret weapon when you play in New York. But R.A. Dickey has pulled that off, somehow. Bet you didn't know he has a better WHIP (1.10) and strikeout rate (8.5 per 9 innings) than Jered Weaver, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Matt Garza, C.J. Wilson and a cast of hundreds. "He's got a different kind of knuckleball than anybody I can remember, because it's harder," one NL exec said. "So there's not a lot of float to it. It's more of a dart coming at you. He's a great story. He's really taken the mantle to become one of the leading guys in that rotation. And this is not a fluke. You could see it coming for a few years now."

• You could probably win a lot of bets, down at your favorite tavern, trying to get people to guess that the narrow runner-up to Joey Votto for the NL lead in Wins Above Replacement is Michael Bourn -- and not David Wright, Melky Cabrera or Carlos Beltran. But check it out. Bourn has surged toward the top of that heap, powered (literally) by the first five-homer month of his career.

Before May 12, this man had homered five times in his previous 1,877 trips to the plate. Then he suddenly went deep five times in the next 18 games. But one scout following him in preparation for Bourn's impending free agency says: "I don't like it. It's fun to watch. But he's lifting everything to center field, and that's not him. His gift is his legs. He's got to use his speed. And to do that, he has to hit the ball on a line and on the ground. Let me tell you, the team that signs him isn't going to get all that excited about his ability to hit the ball out of the park."

Jonathan Lucroy
Lucroy

• Nobody had worse luck this week than Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. He may have headed for the disabled list when his wife's suitcase fell on his hand and broke it, but he should know that at least this is isn't the first luggage injury in baseball history. Our three favorites:

Third prize: In 2003, Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki fractured two ribs trying to carry his suitcase up the stairs after he got home from a road trip.

Second prize: Blue Jays pitcher Huck Flener was flying to spring training in 1997 when a briefcase flew out of the overhead rack, drilled him in the shoulder and chipped his collarbone.

First prize: Expos pitcher Dennis Martinez hurt his arm tossing his suitcase onto the team equipment truck in 1992, whereupon team public relations witticist Richard Griffin announced Martinez would miss a start with "Samsonitis."

Tweets of the Week

• From Late Show laugh-a-holic tweeting machine @EricStangel:


• And from his partner in Late Show hilarity, Bill Scheft (@billscheft):

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the humorists at The Onion:

David Ortiz Claims He Just Saw Submarine In Kansas City Royals Fountain

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com