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Nick Cafardo | Baseball notes

It's a precarious position

Coddling hasn't kept pitchers off the DL

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 6, 2008

It's hard to set aside the eight-year, $121 million contract he signed with the Colorado Rockies and feel sorry for Mike Hampton, but his injury ordeal is one of the saddest stories in baseball in recent years.

Two elbow surgeries, a torn oblique, hamstring and groin injuries, and recently a pectoral muscle right before he was to take the mound last week have essentially ruined Hampton's career. It seems every time Hampton, now with the Braves, is ready to return, something else happens.

Sometimes you hear stories of bad luck happening to lottery winners. In this case, bad things have happened to Hampton ever since he signed that contract.

"Mike had helped us get to the World Series with the Mets," recalled Jim Duquette, who was New York's assistant general manager in 2000, Hampton's one season with the Mets, when he went 15-10. "We wanted him back, but as we talked about it internally, we weren't going to go eight years like Colorado did.

"Mike was a tough kid who was always in the middle of something on the field. He was a pretty good competitor, but I don't think anyone could have predicted what's happened. I guess this is the ultimate cautionary tale of why you don't give a pitcher that long of a contract."

Hampton, who won 22 games for Houston in 1999, could never do for the Rockies what they hoped he could: get over the effect of Coors Field on pitchers (this was pre-humidor). His ERAs in his two years there were 5.41 and 6.15.

But Hampton is just one of many injury stories involving pitchers this spring. Struck hardest were the Mets, who lost Pedro Martínez (hamstring), and the Mariners, who lost J.J. Putz (rib cage).

In a division with Atlanta and Philadelphia, the Mets can ill afford to lose a pitcher of Martínez's caliber, especially since he'd come back from his torn labrum and was throwing the ball well.

Martínez is out 4-6 weeks and while many believe the Mets can hang in while he rehabs, remember, Martínez tends to stretch things out until he's completely ready. He said as much in an interview early this spring, that he's not taking chances on his long-term health. "Six weeks" could stretch into a couple of months.

Mets GM Omar Minaya has handled Martínez with kid gloves. Martínez often did his work in minor league games and on back fields. He was told not to make a trip to Fort Myers because it was too far and the Mets thought he might overthrow against his former team. And Martínez still got hurt.

The injury to Putz, whom many consider right there with Jonathan Papelbon as the best closers in the game, is not considered serious, but the Mariners can ill afford to blow games and fall too far behind the Angels.

Including those three pitchers, 112 players are now on the disabled list, some of them important cogs.

Most of the big names are starting pitchers with hefty price tags. In fact, you might ride this All-DL pitching staff to a world championship: Josh Beckett, Martínez ($11.8 million), John Smoltz, Randy Johnson ($15.2 million), Chris Carpenter ($10.5 million), as well as John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar (about $17 million combined), Curt Schilling ($8 million), Jason Schmidt ($15.2 million), Mark Mulder ($7 million), Noah Lowry, and Scott Kazmir.

Putz heads a talented DL bullpen, which includes B.J. Ryan, Joel Zumaya, and Fernando Rodney. Positional players include infielders Nomar Garciaparra, Scott Rolen, Kaz Matsui, Omar Vizquel, and Eric Chavez, and outfielders Moises Alou, Curtis Granderson, and Jeremy Hermida. Catchers have been as healthy as any position, with Cincinnati's David Ross the only major one to go down. DH Gary Sheffield tore a tendon in his finger but isn't expected to go on the DL.

Beckett was one of the bigger names, but he will come off today and start against Toronto.

The amazing aspect of the pitching-injury epidemic is the fact that they are truly coddled. They are on pitch-count limits and maximum-inning programs. All of which seems to give credibility to the exhaustive study conducted by Mike Pagliarulo, who has a formula for figuring out which pitchers are at greater risk for injuries based on mechanics. In this space a few weeks ago, Pagliarulo identified Manny Delcarmen as the most vulnerable Red Sox pitcher.

Pagliarulo believes it's time teams change the way they evaluate pitchers, and that the best way to do it is to simulate the stress on them based on several factors, mainly body type. Pagliarulo says monitoring pitch counts and inning levels is an interesting approach but "everyone's body type is different. Everyone would have a different breaking point."

Unfortunately, a new wave in pitcher evaluation won't get here fast enough for Hampton.

A wealth of information

A few questions for Blue Jays outfielder Alex Rios, who agreed to a six-year, $64 million deal Friday.

Already, your teammates are having fun over your new contract. You guys have a brand-new clubhouse at Rogers Centre and your teammates are kidding that you bought it for the team.

AR: "I'm sure they'll have fun with me, but that's OK. I think it's going to be great. To be here for a long time and grow with these guys . . . we have a chance to be a very good team and I'm going to be part of that. I think everyone is happy for me."

There's a general feeling that you could be a huge superstar, if you're not already on the way. Do you ever think about where you could go in this game?

AR: "I try to keep those thoughts as far away from me as possible. It's hard enough to play baseball every day the best you can play. If you start thinking about what I'm going to be and how good I can be, that's not very productive. I have to devote my energy to becoming a better player and being a more consistent player."

Who were the big idols growing up?

AR: "Juan Gonzalez. I grew up watching him. He was a great player, a former MVP. He hit for power and he could run and he was a good fielder. I don't know if I'm anything like that or not, but that's who I grew up watching. The only thing I can see we have in common is the height, but the rest of it, I don't know. I have a long way to go to be compared to him."

People say money changes you. How are you going to make sure it doesn't change you?

AR: "I think I'll always be the same guy because of the way I was raised. We were poor. We didn't have anything. Anything we had we worked for, so money is not going to change what has happened in my life and where I came from."

Have you thought about what you're going to do for your family with the money?

AR: "I've always told my mom to go shopping and get whatever she wants. I've told her that even before this contract, but she never did. I told her again and I think she's actually agreed to go out and buy some things for herself. That's the best thing about a contract like this is that you can take care of your family and give them things they never dreamed possible. My mother, my family have meant so much for me. It's not for me, it really isn't, it's for the enjoyment I can bring to them."

The Great Debate

Sweeping generalizations after surprising series

Did Detroit (swept by the Royals) have a bad start, or did Kansas City have a great one? We asked former Red Sox and Royals pitcher Mike Boddicker, as well as Tigers radio broadcaster and former catcher Jim Price.

Boddicker: "The Tigers looked disinterested to me, but having said that, our three pitchers were terrific. [Gil] Meche is just a steady workhorse guy who's going to keep you in games. [Brian] Bannister can just pitch. He has a real good idea of what he's doing out there. And [Zack] Greinke has electric stuff. He's without a doubt the guy with the best stuff in our starting rotation. I think the Royals are going to win some games because of these guys. It's a tough division and it's going to be tough for them that way, but they can go in and match you with their pitching."

Price: "The expectations haven't been this high since 1968. The pitching has been good enough to win but the team has had some horrible at-bats. In one of those games, Edgar Renteria had three hits and nobody else had a hit. And given the lineup here and the résumé of these hitters, that's been surprising. You can blame some of it on losing Curtis Granderson and Gary Sheffield, but there's still enough thunder in that lineup. I will say this, at some point they will probably hit as billed, and any opponent's No. 1 ace had better bring his 'A' game."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Only Baltimore's Dave Trembley has not played professional baseball among the 30 current managers; 2. From Elias: Longest active tenure for a player with one manager from the start of his career: Chipper Jones, 1,897 games for Bobby Cox, and Albert Pujols, 1,091 games for Tony La Russa; 3. When the Blue Jays cut down Bobby Abreu stealing last Wednesday, it was the first time in 37 attempts they'd caught a runner with A.J. Burnett on the mound; 4. If the Tigers are going to score 1,000 runs, as some of us thought, they must pick up the pace from the 1.7 per game they scored against the Royals; 5. The Twins signed former Reds closer Danny Graves to a Triple A deal. Graves led the Atlantic League Long Island Ducks in saves last year.

A case of nonsupport
Matt Cain's frustration may not subside soon. Last season, the young Giants righty went 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA. In 21 of his 32 starts, the Giants scored 0-2 runs, and the bullpen blew five games. Well, in his first time out last Wednesday, he pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings. No decision. Yup, it could be one of those years . . . again.

Thinking outside the box
Dodgers coach Larry Bowa didn't do himself any favors by putting on the madman show when umpire Ed Montague told him he had to stay within the confines of the coach's box at Dodger Stadium last week. It cost him a three-game suspension, which should never happen to a coach. Vice president of umpires Mike Port said the rule will be enforced this season as part of safety measures, which also include coaches wearing helmets. Port said too many coaches creep toward the batter's box. Some do it to steal signals; others do it out of habit. Red Sox first base coach Luis Alicea tends to stay outside the box near the foul line. Port said coaches can step out of the box as long as it's toward the outfield side. "I think we're all aware of it now," said Alicea. "I'm told, though, unless the other manager complains, you can step out of the box."

An early Red alert
It was awfully hard for Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky to deal Josh Hamilton to Texas with Ken Griffey aging and Adam Dunn a potential free agent, but he came away with Edinson Volquez, Texas's top pitching prospect, to go along with 22-year-old Johnny Cueto, so he's essentially rebuilt his starting rotation. "We've always known Cueto is special," said a former Reds employee. "He's got electric stuff. It was just a matter of when he'd mature and put it all together, and from what I saw of him in spring training, he was just about there." Cueto retired the first 15 batters he faced in his debut, a 3-2 win over Arizona Thursday, and finished with 10 strikeouts. The Reds still have highly touted pitching prospect Homer Bailey at Triple A. Long way to go, but in the NL Central, where all things are possible, the Reds just may emerge as the surprise.

Empty nest
Remember in the early years of Camden Yards when you couldn't find a ticket and the Orioles were actually competitive? How owner Peter Angelos stands for the dwindling attendance at Camden Yards is beyond comprehension. After selling out Opening Day, the Orioles drew only 10,505 for the second game vs. Tampa Bay. It was the smallest crowd in Camden Yards history. The storied franchise is likely to sink to new lows this year as it attempts to rebuild. Such a waste of one of the best sports venues in the country.

Pitching turn
There's a lot of optimism in the Yankee organization after Kei Igawa pitched six perfect innings for Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Thursday night against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Igawa, who has been a bust so far, looked more like the pitcher for whom the Yankees posted more than $25 million two years ago.

Rocco in a hard place
If Rocco Baldelli never plays another game with the Rays because of his chronic fatigue issues, he will have earned $9 million over the last three years and played in 127 games. "That right there is a shame," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella, who managed Baldelli in Tampa. "Rocco should have been one of the premier players in the game. That has to be awfully tough on the kid because he was a ballplayer and he was a kid who cared about the game."

Unfinished business
When Kason Gabbard was lifted after seven innings of Friday's 11-6 win over the Angels, it marked the 195th straight time the Rangers' starting pitcher did not complete the game, a new AL record. The last Ranger to go the distance was Kevin Millwood on Aug. 29, 2006. For the record, team president Nolan Ryan pitched 222 complete games.

Lefthander waits for the call
With the Mets' Pedro Martínez out for six weeks and Arizona lefty Doug Davis scheduled for cancer surgery, there seem to be openings for David Wells with at last those two teams. But so far neither has budged. "David is ready to go and could be ready to pitch in a major league game in two weeks," said Wells's agent, Gregg Clifton. "He's been frustrated because he wants to pitch so badly, but I told him to hang in there for another month." The Diamondbacks have Randy Johnson returning soon, but they also do not give out incentive-filled contracts, which could be an issue with Wells . . . Happy 37th birthday, Lou Merloni. Happy 65th, Marty Pattin.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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