Consider it the anti-breakout season. When a MLB player gets injured, there’s some collective breath holding — or if it’s Albert pulling up lame on the basepaths, heart stoppage. When a prospect gets injured, it can quickly become a death knell. They lose out on critical development time, someone else swoops in and takes their job and they can get labeled “injury prone”. How do we reconcile obvious talent and past performance with a current breakdown?
In 2007, Jon Jay missed significant time due a shoulder injury. The impact on his performance when he was playing is hard to pinpoint but it’s a reasonable assumption that his power numbers were supressed. He gained significant ground this year on all the prospect lists. Did his true talent level change? Probably not. Is he moving up because he was healthy or because we have a more accurate indicaiton of his talent? Probably a combination of both. Without dallying on the subject of Jay for too long, opinions varied more on him this year than in the past with some seeing him as a top 10 prospect and others as more of a 4th outfielder/quasi-everyday player. Part of that discrepancy, likely stems from the injury of 2007.
Colby Rasmus somehow managed to disappoint in 2008 despite playing in AAA at age 21. A knee injury cut his season short and last year’s mid-season slump was attributed to a sinus infection. Born from a underwhelming season and an injury the questions of whether he can stay on the field for an entire season have crept into the mind of doubters. How much do we blame the player when an injury takes place? The answer, of course, varies from person to person and player to player. The inability to predict what are largely random events leads to differing perceptions of their causes. In the case of Rasmus, that will likely have little impact to his ranking within the system as he should be at the top of all lists again entering 2009.
The above examples, however, are short term in their impact. After transitioning from starting to relieving and an abbreviated 2007, Jaime Garcia went down with a torn elbow ligament and Tommy John surgery in his immediate future. He’d established himself as the premier starting pitching prospect and perhaps the only one who projects to the front of a rotation. What do you do with an injury that, while increasingly routine, is still a surgery and constitutes the loss of an entire year? If Garcia fails to pitch in 2009 or pitches poorly, I’ve set myself up for quite the conondrum by ranking him #3. I’ve great confidence that Dr. Paletta can correctly replace a ligament but little that the Cardinals can properly manage an injury. While the rankings of Garcia will vary, I expect the more common response to be that of erik and roarke where Garcia falls just outside the top 10.
More players than we can count have had their careers derailed by injuries. Some after they make the majors, some before. The less common but more interesting storyline may be the reverse. The Cardinals signed Ryan Ludwick to a minor league contract in 2007 and he decided to hit the ball. Hard. And often. The partial 2007 year followed up by a 5 WAR 2008 is near the forefront of many baseball fan’s minds. It serves as a illustration of talent overcoming numerous maladies and setbacks. The rewards of a find like Ludwick are on the order of $20M in a given season. Would Ludwick have ranked on any top 10 list headed into 2007? Given his age and injury history, it’s unlikely.
The nature of an injury is obviously important as well. If Garcia had gone down with a torn labrum or injured rotator cuff, he would have been well outside the top 10 for me. Shoulder injuries still equate to career ending in my mind for pitchers. A slugger breaking his hamate bone is a signifcant development and more conerncing than say a broken finger. As a lay person, interpretation of the significance of the injury is woefully uninformed compared to someone with medical training. But how many doctors do you know that are bloggers?
Healthy or hurt? It can make all the difference.