Tuesday, January 24, 2006

frayed labrums on the cheap

in signing wade miller to a one-year deal yesterday, cub management has at least showed some recognition of one of the points of constant attention on this page -- that the cubs starting rotation is simply insufficient to win at the major-league level, especially when coupled with what weakly promises to be the cub offense. and at $1mm plus incentives that might equal that again, why not? the money surely shouldn't stop them.

but there remains a vexing question: why is wade miller, a starting pitcher with a 3.98 career era, available at this late date for that paltry sum?

sadly, this question has an answer -- and that is that wade miller is kerry wood without the fastball.

miller, like wood, has had persistent arm problems. miller, like wood, is notorious for the poor mechanical trait of throwing across his body. miller, like wood, has only managed 30 starts in two of six big league years. miller, like wood, is game to walk 100 if he can actually pitch 200 innings. miller, like wood, can when healthy be hard to hit -- thanks to a big curveball and what at least used to be a quality fastball.

kerry wood is worth more than $1mm, though, one might say, whatever his troubles. why so low? the answer to this may be two-fold.

miller last year, in the 16 starts he did manage to make in 2005 -- beginning, much as is hoped for 2006, in mid-may thanks to what was originally thought to be rotator cuff pain that shut him down in the second half of 2004 and never really went away last year -- showed quite possibly that he's lost it thanks to the damage in his shoulder. the strikeouts weren't there, and he became much more hittable than he's been in the past. much of that was due to a considerable drop in velocity -- miller was tossing fastballs in the high-80s in may, working up to the 90-91 mph range over time, and was frustratingly hit-and-miss all year, working with no margin for error and vulnerable to the big inning. finally the pain in his arm became too much.

it must be said that the red sox did last year almost exactly what the cubs are doing this year with miller. they were excited to have signed him and many thought, even when he struggled mightily, that his velocity and therefore quality would come around. as late as september, after miller's year was done, bosox watchers were speculating on moving bronson arroyo to make room for miller in the 2006 rotation.

but labrum surgery will change the outlook of many. the red sox non-tendered miller this winter, as the astros had done the previous year, and the reason why is the real difficulty this page has with the deal the cubs just signed. labrum surgery, unlike some others, is not a small thing -- indeed, it's probably the most fearsome surgery in the gamut familiar to pitchers. the recovery time of labrum surgery often runs well more than a year, and the odds of full recovery are horrible, indeed almost non-existent. from will carroll's article:

Leading baseball surgeon Dr. James Andrews estimates that 85 percent of pitchers make a full recovery after an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, aka the once risky Tommy John surgery. (USA Today has even called the surgery the "pitcher's best friend.") But if pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they'd be destroyed. Of the 36 major-league hurlers diagnosed with labrum tears in the last five years, only midlevel reliever Rocky Biddle has returned to his previous level. Think about that when your favorite pitcher comes down with labrum trouble: He has a 3 percent chance of becoming Rocky Biddle. More likely, he'll turn into Mike Harkey, Robert Person, or Jim Parque, pitchers who lost stamina and velocity—and a major-league career—when their labrums began to fray.

what's left of miller's major-league career -- however much it is -- will probably not be much. what there is of it probably won't come in 2006 at all. and the cubs just signed him to a one-year contract with no option.

while this writer acknowledges that at least jim hendry wasn't dumb enough to splash out a four-year deal for a pitcher coming off labrum surgery, one also has to wonder what the cubs expect to get out of miller this season. it would seem that their expectation is more than what they likely will receive but for the fact that they agreed to harbor miller for such a minor sum.

in the final analysis, then, the page is compelled to say that the miller signing is a complete flyer, one of the longer long-shot contracts to be agreed to this year -- and with a price tag that reflects it. fans should expect absolutely nothing from miller this year; if he pitches at all, he won't be much good -- and that statement probably applies not only to 2006 but to his entire future. one wishes to say that the cubs probably got better for this deal -- sincerely, one wishes -- but if they did, it was in a miniscule way.

as such, the signing is completely in keeping with the cubs lightning-in-a-bottle philosophy of management -- why be good when you can be cheap, sell it hard and pray to get lucky? this signing is ryan dempster and scott williamson all over again, but without the virtue of mere elbow problems. at least you can't say that the macfail regime is inconsistent.

the second part of the answer to the question involves kerry wood. wood's surgery this last august, unlike his previous elbow problems, also involved a frayed labrum. the terrible track record of full recovery from labral procedures does much to explain why wood and the cubs held off on the surgery -- the possibility of misdiagnosis or of simply nursing the pitcher through the pain without surgery is more attractive than the surgery itself. just as this page suspects wade miller will never again be the pitcher that compiled his previous statistics, it also suspects the same of kerry wood, who may well be almost unrecognizable when he comes back.

in short, wood himself might look very much like a one-year-$1mm-plus-incentives pitcher in 2006 and beyond. and that depressing fact only reinforces this page's simultaneous calls to do yet more to strengthen the rotation in 2006 and to move wood to the bullpen (rumored to be under discussion at clark and addison) where he may yet make something of his career.

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