Sunday, February 20, 2011

No News Looks Like Bad News for Justin Morneau

Injuries have kept the heart of Twins offensive corps -- Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau -- from playing a single spring game so far, setting a dire tone at the outset of the new season, with Morneau looking for all the world like he will be lucky to return to action at all, let alone before the first official game.

Though Mauer likely can return soon from a rehabilitating knee injection, as will Young from a bout with turf toe and Cuddyer from a common wart excision, Morneau continues to suffer from concussive syndrome resulting from a second base collision at mid-season last year.

Morneau already has missed nearly a full eight months of normal baseball play, leaving doubts as to his readiness even were he to return to the diamond tomorrow. Worse, his return to full play still looks to be days, even weeks, away, with permanent disability a distinct possibility.

Doctors continue to limit his activities while he continues to suffer from headaches, dizziness, nausea, sunshine aversion and other symptoms that only will worsen if he trains too hard before his recovery is complete.

What's especially disquieting about Morneau is that return-to-play medical criteria after a sports-related head injury generally calls for a simple, gradual progression from complete rest to light exercise to sport-specific exercise with a gradual addition of resistance training. That's followed by non-contact training drills. Finally there is limited contact, then full-contact training before a complete recovery can be declared.

Progression through each step, however, is dependent upon the presence or absence of symptoms, and Morneau still continues to have plenty of bad moments, as evidenced by his need to wear dark glasses all the time, even during limited periods of swinging at bat in the cage, reportedly no more than 40 swats at a turn.

There is no science behind these procedures as the strategy is largely based on anecdotal expert group consensus panel recommendations. Typically, however, return to play occurs in one to two weeks after the initial injury. No such luck for Morneau.

Frustratingly, it's just as likely that he would be in the same position even if there were no medical interventions or recommendations. It's surprising how little medical experts understand about the condition.

A recent study from from Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y. , (Mayers, L., Arch Neurol 65(9):1158, September 2008) reviewed the findings cerebral response following a concussion, better known as traumatic brain injury -- a subject undergoing an ambitious (read: expensive) investigation by military scientists pertaining to injured troops exposed to explosive blasts.

This effort includes the placement of multi-million dollar magnetic resonance imaging machines into remote forward field hospitals to help facilitate both pre- and post-deployment neuropsychiatric testing in for all members of the U.S. military.

Small studies of EEG event-related potential recordings in concussed athletes reported deficits (unrelated to the results of neuropsychological testing) for up to five weeks in both symptomatic and asymptomatic athletes, and for up to 30 months in those sustaining multiple concussions.

A study that assessed motor-evoked responses on transcranial magnetic stimulation reported abnormalities for up to nine months in multiply-concussed athletes, an interesting finding considering Morneau has sustained three concussions, two while playing for the Twins and one while playing hockey as a teenager, a term of nearly a decade.

The results of small studies using highly specialized research techniques suggest that simple concussion produces brain dysfunction, even in asymptomatic subjects, that can persist for at least one month, indicating that safe return to play after concussion might require at least four to six weeks after the injury.

So far, so good, but from time-to-time clinicians see samples of patients that evidently did not read the medical textbooks, whose conditions do not follow the usual pattern of healing and rehabilitation.

It is not too soon to predict that, for all appearances, Morneau is an unfortunate member of this subset, not dissimilar from former Twin's third baseman Kory Koskie, the Giants Mike Metheny and a long list of other athletes who were forced into retirement following a substantive blow to the head.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Expect Miguel Cabrera to Miss Time with Tigers

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, can you really be serious when you claim that troubled Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera will not be a distraction to the team despite his pending court appearance on charges of drunken driving???

Sure, Skipper, you're absolutely right, and the Lions will go 16-0 and win the Superbowl next year, Studebaker-Packard will resume making automobiles with points on the grill and Jimmy Hoffa will throw out the first ball when the season opens.

Skipper, you say Miguel Cabrera is going to have "the year of his life?" Doing what, sewing baskets at the Betty Ford Clinic?

Fans can fully expect that Miguel Cabrera will miss significant time this year, a minimum of a month from spring training, perhaps two, and perhaps part (or all?) of the regular season. How much downtime is pending is an open question, but if Cabrera is forced to check himself into rehab -- which is expected -- one is compelled to ask how long he will be gone and what kind of playing shape will he be in when he returns.

Rehabilitation, very likely to last a minimum of four weeks, will do Cabrera a lot of good in overcoming what has to be a serious alcohol abuse problem. But it will not help him ready himself for the baseball season. What are his handlers going to do, tell him to cut short his counseling session today so he have some time in the cage or take some grounders?

The last thing psychologists are going to allow Cabrera to be concerned with is baseball. He's got bigger problems.

From now forward, until Cabrera has his difficulties behind him and under control, the Tigers 2011 season is on hold, as far as he is concerned.

No courtroom in Florida -- or anywhere else in this country -- is going to allow Cabrera to jeopardize the public as he did last Wednesday, when he was caught swilling straight Scotch from a bottle as he staggered and weaved by the side of the road while abusing sheriff's deputies next to his smoking automobile.

Can Cabrera try to fight the charges, with the expectation of being found not guilty, being let off with probation or paying a fine? Not a chance. Prosecuting attorneys will lay out a tight script in which Cabrera will be virtually forced to undergo intense intervention and and probationary supervision. There is no way around it.

If he has any idea of getting off, he will be firmly threatened with the loss of his freedom, and his own counsel will warn him of dire consequences if he wants to play the cards any other way.

The court can be fully expected to exact its pound of flesh, with Cabrera's lawyer and both the legal counsel of the Tigers and Major League Baseball acquiescing, to assure that Cabrera resurrects his career only when he's ready to do so, and doesn't wind up driving off a cliff, smashing into a stationwagon being driven by a woman with three children and a dog, or God forbid, a school bus or worse. He is a menace. He will be stopped.

When that has been accomplished, Cabrera can count himself a very lucky man that no one was more hurt than himself, his family and his team.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Too Many on Base? Expect More from Marmol

It was a sunny afternoon like that of many another daygame in the top of the ninth inning at Wrigley Field -- the Cubs holding a comfortable, two-run lead -- as closer Carlos Marmol took the mound under the satisfied gaze of manager Lou Piniella.

Piniella leaned easily against the fence in the dugout, arms hanging over the rail, when the umpire called the first pitch.

"Ball!" came the cry, Marmol flipping a sweeping breaking ball into the catcher's glove. "Ball!," came the call again. "Ball! Ball! Ball!" as Marmol successively continued to miss the plate.

By the time Piniella straightened out of his crouch, pacing back and forth now and muttering profanities, the tying run was at second base and the batter at the plate was ahead in the count. Pineilla couldn't take it anymore.

"What the (bleep) are you doing!?" the graying old man demanded to know after stomping out to the mound. Hands on hips and face to face with his 27-year-old hurler, Piniella waited for an answer, with Marmol looking down as he shuffled the dirt with his shoe.

"Throw your (bleeping) fast ball!" Piniella commanded.

Marmol nodded.

Happily for Piniella -- whose lips and body language were plainly readable to anyone sitting on the infield -- Marmol's fastball found the plate and after three quick outs and two stranded runners the Cubs headed to the locker room not only with a 'W' in the books, but with another save for Marmol, who would notch 34 before he was done.

Unhappily for Piniella, he later felt compelled to resign after it became clear that the Cubs once again had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and would fail to make the playoffs. Now pushing 70, Piniella likely will never put on a uniform again.

Ironically for Marmol, who has just signed a three-year, $20 million contract, he finished the year by cutting his walks by 20 percent, but continued to flirt with disaster by allowing well more than a baserunner per inning and pushing the limit for the perameters of a lock-down, major league closer.

Make no mistake about it. Marmol lives dangerously.

"I feel it helps him," Cubs catcher Geovanny Soto told Chicago Tribune baseball writer Paul Sullivan in today's editions. "Pitchers that have a lot of strikeouts also have a lot of walks. They're power pitchers. Marmol needs that. He doesn't really hit his spots that well, but he's consistent in the zone and he has that big breaking pitch that makes Marmol who he is."

The wildness, the walks and the baserunners all seem to be part of the plan.

"I never worry about my control," Marmol explained to Sullivan. "I worry about getting three outs before they score against me."

Try explaining that to Lou Piniella.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Andre Ethier, fully healed, Predicts Dodgers Uptick

With a broken pinkie no longer holding him back, star outfielder Andre Ethier predicts greater personal output for the 2011 season, and a new kind of intensity with manager Don Mattingly having replaced the more laid back Joe Torre at the Dodgers helm.

"I think you're going to see a little bit more of a hands-on approach (from Mattingly,)" Ethier said. "...If the players mess up, he's going to be right on top of them, and if they do something right, he's going to be there too."

Speaking by telephone to Fox Sports Radio from the Dodgers Community Caravan bus as it rolled down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, Ethier hinted that he would be able to improve his stats as compared to last year, when his home runs were held to 23 compared to 31, and his at-bats were limited to only 517 as compared to nearly 600 in 2009.

Not wanting to use it as an excuse, he none the less admitted that a broken pinkie was more than a little bothersome last year, limiting his ability to grip his bat.

"It was annoying...definitely frustrating," Ethier said. He's "100 percent healthy" now, he said.

Notice Anything Fishy About Pirates Relief Corps?

Considering that only five sixths of the city of Bradenton, Fla., is on dry land, perhaps it's no surprise that something fishy is in the air at the Pirates spring camp, but it has nothing to do with the water.

Though it's speculative, there's the scent of a story that maybe, just maybe, one of the Bucs outstanding closer candidates may be on the block, either Joel Hanrahan or Evan Meek.

Hanrahan, 30, 4-1 last year with a 3.62 ERA, six saves and 100 strikeouts in fewer than 70 innings, and Meek, 28, with a 2.14 ERA, four saves and 70 strikeouts in 80 innings, have admitted they both want to save games for Pirates this year, and are willing to compete for the job.

The problem is, according to General Manager Neal Huntington, there will be "no open competition" in spring camp, indicating one of the two already has the job, but he won't say which. Let's repeat that: "no open competition."

So if Huntington won't say whom and won't say why, can it be that either Hanrahan or Meek is on the block? All anyone knows is that the Pirates have one too many closers, and that the rotation needs another starter or two, especially after the Pirates lost out to Kansas City in an attempt to sign former Colorado Rockies starter Jeff Francis. The Pirates are also looking for left-handed bullpen help.

"We continue to monitor the market and we have an open dialogue on multiple fronts," Huntington said in recent published reports. Until he clarifies, fans are left to connect the dots. But a more plausable explanation may be that Huntington simply has yet to make up his mind, but has decided that either one or the other will be the full-time closer, thus no closer committees.

Yankees to Play Musical Chairs for Albert Pujols?

Having been completely upstaged by the Red Sox acquisitions of superstars Adrian Gonzalez band Carl Crawford, not to mention being spurned by ace pitcher Cliff Lee who signed with the Phillies, the Yankees now will pull out all the organ stops to sign wavering Cardinal Albert Pujols, widely regarded as the greatest player in the game.

But with superstar Mark Teixeira inked for the next five years, there's no room for Pujols in Yankee Stadium, you say? That song's been heard before, but listen to the way it's played by Kevin Baumer, writing at

First, Teixiera moves to third base, his original major league position, pushing Alex Rodriguez to shortstop, his original position. Derek Jeter, according to a plan that's been advanced for several years, then moves to the outfield.

When the music stops, Pujols is a Yankee.

"Of course, if the position issue is such a major obstacle, the Yankees could simply pay Pujols an extra $50 million to be their MVP designated hitter," Baumer said.

"...If the Cardinals haven't had the foresight to recognize that by not signing Pujols before the season, they're about to enter into a bidding war with the Yankees, they don't deserve to keep their slugger in the first place, " he concludes.

Pitcher Micah Owings Urged: Try Out at First Base

Former Reds reliever Micah Owings -- owner of a .293 lifetime batting average with .538 slugging in four years of limited MLB plate appearances -- has been signed by the Diamondbacks as a pitcher but is being urged to compete for the wide open, starting first baseman's job.

"We'll see how hard he wants to go after it," Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson told USA Today's Mel Antonen in a recent XM satellite radio interview. "...We will give him the opportunity."

The six-foot-five, 230-pound Owings, a third round draftee originally signed by the Diamondbacks, has a prodigious amateur hitting record and has been a feared presence at the plate in 184 major league at-bats. He has hit four homers.

"His bat is huge," Gibson said. "...Micah is certainly a guy who might surprise you this year."

Owings, 28, sees himself as more of a two-way, pitcher/hitter in the mold of former Cubs first-rounder Brooks Kieschnick, now out of baseball, who was unable to sustain the duel role for long.

Moreover, to actually win the starting the first baseman's job, Owings will have to hold off a number of candidates, most significantly rookie Brandon Allen and veteran Xavier Nady. Disappointed with the team's poor showing last year, Gibson has brought 60 players into camp and has vowed to encourage spirited competition for starting positions across the board

Ex-Clemsonite Tyler Colvin to See Time at First

Emerging Chicago Cubs rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin -- who burst onto the major league scene last year by hitting 20 home runs in 358 at-bats -- will return to familiar territory in Cactus League action when he will see time at first base, a position he played as a Clemson Tiger.

Cubs manager Mike Quade surprised reporters with the revelation, leaving Colvin's possibilities open to wild speculation even before the first spring pitch is thrown.

Colvin, 25, is listed as the backup to right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, 34, and first baseman Carlos Pena, 33, but because all three players are left-handed batters, Quade can find no easy way to work any of them into the lineup as part of a platoon, even a part-time platoon.

However, it is interesting to note that Colvin seems to handle left-handed pitching better than either of his two senior teammates, though Fukudome and Pena have superior defensive skills compared to Colvin's.

It is difficult to imagine the rookie usurping either of the two veterans with any regularity, especially Pena, who has just been signed to a $10 million, one-year pact. But Fukudome has been a disappointment at the plate since the Japanese import was signed three years ago, and fans' patience is wearing thin.

Expect Colvin to see plenty of time in left field and enough reps at first base to take over for Pena next year, if Colvin proves he can be effective around the bag.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Indians DH Travis Hafner May Be Cut After Season

Former big-time slugger Travis Hafner -- who hit 141 homers from 2003-07 but only 34 since -- likely will force the Indians to consider releasing him after the season if he cannot demonstrate recovery from chronic right shoulder problems that have cost him much of his productivity over the past three years.

The prediction comes from Cleveland Plain Dealer baseball writer Paul Hoynes, who foresees a more likely outcome that the left-handed designated hitter will remain under contract after playing in about 115 games in 2011, hitting 15-20 bombs and driving in 50-60 runs.

Continuing his upnote in Sunday's editions, Hoynes noted that Hafner now seems to resemble the hitter who batted .329 with 15 doubles, five homers and 21 RBI in 44 games after the All-Star break last year, demonstrating continued potential usefulness to the rebuilding team.

The Indians have signed former Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman, who can back up Hafner at designated hitter and first baseman Matt LaPorta, both of whom have missed significant playing time in recent seasons. Though Kotchman has never hit for power, he is thought to have a good eye at the plate and can be effective around the bag.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pedroia Held Back, But Loadbearing Bone Healed

After months in a fiberglass cast and a grueling rehabilitation, the navicular bone in Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia's left foot has been reported as healed, but his activities will be limited during the opening days of spring camp and perhaps beyond.

Not only will Pedroia miss a cardio vascular conditioning test next week, he will be held back from full baseball activities at least for awhile, and will wear a protective shield over his shoe to help prevent him from reinjuring himself, according to team reports.

"The last three weeks I've felt great," Pedroia told The Boston Globe at Fort Myers, Fla.

Though Pedroia won't participate in distance running, he has been sprinting on the basepaths and fielding grounders and throwing. He is also taking batting practice.

Pedroia missed the last third of last season after breaking his navicular bone -- the main loadbearing support for his left leg. Doctors immobilized the fracture with a cast and steel pin, allowing the bone to heal for about three months. Theoretically, the mend leaves the bone stronger than before Pedroia broke it.

"There's not going to be any setbacks," Pedroia said before an intimate gathering of print reporters.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Weighty Issue May Keep Pablo Sandoval Benched

Overweight third baseman Pablo Sandoval -- whose batting average plummeted from .330 to .268 and homers from 26 to 13 last year compared to 2009 -- has lost 15 to 20 pounds but "still has a ways to go," according to San Francisco Giants bench and infield coach Ron Wotus.

In a recent interview with KNBR Radio 680's Ray Woodson, Wotus warned that Sandoval cannot be expected to reclaim his status as a starter unless his conditioning demonstrates a "commitment to winning."

"We'll see how he is when he comes into (Cactus League camp in) Arizona, and then he has to keep the weight off," Wotus said of the portly infielder. "...How much the weight will affect him at the plate is hard to say. It definitely affects him in the field, his range and ability to move around."

Wotus agreed with Woodson that to earn time at the plate, Sandoval must be able to perform around the bag. Sandoval's weight is officially listed at 245, a lot for a man with a 5-foot-11 frame, but critics claim he may have weighed in as high as 270 last year.

The coach noted that Sandoval might also find at-bats at first base, but indicated there will be much competition around the infield, most notably from Mark DeRosa, returning from a season lost due to injury; Aubrey Huff, a veteran offensive force who has played both corners; and Brandon Belt, a 23-year-old, 6-foot-5, 200-pound, power-hitting rookie who has destroyed minor league pitching.

"Pablo is a special player and he has that special bat we need...if he can come back strong," Wotus said.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

White Sox Coach Questions Brent Morel's Offense

White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker continues to have doubts about 24-year-old prospect Brent Morel's readiness to win the starting third baseman's job out of spring training.

Returning to his Chicago home from a three-week workout of various players in Florida and California, Walker told ESPN Radio 1000 that Morel, who hails from Bakersfield, has ability around the bag but has "some misses" when he hits because he "comes up out of his swing."

"He's always hit," Walker said of the former Cal-Poly standout. "The thing we have to be careful about is his swing. Does he have some holes in there that pitchers can exploit?"

After the White Sox took Morel in the first round of the 2008 draft, he hit .326 at Double A Birmingham, then .300 in 60 games for Triple A Charlotte, where his defensive play reminded observers of former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede.

In a brief September call up, Morel hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, though he struggled overall.

"I think he's going to be ready to go," said Walker, but hinted that he may have to hold off journeyman Mark Teahen if Morel expects to win the starting third baseman's job on opening day.

Fernando Rodney Reportedly Wild in Prespring

Various reports coming out of the Dominican winter league indicate prospective Angels closer Fernando Rodney continues to miss high and away with his mid-90s heater, casting doubt on whether he will be able to land the closer's job coming out of spring training.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia -- who stuck with Rodney a number of times last year even though Rodney was allowing too many runners on base -- already has publicly expressed his doubt about him in game situations. Rodney appeared in more than 70 games last year, but notched only 14 saves in various bullpen roles.

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report in less than two weeks, look for Scioscia to try a number alternatives before resigning himself to a closer by committee.

Rangers Neftali Feliz May Yet Convert to Starter

One would think now with former Rangers saves leader Frank Francisco traded to Toronto, teammate Neftali Feliz could stop looking over his shoulder and settle down and focus on being exactly what he is: one of the major leagues' most outstanding closers.

But no-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to spring camp in Surprise. Ariz., in less than two weeks, the Rangers continue contemplating stretching him out to join the top of a rather spotty rotation.

"I love having a lock-down closer, I do," Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels said in a recent interview with KTKS Radio "The Fan." "But there's no doubt he would be even more valuable to us as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter."

Francisco's departure in the trade for former Angels catcher Mike Napoli only puts what Daniels describes as a "new wrinkle" in the proposition, especially since he has two or three other possibilities as closers, most notably Alexi Ogando, 27, who can throw as high as the mid-90s and strikes out a batter an inning. Ogando notched a 1.30 ERA last year in a little more than 40 innings.

Look for Rangers President Nolan Ryan to break the logjam before the end of the month, and expect Feliz to start getting extra work by the end of the month.