Commentary

Roberts Report: Injury-prone players

Updated: April 4, 2008, 4:59 PM ET
By Brendan Roberts | ESPN.com

Injury-prone. It's a tag that is thrown around at will on fantasy sites, but is a nasty label to put on a ballplayer.

Really, what is injury-prone? Does it mean the way a guy plays is going to lead to an injury? Or perhaps it means a player is destined to suffer some sort of muscle or tendon injury, regardless of how it happens. Or maybe it's just that the little nicks or pulls or soreness that tend to happen to pro baseball players is going to sideline a player longer than expected.

To me, it's simpler than that. If a player misses 30-plus games for two or three straight seasons, or three out of four, I consider him injury-prone. Of course, there are other variables: the way he plays, age, position, just to name a few. But when it comes to projecting and/or ranking players, these detailed explanations rarely matter; all I have is numbers to go off of. In other words, I don't care whether it's illness, a car accident, a wayward pitch breaking a hand ... if a player has a track record of missing games, it's a concern to me, because a) track record is everything in fantasy baseball; and b) past injury is often the best precursor of future injury.

With that, it's time to "ask my rankings" list which players it sees as injury-prone, like it or not. Not to say that I completely ignored these guys in drafts/auctions, but at least the little "I" that I put next to them made me think twice. I'll list my primary concern and then any remaining:

Catcher

Joe Mauer
J. Meric/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer played in just 109 games last season, catching in 91 of them.
Primary concern: Joe Mauer, Twins. He's 24, and he's already had knee surgery and other leg problems ... and scouts are already saying that'll give him troubles down the road. How long can he catch?
Others: Ryan Doumit, Pirates; Gregg Zaun, Blue Jays.

First base/DH

Primary concern: Casey Kotchman, Angels. Like it or not, the guy played 137 games last season and only 29 the year before. Illness or not, I'm not sure he can last a full season (and stay productive, for that matter).
Others: Gary Sheffield, Tigers (DH); Jason Giambi, Yankees (DH, for now); Nick Johnson, Nationals; Mike Jacobs, Marlins; Mike Sweeney, Athletics (DH).

Second base

Primary concern: Rickie Weeks, Brewers. He's off to a good start, but let's not forget he has played 95 and 118 games, respectively, the past two seasons.
Others: Kazuo Matsui, Astros; Mark Grudzielanek, Royals; Ray Durham, Giants.

Third base

Primary concern: Aramis Ramirez, Cubs. Yup, you heard me. He missed 30 games because of nagging leg injuries last season, and he missed 39 games in 2005. In 2006? He played in 157 games. Oh wait, did I also mention 2006 was a big contract year, and he signed a lucrative five-year, $75 million deal after it?
Others: Chipper Jones, Braves (even though he's played through most of his injuries); Troy Glaus, Cardinals; Hank Blalock, Rangers; Akinori Iwamura, Rays (based on last year alone); Scott Rolen, Blue Jays; Nomar Garciaparra, Dodgers (well, duh); Chad Tracy, Diamondbacks (well, duh, Part Deux), Eric Chavez, Athletics; Rich Aurilia, Giants (wherever he plays).

Shortstop

Primary concern: Bobby Crosby, Athletics. The fact that this is down the list a ways says something about the depth and reliability of the shortstop position.
Others: Cristian Guzman, Nationals.

Outfielders

Manny Ramirez
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesManny Ramirez has missed 61 games the past two seasons.
Primary concern: Manny Ramirez, Red Sox. He's fired up now, but how will his legs feel in the dead of August if the Sawx have a lead in the AL East? Remember that he has averaged 131.5 games the past two seasons. I no longer count on 140 games from Manny.
Others: Jeremy Hermida, Marlins; Josh Hamilton, Rangers (although we have just one big-league season to go on); Milton Bradley, Rangers; Ken Griffey Jr., Reds; Moises Alou, Mets; J.D. Drew, Red Sox; Nate McLouth, Pirates; Dave Roberts, Giants.

Starting pitchers

Primary concern: A.J. Burnett. I'm sorry, but how is it that so many fantasy owners rely on this guy? Do they not realize he has pitched more than 25 games in a season only once, and even that year, 2005, was a contract season? Sorry, y'all can have him. Just don't come cryin' when you see the words "Burnett" and "sore elbow" or "sore triceps" in the same sentence.
Others: Pedro Martinez, Mets (admittedly a little late in mentioning this); Ben Sheets, Brewers (I still like him for this year, though); Rich Harden, Athletics; Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks; Orlando Hernandez, Mets; Jason Bergmann, Nationals; Mark Prior, Padres.

Relief pitchers

Primary concern: Huston Street. OK, so he's not so much injury-prone as he is an injury risk. He's a small fry who throws hard and puts a lot of torque on his arm and torso. He missed time last year because of an elbow injury, and he's already pitching this season like he's hurt. Not to say he is, but he's not himself yet.
Others: B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays; Eric Gagne, Brewers; Troy Percival, Rays; Kerry Wood, Cubs; Tom Gordon, Phillies; Eddie Guardado, Rangers.

So who'd I miss? Any disagreements? Feel free to add names or disagree with me (or praise me, of course) in the Conversation (Beta!) below.

I do want to add a twist, however, and it's the whole point of this exercise. A high percentage of the players above are healthy right now. Granted, a few of them couldn't make it through this spring or the first few games of the season (in Sheffield's case, for instance). But the opening week of the season, the injury list is fairly miniscule. That's the good thing about a new season; the "tragedies" haven't struck yet.

The more games these injury-prone players get in, the better chance they have of that muscle pull hitting them. Or the strained hammy. Or the sore elbow. Track record shows that many of the players above are going to miss 30-plus games (or five-plus starts), and if they're not missing them now, when will they miss them?

Don't let it happen on your watch. Tag the players on your team that are injury-prone, whether you like them or not. And be prepared to sell high if they're playing well and go the first 2-3 weeks or even a month or more without suffering that injury you're half-expecting them to suffer.

There's always somebody in your league who thinks an injury-prone player has turned the corner and will play 155-plus games, make 30 starts or make 70 relief appearances. It's inevitable. That's why Griffey Jr. was often taken higher in drafts than he should have, well, most of this millennium; somebody was dead sure he'd be healthy that season. (Naturally, right around when everybody gives in and drops his value, he actually does stay semi-healthy in 2007.) Find that guy when you have Joe Mauer hitting .330 with only two games missed in May. It might not seem like the gut feeling there, but remember how you felt about that injury-tagged player before the season.

Because, after all, baseball statistics are more consistent season to season than we give them credit for ... and that includes games played, too.

Cueto, Cueto, Cueto

Injury-prone. Dusty Baker. The two tend to be related when it comes to young pitchers. You already see Wood and Prior on the above list, you can maybe throw Matt Clement in there, too (who?). Fair or not, the ol' manager is considered a renowned arm-killer. And it's precisely the reason, as well as him being a rookie and pitching for the Reds, that Johnny Cueto is not trusted by fantasy owners even after a great spring and a seven-inning, 10-K, one-hit gem Thursday against the Diamondbacks.

I'm not worried, however. The rookie part I can't argue against. I've followed enough rookie seasons to know that they can be an inconsistent sort, and maddeningly painful to watch start-to-start. As for the Baker-related mumbo-jumbo and him pitching for the Reds, though, three things stick out to me other than the numbers listed above: He shut down a good-hitting team in the D-backs, he did it at home (hitter-favorable Great American Ball Park) and he did by throwing just 92 pitches. Yowsa!

Cueto was lights-out this spring, and you know who else knew that? The Diamondbacks. I'm sure they were well prepared to face him, and he forced some pretty bad swings. Cueto was not bothered in the least by pitching at the homer-friendly ballpark against the NL West champs. And most importantly, he peppered the strike zone Thursday, which he does have a track record of doing. That meant 10 Ks in seven innings on just 92 pitches. How is Dusty Baker going to screw up a young pitcher who is actually semi-efficient on his pitches?

I know, I know, it's just one start, but I'm extremely encouraged by it. The anti-Cueto arguments are in, and most of them have the words "Dusty" and/or "Baker" in them. The story here is not Dusty Baker; it's Johnny Cueto. We shouldn't lose sight of that. No way a manager with an "injury history" should keep you from owning a guy who could be the NL's top rookie pitcher this year, which is what I believe will happen.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.