Though they don't seem as devastating as the Soriano/Pujols loss I wrote about yesterday, two key players have gone down on two other teams today. Cleveland put Victor Martinez on the DL, while Seattle placed its once-reliable closer JJ Putz back on the DL, both with elbow injuries. And unlike Soriano's freak fracture, there were hints at undiagnosed problems with both Martinez and Putz.
Putz hasn't really been himself all season, or at least not the closer we'd seen over the past two seasons, the one who put up two straight seasons of 30+ saves, with an unreal sub-1.00 WHIP and ERAs of 2.30 and 1.38. Last year, Putz was an All-Star and the 2007 AL Rolaids Reliver, and pretty much the one guy that Seattle fans could count on to deliver on a consistent basis. This year, that abruptly reversed itself, and Putz never really dominated the way he had in years past. He got his first save opportunity, blew his second, then was put on the DL with a strained ribcage muscle.
Even after he came back, Putz struggled to produce, occasionally looking brilliant but just as often looking terrible. The Ms didn't give him too many chances to lock down games, and when McLaren used him in non-save situations, he seemed to play down to the situation. Finally, on Wednesday, he walked the first batter he faced and had to leave the game because of elbow problems. Brandon Morrow, who will fill in at closer, came in to close the game down.
Putz's problem has been diagnosed as a hyperextended right elbow, resulting in some secondary inflammation. There's no real timetable yet for his return, but the good news is that there's been no damage beyond the swelling and hyperextension. Further good news is that Morrow has sparkled this season, with a 1.00 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, putting 25 Ks up against only 7 walks.
There's a bit of bad-news-in-the-good-news here, in that Morrow's destiny is supposed to be in the rotation, certainly a long-term need for the pitching-deficient Ms--the clifflike falloff in quality after Bedard and King Felix is precipitous. So using Morrow as a band-aid closer will only delay his development as a starter, but Seattle still thinks it can contend this year, so short-term fixes take precedent over long-term goals.
On the other hand, Cleveland has been contending this year, in no small part because of their solid pitching staff, shepherded by Victor Martinez. V-Mart hasn't been holding his own at the plate, however, as his .278 batting average has been supplemented with a meager .333 slugging, with the once-reliable power source still searching for his first home run. The team was keeping his elbow problems quiet, so as not to tip off opposing baserunners, but Victor and the Indians finally had to succumb to the obvious and shut V-Mart down.
His prognosis is less promising than Putz's, as he'll undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove the floating bodies from his elbow, a process that, with rehab, will keep him out at least six weeks. And it's much harder to replace the everyday catcher for a contender than it is to find a new closer for a team that can't seem to win a game.
Cleveland will use Kelly Shoppach behind the dish, who has some pop in his bat and a good arm, but has never run a major league pitching rotation. Fifty years ago (or even twenty) this might have been more of a concern, but today's catchers often defer to managers to call the game. So Shoppach can still rely on the coaches to help him out in a tough situation, but he's definitely a step down from Victor's expertise in this area. With CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee pitching lights-out, we will all have to watch to see what sort of difference Shoppach makes here.
It's just one more injurious insult to the Indians, who currently have Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook, and Fausto Carmona on the DL, along with their new "answer" at second base, Josh Barfield, who sprained his middle finger one day after being called up to replace former Mariner Asdrubal Cabrera. The Indians have been slipping steadily behind the ChiSox in the AL Central and, with Chicago finally remembering how to hit, they will be hard-pressed to stay in the race.
But at least they have something to shoot for, while the Mariners seem farther down to the road towards writing this season off, shedding some high-dollar talent, and looking towards the future. Injuries are always bad news for a team, but sometimes they're opportunities for a new guy to shine (as Gehrig once famously replaced an ailing Wally Pipp), and other times they're opportunities to just rebuild.
If Bill Bavasi had a lick of sense, he'd see the writing on the wall, but he's too busy trying to deny reality and pretend that Seattle's still got a chance this season, or that he's got a chance of saving his job.
Makes me wonder if there's an undiagnosed injury to Bavasi.