Tuesday March 24th, 2015

Injuries are one of my least favorite things, if not my very least favorite, because I hate the way they ruin the integrity of competition. Sports are at their best when the best teams are on the grandest stage, and a great team losing a star player to injury along the way sullies the entire enterprise.

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I, along with every fantasy owner, also hate the way they can undermine a fantasy season. Few experiences in fantasy leagues are as deflating as seeing one of your players get injured. You get that pit in your stomach over losing an important player, but t you feel guilty because, you know, he’s a human being and there are more important things than fantasy sports. So now you’ve got a hole on your team and guilt weighing on your psyche. Injuries aren’t pretty for anyone involved, no matter how ancillary your connection might be.

It would be great if we could stop injuries from happening, but that probably requires us to master time travel first. Until then, all we can do is try to avoid players who present a greater-than-baseline injury risk. Here are five such players for the 2015 season.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies

Tulowitzki has to be right at the top of any list of injury risks. If he were guaranteed to play 130 games, he’d be the rightful No. 2 overall pick. Unfortunately, he's only reached that mark once since 2010 and just three times in his entire career. Tulowtizki’s per-game averages are elite, as we’ve covered already this offseason. Based purely on his performance when healthy, Tulowitzki has never been better than he was last year, contending for the Triple Crown into late July before the injury bug ended another season for him.

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Most of what makes Tulowitzki such a risk, and why I think it’s worth a roll of the dice, is covered in our Burning Questions series entry on the talented shortstop. The abridged version is that if you get five months out of him and one out of a suitable replacement, you’re going to turn a serious profit at the shortstop position. If you catch some luck and he plays 150 games, you’ve got yourself a top-five hitter, who has the upside to be the No. 1 overall player in fantasy. However, the injury risk isn’t significantly baked into his average draft position. Tulo is still going to cost you a top-20 pick, meaning he’s coming off the board when there are plenty of players who aren’t just safer, but are also stars at their respective positions. The opportunity cost on Tulowitzki is quite high. If he finds a way to stay out of the trainer’s room, he’ll more than justify it.

Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

It’s really a shame that the two most threatening injury risks this season would also comprise one of the most entertaining left sides of the infield if they were teammates. Tulowitzki has long had one of the best gloves at shortstop, and Machado could just about field his way into the Hall of Fame at third or short if he can stay on the field for the next 12 years. Unfortunately, that has been a real problem for him in his first three.

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Machado has already had three major injuries and surgeries on both knees. At 22 years old, he’s certainly young and durable enough to bounce back from them, but it’s never good to have this sort of injury history so early in a career. A baseball player may not be at the same level of risk for re-injuring a knee as is a basketball or football player; Machado will obviously do less cutting and jumping on his surgically repaired knees than, say, Derrick Rose has done on his. At the same time, the third base position can be tough on the knees. It requires a quick first step, which can be hampered by knee injuries. Any time he has to make a crossover step, which will essentially be every ground ball he plays, his knees will be tested just a bit. Every time he ranges to his right and has to plant and throw in one motion, that right knee, the one he injured last year, will be under pressure. There may not be a single play that results in another injury for Machado, but the accumulation of all that strain on his knees could add up over the course of the season. Think of Machado’s knees as Julius Caesar and all those ground balls as the Roman senate. “Et tu, grounder down the line in August,” indeed.

The good news with Machado is that unlike Tulowitzki, he’s not going to cost you very much in a typical draft. Machado’s glove makes him a potentially elite real-life third baseman, but he’s unlikely to hit 20 homers, or accumulate much better than a .280/.330/.450 slash line, making him plenty affordable in most fantasy leagues. If you draft him, understand that you’ll have to have a backup plan at third base.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels

This is the sort of speculative injury play I typically hate. Pujols is entering his 15th season in the majors. He has played at least 140 games in all but one of the first 14, and 150 or more in 11 of them. Nothing, other than his age, would suggest he’s an injury risk this year.

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Of course, age cannot be ignored. Pujols turned 35 years old in January, which can serve as a line of demarcation between the good and the bad for some. The two players Pujols has been most like over his career, according to Baseball-Reference, are Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. Both of those Hall of Famers were All-Stars and MVP candidates in their age-35 seasons. However, even back in those halcyon days, when men were ironmen, Robinson missed 29 games and Aaron missed 15. Pujols isn’t playing as demanding a position as either Robinson or Aaron did, and they didn’t have the benefit of getting a pseudo off-day with the DH, but there’s no doubt that Pujols could follow their path.

The Angels understand the risks for Pujols this year, and that could lead to him getting more days to rest his legs than he has in the past. Take into account Pujols’ age, mileage and body type, and he has to be considered an injury risk this season.

Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, New York Yankees

Last season was the first time Ellsbury played at least 140 games since 2011. He was on the field for 134 in 2013, but he’s far from being the picture of health. Ellsbury has spent at least a month on the DL in three separate seasons in his career, combining to play in just 92 games in 2010 and 2012. He has had rib, shoulder and foot injuries put him on the shelf, and he’s already dealing with a strained oblique this spring.

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The initial timetable called for Ellsbury to rest for 5-to-7 days, but he still has not been cleared for baseball activities. The problem with an oblique strain is that a player can’t really know if it’s healed without testing it, and so much of what is involved in baseball, like swinging and throwing, puts a lot of strain on the oblique muscles. They’re also prone to re-injury without the proper amount of rest, so the Yankees can’t afford to rush Ellsbury back into action. Given the nature of the injury and Ellsbury’s history, it might be time to push him down draft boards just a little.

Nelson Cruz, OF, Seattle Mariners

Cruz got a huge contract from the power-needy Mariners after belting 40 homers with the Orioles last season. The Mariners may have accounted for the likely drop in home runs that is inevitable in a move to Seattle from Baltimore, but did their desperation for some middle-of-the-order pop create a blind spot in the front office with regard to Cruz’s injury history?

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Before the 2012 season, Cruz missed at least 34 games due to injury in every year of his career. He played 159 games in 2012 and '14, and since '09, the year he became a regular in the majors, Cruz has averaged 131 games played per season. That does include the 50 games he missed due to suspension in 2013, but even if you take those out he has missed about 15 percent of the potential games in his career due to injury.

Despite not being an everyday major leaguer until 2009, Cruz is already in his age-34 season (he’ll turn 35 on July 1). He’s primarily going to DH for the Mariners, so the hope is that staying out of the field will help him stay healthy for the entire year. Still, you can’t entirely bubble wrap a player, and there are obvious risks year for a player in his mid-30s with Cruz’s injury history. This isn’t expressly a column about draft-day value, but if you consider the likelihood of injury, and combine it with the downgrade in home park, it becomes awfully hard to buy in at Cruz’s expected price.

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