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Tom Verducci's View

May 03, 2004
May 03, 2004

Table of Contents
May 3, 2004

Tom Verducci's View

HANDLE WITH CARE

This is an article from the May 3, 2004 issue

The curse of the billy goat didn't get Cubs righthander Mark
Prior. The curse of too much work too soon did. And the Cubs'
Carlos Zambrano and the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis better watch
out. They could be next.

Nothing puts a young pitcher at risk quite like severely
increasing his workload when his body and arm are still
developing. Most clubs, including the A's, the Mets and the
Rangers, don't want their young pitchers to increase their
innings by more than 30 in one year.

Becoming a 200-inning big league pitcher is like becoming a
marathoner or a powerlifter. You need to build to that level
incrementally, not by large jumps in workload. Proper
development, however, often gets thrown aside once a pitcher gets
to the cold business of the major leagues--where innings are most
difficult and stressful.

Any team that heaps a 40-inning increase on a young pitcher is
asking for trouble. That trouble usually shows up the next season
in what can be called the Year-After Effect. Over the last five
seasons I tracked 24 pitchers age 25 and under who logged a
40-inning jump from the previous season or their previous
professional high. Nine of them wound up on the DL the next year,
including Prior, 23, who has elbow and Achilles tendon injuries
this season after a 67-inning jump (including 23 1/3 postseason
innings) in '03.

Because of the stress placed on their arms last year, Zambrano
(+72 1/3 innings at age 22) and Willis (+52 at 21), though off
to good starts, are also at risk--at least for a drop-off this
season. Seventeen of the previous 21 overworked young pitchers
had a worse ERA the year after. They include Tony Armas Jr., Ryan
Dempster, Kevin Millwood and Odalis Perez.

No team has treated young starters worse than the Royals. Since
2000 they have blown out the arms of Mac Suzuki (+78 2/3), Chad
Durbin (+61), Chris George (+49 1/3) and Runelvys Hernandez
(+92).

With that in mind, Kansas City has no business pushing Jeremy
Affeldt, 24, and prize prospect Zack Greinke, 20, close to the
200-inning mark this year. Affeldt, the most talented pitcher in
the Royals' rotation, has never thrown more than 147 1/3 innings
in a season; Greinke threw a personal-high 140 last year when he
was a combined 15-4 with a 1.93 ERA in Class A and Double A.

Likewise, the Mets are crazy if they expect Tyler Yates to spend
the entire year in their rotation. Though Yates turned 26 last
August, he has never pitched more than 107 1/3 innings in a
season.

It takes great restraint to shut down a young, healthy pitcher as
a precautionary measure. Detroit did it last year with Jeremy
Bonderman, 21, and Texas did it with Juan Dominguez, 23. It may
also require a team's absence from a pennant race. Clubs with a
shot at playing in October are more likely to push their young
pitchers, even if they know the bill may come due the year after.

THREE STRIKES

1. Orioles rookie lefthander Matt Riley's curveball is gaining a
reputation that rivals the A's Barry Zito's sweeper. Says one
American League scout, "Barry's is softer. This is a power curve.
It's flat-out nasty. If he ever gains command, look out."

2. Jason Giambi take note: Ken Griffey Jr. and Jason Varitek
bunted for hits against an overshifted defense recently. It's
foolish not to consider what is a smart, if rare, play given the
right circumstances.

3. At the 2002 All-Star break the Expos had pitchers Bartolo
Colon, Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez plus rightfielder Vladimir
Guerrero. This is essentially all they have to show for that
talent after trading those players: pitchers Rocky Biddle and
Claudio Vargas, outfielder Juan Rivera and chronically injured
first baseman Nick Johnson.

Tom Verducci's Inside Baseball column every week at
si.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA (PRIOR) PriorCOLOR PHOTO: ALAN DIAZ/AP (WILLIS) WillisCOLOR PHOTO: JOE GIZA/REUTERS Riley