Skippers use balancing act to keep players healthy
Managers face task of helping prevent injuries while squads get in work during spring
Every year, managers are tasked with trying to strike that perfect balance in Spring Training. They want their players to be in full swing by Opening Day, but not at the cost of risking injuries in games that ultimately don't count.
As if that formula wasn't already difficult enough, this year skippers had the added challenge of opening camp one week earlier than usual due to the World Baseball Classic. With some players leaving camp to participate in this month's Classic, Spring Training games began in February.
While spending additional time together can be good for building chemistry and getting in a few extra workouts, it makes balancing playing time and pitching rotations all the more difficult on managers.
"I just hope nobody gets hurt -- with hamstrings," Reds manager Dusty Baker said about the early start. "I imagine the kids will play a lot. This is where the balance comes in -- how much to play your regulars, or when are they going to get stale or stagnant?
"You have to play them enough to get in shape, but they can't peak too early in Spring Training. But I have to play them enough to get them ready or else you're inviting injury to the older players."
Even with a perfect balance -- if such a thing exists -- there remains the chance that a top player will suffer a significant injury.
It already happened this year with Yankees All-Star Curtis Granderson suffering a fractured right forearm after getting hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance of the spring. With Granderson expected to be out until May, manager Joe Girardi is now forced to use Spring Training to find Granderson's replacement instead of simply trying to decide how to align his intended outfield of Granderson, Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki.
The fact is, even in shortened, closely-monitored appearances, players are still susceptible to serious injuries that could have recovery times far longer than that of a broken forearm.
Maybe that's why Royals manager Ned Yost isn't paying too much attention to his club's undefeated record so far in Cactus League play. After all, Kansas City was hit possibly the hardest last spring by injuries -- losing starting catcher Salvador Perez until mid-June with a knee injury and closer Joakim Soria for the season to Tommy John surgery.
While injuries like those could crop up regardless of the length of Spring Training, opening the schedule when it's just a little bit cooler and playing more games obviously increases those odds.
"I know it sounds weird when you say it's only [a difference of] six days or seven days -- [but] that's a big difference for a position player, because they normally don't even need all the normal spring," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Now they have six or seven more days. So, there's a timing element of when we can take advantage of them working a little bit more to prep themselves for games a little bit."
Though the added time might not be ideal for avoiding injuries, it's a welcomed treat for some players entering camp with pre-existing issues.
For Angels slugger Albert Pujols, arriving to camp earlier after his offseason right knee surgery enabled him to get in his first game action of the spring on Tuesday, well ahead of schedule.
"Just really taking it easy and just working my way into it," Pujols said at the beginning of camp. "My main goal is to try to be ready by Opening Day. It's not for Spring Training. Spring Training, obviously, you get your work and everything done. But one thing is we have plenty of time, so I'm not going to rush myself or take this injury into the season. I feel great right now."
With Pujols already working his way back into game shape -- and the Angels' lineup -- he still has nearly a full month of Spring Training to prepare for Opening Day at his own leisure.
Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez was also hoping to reap the benefits of an extended spring slate, but for an entirely different reason. A notorious slow starter, Ramirez was planning to take advantage of the extra exhibition games by getting the early struggles out of the way before Opening Day rolls around.
Some managers are tentative to overuse their regulars in Spring Training out of fear they will wear down toward the end of the season -- but Ramirez didn't share that concern.
"If you work hard and take care of yourself, there's no reason for you to get tired," Ramirez said. "I never feel tired during the season, and if you look at my numbers, they're better later on in the year. I feel tired here and there, but it's not like I'm going to drop my production because of that."
Unfortunately, Ramirez's plan was derailed Saturday, when he jammed his knee sliding into second base against the Angels. The MRI came back clean, but Ramirez still figures to miss at least a week of playing time.
Even with his plan out the window -- and the possibility of another slow start looming -- all that really matters is Ramirez should be healthy by Opening Day.
Just ask Yost, who experienced the evils of Spring Training a year ago, but is currently in the midst of a "perfect" spring.
"It's just Spring Training. Nothing matters until April 1," Yost said. "Your whole focus is to try to ramp things up, bit by bit, so that April 1 everything comes together. ... What means something is that we're taking our steps and we're healthy doing it."
And for the rest of March, Yost's focus will remain on keeping his Opening Day lineup intact more so than his club's unblemished record.