Impatience Kills: Rushing Back Injured Players Hurts the Nationals

In baseball, impatience is a cardinal sin. Hasty decisions usually lead to defeats, demoralized teams, and ineffective players. It is happening to the Nationals right now and they need to learn from their impetuousness before adding key injured players Henry Rodriguez, Drew Storen, and Jayson Werth to the active roster.

Ryan Zimmerman is hitting like former Washington Senator Tim Cullen? Is Zim still injured? Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Already, Ryan Zimmerman, Brad Lidge (designated for assignment yesterday), Michael Morse, and, judging from Sunday’s calamatous results, Ryan Mattheus, have suffered from the club’s decision to rush them back to major league action. All had less than a week of rehabilitaion time in the minor leagues. All have struggled ever since.

Zimmerman’s throws from third to first are tentative and erratic, his hitting lacks effectiveness, the ball sounds dead off his bat. It appears that the Nationals put him back on the field before his shoulder adequately healed. Worse, he had nearly no time in actual minor league games to test his health and restore his timing at the plate. While occupying the most important spot in the Nationals’ lineup, Zimmerman has been one of baseball’s poorest hitters. No average, no power, loads of double plays and strikeouts. A week in Harrisburg or Syracuse may have done him wonders.

Morse returned to the Nationals after less than a week in the minors. Clearly, his timing and plate discipline remains, charitably, a work in progress. He is rolling over the top of nearly every pitch he swings at, grounding out to short incessantly. Washington needed to let him make countless outs and swing at pitches well beyond the strike zone in Potomac or Hagerstown. Why rush him back to D.C. when he was obvioulsy not ready?

Lidge appeared in but two minor league games and got knocked all over the yard and beyond in one of them. His fastball, already devoid of velocity, lost its movement. He still has a biting slider, but has not worked in enough games to get its precision back. As his out pitch, Lidge’s slider needs to dart close enough to the strike zone to make major league hitters swing and either miss or make weak contact. Right now, the pitch goes 58 feet or sails well outside the strike zone. Unsuprisingly, he has been battered in every major league appearance but a mop up role to finish off a sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays. Even in that game, two of the three batters he faced hit the ball hard.

With their strong bullpen, why exactly did the Nationals need to push Lidge back when he could have re-habbed for another 20 days? Now, he will either return to the minors where he belonged all along or belong to some other team that needs pitching and can wait for Lidge to work out his problems. In either case, the veteran savvy the Nats signed Lidge for is likely gone.

As the club whimpered before the broom-wielding Yankees, Mattheus, again after a truncated rehab assignment, looked unprepared and lost on the mound, heaving a pitch that hit Andruw Jones but ended up being a passed ball when the umpire failed to see ball contact thigh. In either case, Mattheus, though wearing a Nats’ uniform, is really still working himself back into form. Unfortunately, this “learning curve” and the runs for the opposing team that go with it, will happen at the expense of the Nationals (and the sanity and hairlines of their fans), not Syracuse, Harrisburg, or Potomac. Did Mattheus really need to return so quickly?

In 2005, Washington’s manager Frank Robinson cajoled and intimidated injured players into trying to bull through their injuries.

Vinny Castilla tried to play with patella tendinitis in his knee. His hitting tanked and he missed crucial routine ground balls that turned potential close wins into excruciating losses.

Brad Wilkerson suffered with a severely strained oblique muscle that affected his hitting and throwing. He played anyway and saw his strikeouts spike, his power disappear, and his ability to throw out baserunners desert him.

Livan Hernandez, recently DFA’d by Atlanta, bravely pitched through severe knee injuries for Frank Robinson’s 2005 Nationals. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

Livan Hernandez, nearly unbeatable the first three months of the season, attempted to pitch around a sore knee that robbed his velocity. Livo pitched inning after inning, but his pitches flattened and lost speed. Hitters who looked helpless earlier made Hernandez look like a batting practice pitcher.

While these brave veterans, perhaps fearing Frank’s cleat in their rumps, attempted to persevere, losses mounted and a contending club collapsed into a .500 team. With a better farm system, a far superior general manager and manager at the helm, and more depth on the 40-man roster, the Nationals are no longer forcing men who belong on the disabled list to stay on the field.

However, now that, seven years later, they again find themselves in first place, Washington is pushing these players back into major league action far too fast, with the same sad results. Unless they learn from these mistakes, Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo may find that history repeating itself in 2012.