May 13, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson (5) walks off the field with Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (34) after Harper collided with the scoreboard and suffered injuries to the neck during the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Mulder must have been a pretty happy man when he woke up Saturday morning. The 36-year-old pitcher was coming off an offseason in which he found a new delivery that could salvage his career after being away from the game since 2008. His comeback was going better than anything he could have asked for; he could throw without pain, he signed a minor league deal with the Angels and had a chance to make their rotation, and he was about to throw his first bullpen session in front of his new coaches. Saturday was supposed to be the next milestone in Mulder’s journey back to the big leagues… until it all went wrong.
In a disastrous turn of events for the veteran, his season was over. The cause — a ruptured Achilles tendon. How did he hurt the tendon? Well that might just be the worst part of it. Mulder injured the tendon during a harmless agility drill, just minutes before the bullpen session that was supposed to be the next step on his comeback trail. The pitcher whose career presumably ended six years ago after two major shoulder surgeries will once again likely be forced into retirement — for an injury completely unrelated to pitching.
While Mulder’s injury can probably be credited to insanely bad luck, these kinds of things happen during spring training. We see them happen every year to all different teams and players. And that is exactly why the Washington Nationals should be very cautious with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, both of whom are coming back from offseason surgery.
Harper’s surgery was to eliminate the bursitis in his knee which he had been dealing with since he crashed into the wall at Dodgers stadium last May, and Strasburg’s was to extract bone chips in his right elbow.
While not necessarily major operations, surgery of any kind can have a big impact on a player, especially during the offseason. Rehab can throw off a player’s workout schedule, throwing program and even their diet. Most players have their offseason meticulously broken down into all the different steps that they believe they need to accomplish in order to be ready to go by the first day of spring training. For Strasburg and Harper, that was very difficult to accomplish this offseason. Especially for Harper, whose surgery was much more complicated than many people thought it would be.
"“It was a lot worse than many people thought,” Harper said in an interview with MLB Network last month. “[Dr. Richard Steadman] went in and really saw that it was pretty bad. He fixed it and I’ve been feeling great.”"
While the surgery accomplished what it was supposed to, there’s no doubt that it was a major obstacle for him as he prepared for the season. It took weeks for him to be able to run and hit after the surgery, and his surgery could have affected his weight lifting program as well. Not only was Harper’s offseason conditioning affected, but rehabbing the injury was a challenge on its own. Harper even admitted last month that he probably wouldn’t be 100 percent going into spring training — a red flag for a player who never even hints at being injured.
Now Harper insists that the knee feels fine, but that doesn’t mean he should go into spring training without restraints. The same can be said for Strasburg. Despite the fact that he finished his rehab a while ago, his surgery likely affected his offseason training as well.
There’s a reason players workout as much as they do during the winter. It’s because they need to be in perfect shape for spring training, which can often be just as rigorous (if not more) as the regular season. Spring training is for fine-tuning everything baseball related. Everything that has to do with physical training and conditioning should be done by the players months before pitchers and catchers report to camp.
While Harper and Strasburg are both in great shape going into camp, they probably weren’t able to get in all the training they wanted to during the offseason, something that could increase their chances of getting hurt this spring.
Now, I’m not saying they should be bubble-wrapped and locked into a child-safe room, I’m just saying they should be put on a different schedule than the other players who are actually 100 percent healthy. It can’t hurt to go easy on them. I don’t think either one of them will get fat if they run a few less laps than the other players. I don’t think Harper will forget how to hit bombs just because he got a few less swings during spring training. And I definitely don’t think Strasburg will give up 15 runs on Opening Day just because he pitched a few less innings in exhibition games.
Knowing Strasburg and Harper as well as we do, they probably won’t take too kindly to such treatment. They can say that they’re healthy as much as they want, but at some point someone has to step up and tell them that just to be safe, they will have to tone down their workload during spring training. Fortunately, it looks like manager Matt Williams has already stepped up.
Earlier this offseason, Williams said that he planned to ‘kid-glove’ both players, easing them in during spring training. While both players insist that they’re healthy, that plan has apparently not changed, at least not for Harper.
"“As far as I know, he is full-go for spring training,” Williams told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. “We’re going to monitor him, though. We’re going to see how his knee reacts. There’s no way, even in a rehab situation, there’s no way to really simulate a game or the stuff that we do on the field until you do it. That’s why guys go out on rehab and play games, because you just can’t do it. So we’ll monitor him every day. If we see anything that’s bothering him, we’ll modify his program first. And if we’ve got to hold him out a day, we’ll hold him out a day to make sure he’s ready to go. As of right now, he’s full-go.”"
As we all know, this organization has never been afraid of enforcing strict rules and policies when it comes to protecting its players. Fortunately for Strasburg and Harper, Williams is determined to make sure they stay healthy this spring, even if they disagree with his plans for them.
Crazy things can happen during spring training. Granted, it’s probably unfair to compare a 36-year-old with a history of serious injuries to two promising young players who appear to be completely healthy. Nevertheless, Mulder’s injury just goes to show how unpredictable spring training can be, and how just one workout gone wrong can end a player’s season before it even starts.
The Nationals must do everything in their power to monitor and control Strasburg and Harper this spring. Because while the Angels will probably be fine without Mulder, the Nationals simply cannot survive if they lose either Strasburg or Harper.