We wait all winter for this. We make lists and formulate scouting reports. We compare and contrast players ranging from 16 to 25 in hopes of passing the time until baseball season starts again. The prospect world is dark during the winter, save for a month in Arizona in October. So it's makes for a dark week when we find out that the two best position players in the minors may not be starting the new season on the field.
That's what happened this week with news tricking down first of yet another setback to the return from a leg injury that cost Oscar Taveras most of his 2013 season, then the announcement that Byron Buxton would begin the season on the disabled list with a wrist injury.
Before we all run towards the nearest ledge, it's important to remember that nothing official has been said yet. Both could still begin the season as scheduled (although it's looking quite doubtful for Buxton). But in a spring filled with injury after injury, any delay in our thirst for gratification seems to spell inevitable doom.
So let's step back and use some reason here to figure out just what level of concern is appropriate for each of our budding stars.
For Taveras, this problem just won't seem to go away. What started out as an ankle sprain last summer and morphed into a surgical repair this off-season was thought to be under control at the start of spring training, at least according to the Cardinals. Taveras, however, felt differently, and favored the ankle in the early going, possibly leading to a hamstring injury a few weeks ago. His most recent setback was nothing more than a stumble, but upon already fragile legs, it was enough to warrant a few days off.
It's not quite time to really worry about Taveras yet with this leg injury, but it's certainly a lot closer than I thought we'd come. This was supposed to be something that cost him a month last year and we're coming up on closer to a year. When it was announced last August that Taveras would have surgery on the ankle, it seemed like a minor setback that would set both he and the Cardinals up nicely for a mid-season call-up in 2014. While that's still possible, the longer Taveras goes without playing a week of healthy games in a row, the further that scenario fades off into the distance.
Long-term, Taveras should be fine. We could be looking back on this in six months as we award Taveras the NL Rookie of the Year and laugh at our concern. After all, he's still just as talented as ever. But at some point, the lingering affects of the multiple injuries to the same body part take their toll, and you have to wonder if, for all the tools that Taveras possesses, if he lacks the one to stay healthy.
While Taveras has now been battling this problem for almost a full calendar year, Buxton is relatively new to time on the bench. The game's top prospect played in 125 games last season without issue and entered spring training healthy and ready to impress. In this game, all it takes is one wrong dive or awkward landing to change things, however, and an uncomfortable roll of the wrist has held Buxton out of action for more than a week.
We are beginning to mount moderate-to-major concerns for Taveras at this point, but we're no where near that point with Buxton. He's had all the proper tests and everything has come back clean, structurally. It's just a waiting game until he feels better. The only main point of concern here is the part of his body we're dealing with.
While the legs in Taveras' case are no minor issue, injuries to wrists can have lingering affects, sometimes even after a player feels better. While it's easy to see a player running differently because of a leg injury, wrist injuries are more difficult to detect. Buxton will tell the Twins when he's feeling better and no longer has pain, but that doesn't mean it has completely healed. Wrist injuries are easy to re-aggravate, and even after healed, the strength does not always return. While Buxton's injury may be more minor than Taveras', the fact that includes the wrists of a player whose entire ability to generate power comes from that section of his body is a reason for concern for the Twins.
My goal is not to be an alarmist, although it's possible the boat has sailed on that. Buxton will likely return to form in a few weeks and this will do nothing but delay his start to yet another wonderful season. But while there may not be reason for alarm just yet, because of the part of the body involved, there is reason to proceed with caution.
Neither injury discounts what these two players can do. Both remain the top prospects in the game until further notice that their injuries have in some way changed their long-term ability to hit baseballs better than anyone else in the minors. For Taveras, the injury that seems minor just won't seem to go away, and we are nearing the point where we can start to look at him with genuine concern. For Buxton, the injury is minor for now, but involves a part of his body that has a history of lingering.
In both cases, things are likely to work out fine. There is no need to sound the alarms just yet in either St. Louis or Minnesota. But neither news can be discarded without genuine concern for either of the game's top prospects.