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You Don’t Have To Put On The Red Light – UPDATED

When I first plunked down the cash for a Baseball Prospectus Premium Account a few years ago, my primary motivation was being able to read Will Carroll’s Team Health Reports. For those unfamiliar with Will’s THR’s, every spring he goes team by team through the major leagues, assigning green, yellow, or red lights to each team’s starting line-up, starting rotation, and closer indicating their likelihood of injury in the coming season (see his introduction to this year’s THR’s here). His 2006 THR for the Yankees (co-authored by Michael Groopman) went up on Tuesday and contains more than a few surprises, as well as more than a comfortable number of red lights.

Among the surprises are a yellow light for Robinson Cano (“a young player at a risky position”) and a green light for Johnny Damon (who, despite his habit of crashing into everything and everyone in center field, has never spent a day on the DL in the majors–knock knock). Even more surprising were the colors assigned to Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang. If I were to tell you that one of those pitchers earned a red light and the other a green, you’d naturally assume it was Wang who got the red due to his history of shoulder woes. Not so. Chacon is the man most likely to sell his body to the night. The reason is his history of low workloads. Dating back to 2000, his age-22 season and his last full year in the minors, here are Chacon’s annual innings pitched:

2000: 173 2/3
2001: 160
2002: 140
2003: 140
2004: 63 1/3
2005: 164 1/3

Those 173 2/3 innings in double-A at age 22 remain his career high (those 63 1/3 innings in 2004 were the result of the Rockies ill-fated decision to make him their closer that season).

With all five members of the 2005 opening day rotation as well as Wang having missed at least one start due to injury last year, the Yankees are likely hoping Chacon will be able to take the ball every fifth day this season. That means racking up around 200 innings, assuming he’s reasonably effective (33 starts * 6 IP/start = 198 IP). That’s a minimum 20 percent increase over what was already his second highest career IP total.

All of which should inspire increased pesismism over Chacon’s prospects for the coming year. Still, despite his miserable 1.33 K/BB ratio in pinstripes last year (an alarming lack of improvement over his career 1.32 mark despite his having finally escaped Denver’s thin air), his fluky good .240 opponent’s average on balls in play (league average hovers around .300 and Chacon is all but guaranteed to regress toward the mean), his history of wearing down late in the season (last year being a startling exception), and the fact that I was convinced he was the suck even after the Yankees picked him up last year, I can’t seem to get that down on Chacon. I really was impressed by what I saw from him at the end of last year, from the drop on his curve to his strong showing in his first career postseason start. What’s more, there are established sabermatricians who think Chacon just might be above average. Certainly, Chacon remains one of the biggest X-Factors on a rotation full of question marks.

As for Chien-Ming Wang’s green light, I’ve dropped Will an email asking him to shed some light. I hope to add his response to this post later today.

UPDATE: Will reports that his system does not include data on minor league injuries, creating what he himself describes as “a huge hole in the system,” through which Wang slipped twice by avoiding surgery, making his late-season DL stay look like nothing more than a tired arm. Will is hesitant to override his system, but, and this is me speaking now, for all intents and purposes, Wang should be at least a yellow.

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