HANDLE WITH CARE
The curse of the billy goat didn't get Cubs righthander Mark Prior. The curse of too much work too soon did. And the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano and the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis better watch out. They could be next.
Nothing puts a young pitcher at risk quite like severely increasing his workload when his body and arm are still developing. Most clubs, including the A's, the Mets and the Rangers, don't want their young pitchers to increase their innings by more than 30 in one year.
Becoming a 200-inning big league pitcher is like becoming a marathoner or a powerlifter. You need to build to that level incrementally, not by large jumps in workload. Proper development, however, often gets thrown aside once a pitcher gets to the cold business of the major leagues—where innings are most difficult and stressful.
Any team that heaps a 40-inning increase on a young pitcher is asking for trouble. That trouble usually shows up the next season in what can be called the Year-After Effect. Over the last five seasons I tracked 24 pitchers age 25 and under who logged a 40-inning jump from the previous season or their previous professional high. Nine of them wound up on the DL the next year, including Prior, 23, who has elbow and Achilles tendon injuries this season after a 67-inning jump (including 23? postseason innings) in '03.
Because of the stress placed on their arms last year, Zambrano (+72? innings at age 22) and Willis (+52 at 21), though off to good starts, are also at risk-at least for a drop-off this season. Seventeen of the previous 21 overworked young pitchers had a worse ERA the year after. They include Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Dempster, Kevin Millwood and Odalis Perez.
No team has treated young starters worse than the Royals. Since 2000 they have blown out the arms of Mac Suzuki (+78?), Chad Durbin (+61), Chris George (+49?) and Runelvys Hernandez (+92).
With that in mind, Kansas City has no business pushing Jeremy Affeldt, 24, and prize prospect Zack Greinke, 20, close to the 200-inning mark this year. Affeldt, the most talented pitcher in the Royals' rotation, has never thrown more than 147? innings in a season; Greinke threw a personal-high 140 last year when he was a combined 15-4 with a 1.93 ERA in Class A and Double A.
Likewise, the Mets are crazy if they expect Tyler Yates to spend the entire year in their rotation. Though Yates turned 26 last August, he has never pitched more than 107? innings in a season.
It takes great restraint to shut down a young, healthy pitcher as a precautionary measure. Detroit did it last year with Jeremy Bonderman, 21, and Texas did it with Juan Dominguez, 23. It may also require a team's absence from a pennant race. Clubs with a shot at playing in October are more likely to push their young pitchers, even if they know the bill may come due the year after.