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Wrist Troubles Drain Prospects' Power
Broken bones and torn tendons take time to heal, but organizations expect the homers to return eventually
By John Manuel
PHOENIX--The click reminds Brewers farmhand Brad Nelson that he no longer has a right hamate bone.
The hamate, a hook-shaped bone in the wrist, is one of eight small bones that give the wrist joint strength and flexibility. It owes its shape to its function, which is in part to protect a sheath of tendons, blood vessels and nerves traveling from the arm to the fingers in the hand.
That hook is bad news for many baseball players like Nelson, however. It can break on the wrong kind of swing, the wrong kind of pitch. Trainers aren't sure why the hamate breaks, though some say it's because the handles of today's bats are thinner, or because batters often clutch the knob of the bat. Energy from the bat on a swing can sometimes jump to the hand like a lightning rod, and the hook of the hamate sometimes breaks under the strain.
Nelson remembers the wrong pitch for him, a high fastball during an April game when he opened the 2003 season with Class A High Desert.
"It started gradually hurting in the spring," Nelson said after a round of batting practice at the Brewers' Maryvale complex. "Then I swung at a high fastball and I really felt it; that's when I think it really happened. They taped it up as much as I could, but it was really stiff.
"Then they x-rayed it and found out I had a broken hamate. I'm glad they took it out, to tell you the truth. You can still hear where it used to be, though."
With that, Nelson flexed his right wrist, moving it through its normal range of motion, producing a series of clicks. Range of motion is often the last thing to return in wrist injuries, and Nelson was smiling, because he while his wrist clicks, it doesn't hurt.
"It does feel better now, because there's no pain when I swing," he said.
Wrist injuries such as Nelson's have struck several of the game's top prospects. Some, such as Nelson, Dodgers first baseman James Loney and Mariners farmhand Chris Snelling, have had a broken bone such as the hamate. Other players such as Rangers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (torn tendon) and Marlins first baseman Jason Stokes (cyst) have had wrist injuries that sapped their power.
Wrist injuries seem to be roadblocks to the major leagues that can be overcome, though. The wrist is a relatively simple joint, and doctors can address most problems surgically and get players back on the field quickly. Getting them back with their usual swing and power, though, takes time.
"Having wrist surgery isn't great, but it's pretty simple for most cases," Mariners minor league trainer Mickey Clarizio says. "What causes the lack of power is just the fact that you're having surgery. There's blood in there, there's some scarring, and it takes a while for the area to desensitize, especially if you have more invasive surgery.
"With all that, most guys don't feel confident that they can just let go with their swing. But some guys do. Ken Griffey Jr. had it with us (in 1995), and he came back hitting home runs pretty quick."
That's what their big league organizations hope will happen for the likes of Gonzalez, Loney, Nelson and Stokes.
Minor league officials contacted for this story seem to agree that wrist injuries require about a year of recovery time--not for a player to get back on the field but for his swing and power to return to pre-injury form. Nelson hopes that's the case. He had surgery last May, and he's about ready to be Brad Nelson again.
"It's just weird when you come back, because you swing like you used to, but the ball just doesn't carry like it did before," Nelson says. "I tried to do too much, and I found myself getting into bad habits."
Nelson hit just .210-1-14 with a .315 slugging percentage after a promotion to Double-A Huntsville last year, then continued to struggle (.220, one extra-base hit in 82 at-bats) in the Arizona Fall League. "I kept trying to work more, and sometimes it almost hurts you," he says. "I'm glad it happened when I'm young, because I can really learn from it."
Brewers officials said they see every sign Nelson will hit like he did in 2002. That year, the 2001 fourth-round pick out of an Iowa high school led the minor leagues in doubles (49) and RBIs while batting a combined .289-20-116 between Class A stops in Beloit and High Desert.
"What we have learned with this injury is, the strength and power in the swing comes back after about a year," assistant farm director Scott Martens says. "That's what past history tells us is sort of the norm. There's not any huge rehabilitation as much as just getting the swing back and the strength returning to the wrist after the surgery.
"Brad was here the whole offseason working out, getting stronger and working on his swing, and so far in spring training, he's swinging the bat like he used to."
The same can be said for Loney, who was the talk of Dodgers big league camp. He hit .444-1-7 in 27 at-bats and will play in the Dodgers-Angels exhibition series with the big league team, though he is expected to start the season with Double-A Jacksonville.
Gonzalez also lasted deep into Rangers camp, hitting four doubles while going 7-for-35. Last fall in the AFL, nearly 10 months removed from surgery to repair a torn tendon, Gonzalez acknowledged the wrist injury had affected his swing.
"Knowing that my wrist is good, I can go ahead and let it go," he said. "I don't have fear of letting it go. I don't have to baby it even if I am 2-0 (in the count). I got to a point when I started just trying to get base hits up the middle even when I was 2-0, 3-1, in hitting counts."
For players with an injured wrist, no count is a hitter's count. Gonzalez, Loney, Nelson and Stokes, all healthy now, expect that to change in 2004.