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Weeks and Mauer: When To Take An Injury Risk

One of the most interesting things to me that happened in Sunday’s mock draft came in the fifth round. As I was writing Tuesday’s breakdown of the round, I kept coming back to two picks: Rickie Weeks and Joe Mauer. Here’s a quick reminder of how that round went in total:

I wanted to like Chris Cwik’s pick of Weeks more than I did. When he’s healthy, Weeks is a dynamite second baseman. He’s had an .800 OPS or better in four of the last five seasons, hitting .269/.350/.468 at a position where the league average was .260/.320/.389 in 2011. He simply cannot seem to stay healthy. 2010 was the first season where Weeks played more than 130 games in his entire major league career and, not coincidentally, it was also his most productive year as he put up a solid 6.5 WAR.

His 2011 was cut short by a sprained ankle, his 2009 was almost totally lost to a torn tendon in his wrist, in 2008 it was a sprained knee, and in 2007 it was tendonitis in his opposite wrist that sent him to the disabled list. Not one of these injuries is likely to linger, not one of them is chronic. There is no reason to believe he won’t be healthy in 2012, except for the fact that he has actually been completely healthy just once in his career; it’s hard to blame owners and potential drafters from being seriously swayed by his history. On the other hand, Weeks had the fifth highest wRC+ among second baseman with at least 250 PAs in 2011, so it isn’t as though you’re drafting on potential without production. Weeks produces, we’re all just painfully aware that he would produce even more if he weren’t so likely to be sidelined.

On the other side of my Mike Trout pick, Brandon Warne took the recently betrothed Mauer and I was immediately conflicted about the timing of the pick. Like Weeks, Mauer is a force at a premium position when he’s healthy; like Weeks, he doesn’t seem to be healthy very often; and like Weeks, I don’t think any of his 2011 injuries will be a factor in 2012. Does that mean I think he’s going to be healthy in 2012? Boy…I wish I knew and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does.

Mauer’s injuries were a much bigger issue in 2011 than Weeks’ were, as he missed almost exactly half the season, about a month more than Weeks missed. If he had torn his ACL or sprained his ankle or had any other common, discrete injury, I honestly believe there would have been less interest in his injuries, but from the day the term “bi-lateral leg weakness” entered the baseball lexicon, he was doomed to intense scrutiny. That scrutiny and the lack of a clear sense of what his injury was made his worst season as a professional seem all the worse as it lead to further speculation about what his injury really was.

There is no question that his 2011 was disappointing, but Mauer — despite his reputation for fragility — has actually played more games over the last five seasons than Weeks has: 612 games for Mauer compared to just 562 for Weeks. That doesn’t exactly make him durable, but means that the two should be considered about equal when it comes to both injury risk and injury cost. Weeks may have a small advantage in the fact that he doesn’t tend to miss days here and there, even though he has spent more of his time on the DL. From a practical standpoint, it’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other, but that roster spot can be a lifesaver in fantasy.

Calling these picks good or bad three full months before Opening Day rings a little hollow. Between now and then both players could succumb to season-ending injuries, which would make the picks look beyond terrible, or they could make it through spring totally healthy and on the way to playing 160 games, we just don’t know. Instead, the question I want to answer is: Do these picks make sense?

As far as Weeks is concerned, I think the answer is yes. The fact that he does tend to either be on the field or on the DL does help owners game plan, since he’s rarely taking up a roster spot, but not giving you at least nominal production out of it. He’s a decent BA/OBP guy with good power and a little speed, though less than he used to show. Second base still isn’t a particularly deep position, so there’s a real incentive to gamble on Weeks if you miss Ian Kinsler, or Dustin Pedroia. On value alone, I think getting Weeks in the fifth is a really solid grab, and the fact that he’s fallen this far is something of a fair injury penalty.

With Mauer, I think the timing was good, though I’m less sure than I was with Weeks. I rate Mauer slightly more likely to get injured than I do Weeks, something that comes with the territory of being a catcher, but the reason I think this was a reach is actually just based on his production. 2009 was an amazing year to own Mauer or even just to watch him play, but there isn’t a single piece of good evidence out there to suggest that the power he showed season was anything more than a flash in the pan*. He hit 16 of his 28 home runs that season at the Metrodome, a park he no longer visits unless he wants to take in a monster truck rally.

His BA/OBP is definitely elite, but he clearly derives a rather large bit of his value from being a catcher, which is all good and well, except that the position is no longer as shallow as it was 4-5 years ago. In addition to Mauer, drafters can target Brian McCann, Buster Posey, Carlos Santana, or Mike Napoli and still get elite value, to say nothing of the next tier of catchers, who are also solid producers. It was not so very long ago that if you were in a 12-team league and didn’t get Mauer, McCann, Victor Martinez, or Russell Martin, you weren’t in very good shape. That’s just no longer the case. It’s not that I think less of Mauer now than I used to, the world around him has changed. If he gets his power back, that’s another matter entirely, but there’s no way I’m drafting based on the hope of home runs when I can wait three rounds, grab Alex Avila, and get a more consistent power source.

In the end, it’s probably little more than coincidence that these two oft-injured players ended up being drafted so closely, either that or the fifth round is just deep enough that people feel like taking risks they won’t take in rounds one through four. With both Mauer and Weeks, I’m more interested in their likely production than I am their injury history, since neither has a standing condition I’m currently worried about. I’d put money on both going on the disabled list at some point in 2012, but that isn’t enough to steer me away from what they’re likely to give me when they are on the field.

*If you really, really want to grasp at straws for a reason Mauer could have a power outburst in 2012, here you go: He tends to hit double-digit home runs every third season. To wit, his HR numbers starting from 2004: 6, 9, 13, 7, 9, 28, 9, 3. If the pattern holds, he’ll hit at least 10 bombs this season.