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MVP Hurt as Angels Get a Scare

Team didn't know Guerrero was playing in Dominican. Thumb injury is not serious.

January 08, 2005|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

A thumb injury that will sideline American League most valuable player Vladimir Guerrero for the rest of the Dominican winter league playoffs is not considered serious.

The Angel right fielder, hurt on a headfirst slide into second base in a game Dec. 26, was diagnosed with a sprained right thumb and is expected to recover fully by the time spring training begins in February.

Still, the incident threw a considerable scare into a franchise that did not know its $70-million franchise player was suiting up for the Licey Tigers until Guerrero was injured, and cast light on the considerable risks of playing winter ball for Latin stars -- especially those in high-income brackets -- and for the major league teams that employ them.

"I'm not sure what his thinking was," Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman said of Guerrero's decision to play in his native Dominican Republic without informing the Angels.

"I know those guys get tremendous pressure when they go home to play. They're heroes in their country and feel an obligation to their countrymen. I understand that, and I'm sure that was the case with Vladdy. He won the MVP, and this was his way of saying thanks to his countrymen.

"But at the same time, we have substantial dollars committed to these guys and the success of our club depends on them. Say a guy [suffers a career-threatening injury] and we can get out of the contract. That's only part of it. The other part is, how do you replace the guy?"

The Angels won't have to wrestle with those issues as long as Guerrero, who hit .337 with 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in to lead the Angels to the AL West championship in 2004, is physically sound when he reports to camp. Stoneman spoke Friday with Angel first base coach Alfredo Griffin, who lives in the Dominican, and was told Guerrero had already resumed throwing.

"He jammed his thumb on the slide, but he's fine," Stoneman said. "He's back to his winter workouts."

Guerrero apparently has not resumed swinging, though.

"My plan was to play full time with Licey in the playoffs and help the team defend its crown," Guerrero told an Associated Press reporter in the Dominican on Friday. "But until my thumb is fully recovered, I can't grab a bat."

Had Guerrero suffered a major injury that prevented him from playing next season, the Angels would have grounds to void his contract. According to Stoneman, players under multi-year deals who surpass certain "fatigue" thresholds for innings pitched or at-bats must have permission from their teams to play winter ball, and Guerrero did not obtain such clearance from the Angels.

Guerrero could have cost himself millions and the Angels could have lost one of baseball's best all-around players.

"If you're missing a player of that caliber, it's a problem," Stoneman said.

Had the Angels known Guerrero planned to play in the Dominican, they probably would have prohibited it, but "we found out [Guerrero] was playing right around the time he got hurt," Stoneman said. "We didn't anticipate him playing. All of a sudden he was playing, and then he jammed his thumb."

Though Guerrero probably could have returned to his Dominican team this month, he chose against it, not wanting to aggravate his thumb injury.

"I told Alfredo to make sure he tells Vladdy the GM is happy with him not going back," Stoneman said. " ... We'll have a conversation with him about the wisdom of playing down there."

Stoneman has had similar conversations with reliever Francisco Rodriguez, who played in his native Venezuela this winter and last winter against the Angels' wishes, starter Kelvim Escobar, who decided, after speaking with Stoneman, to bypass winter ball in Venezuela, and starter Bartolo Colon, who did not play in the Dominican last winter but has been cleared by Stoneman to pitch a few innings in the Dominican.

"There's risk attached to everything in this business," Stoneman said. "There's risks to playing winter ball. There's risks to saying, 'No, you can't play.' You look at individual players and try to counsel them. Certain guys, you want them to play."

Stoneman feared that Rodriguez, who will replace Troy Percival as the Angels' closer in 2005, would be at risk for injury after throwing 84 innings in 2004, going 4-1 with a 1.82 earned run average, 12 saves and 123 strikeouts. But Rodriguez emerged unscathed from Venezuela, compiling a 1.50 ERA in 15 winter-ball innings, striking out 30.

Stoneman had similar concerns after signing Colon to a four-year, $51-million deal in December 2003 and was able to persuade the right-hander not to pitch in the Dominican last winter. But after Colon struggled in the first half of 2004, going 6-8 with a 6.38 ERA, Stoneman reconsidered this winter and will allow Colon to pitch for Aguilas in the Dominican.

"He wants to get a few innings in, and I'm thinking, 'You know what? Maybe it's not a bad idea,' " Stoneman said. " ... Maybe in this case, he needs to work out and get his arm loosened up, so we're not going to get in the way."

*

The Angels have invited 21 nonroster players to spring training -- pitchers Dusty Bergman, Eric Cyr, Delvin James, Greg Jones, Cory Lee, Joel Peralta and Evan Thomas; catchers Ryan Budde, Tom Gregorio, Mike Napoli and Bobby Wilson; infielders Erick Aybar, Howard Kendrick, David Matranga and Zach Sorensen, and outfielders Brian Gordon, Nick Gorneault, Tommy Murphy, Curtis Pride, Chris Prieto and Reggie Willits. Pitchers and catchers will begin workouts Feb. 17; position players will begin workouts Feb. 22.

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