Injuries, illness disable Cincinnati in 2009 season

Published 4:13 am Tuesday, October 6, 2009

CINCINNATI — Carpal tunnel syndrome. Bruised chest. Sore shoulder. Bum wrist. It was only spring training, and the Cincinnati Reds were getting an idea of what was to come in ’09.

Couldn’t keep going this way, could it?

Yes, it could. Week by week, it got worse — much, much worse.

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The flu. Inner-ear infection. Debilitating stress. Shredded pitching elbow. Bulging neck disc. Concussion — wait, make that two concussions. Emergency appendectomy. Broken wrist — two of those, too. Torn shoulder. Locked-up knee. Broken toe. Sprained ankle.

A team with aspirations of breaking its longest losing streak in a half-century never got to see what it could do. Injuries and illnesses landed four-fifths of the rotation on the disabled list along with every regular position player except second baseman Brandon Phillips, who played through a broken thumb.

Wait, did we forget to mention the broken thumb?

Add that to the list.

Nineteen players spent time on the disabled list during the Reds’ ninth straight losing season, one that will stand out from all the others for the many bad breaks — figurative and literal — that never seemed to stop.

‘‘It was like, ’Dang, I can’t believe it happened again,’’’ Phillips said. ‘‘I’ve never seen that before. There’s always a first for something.’’

The Reds managed to overcome their injuries until they became too plentiful. They were 40-39 on July 4, only two games out of first place in the NL Central even though manager Dusty Baker was reinventing the lineup almost daily because of ailments. A 1-14 stretch that began in late July knocked them out of contention and left them to nurse their wounds the rest of the way.

‘‘Everybody was like, ’Wow, we can have a shot at doing something,’’’ said starter Aaron Harang, who accounted for the appendectomy.

‘‘Then all of a sudden, there was one injury and another injury and another. You get one or two guys back, and somebody else gets hurt.

‘‘It’s weird. You think about it and think about how much better we could have been if we didn’t have so many of these injuries.’’

By early September, Baker had morphed into a team nurse. When pitcher Johnny Cueto came down with the flu, Baker had the clubhouse cook make a batch of chicken soup with matzo balls — Baker’s recipe — to help him get through it.

But there weren’t enough matzo balls to go around this clubhouse.

The only upside was how they finished. The Reds won 27 of their last 40 games, the best concluding in the majors, and finished 78-84, four games better than last season. Of course, winning in September means about as much as winning in March when a team is out of it.

‘‘To tell you the truth, I really don’t know,’’ Phillips said, when asked if there’s any significance. ‘‘It feels good to win, regardless of the fact. But you never know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. When you’re out of it, you’re out of it.’’

Now, the front office has to decide whether it’s enough of a good thing to try to keep the team mostly intact for one more try. Given the economic constraints, someone has to go.

The years of losing and the economic downturn took a toll on attendance, which was 1,747,919, the smallest since 1986. The opening-day payroll of $71 million is likely to shrink a little next season, creating a big problem.

Four players — Harang ($12.5 million), closer Francisco Cordero ($12 million), starter Bronson Arroyo ($11 million) and third baseman Scott Rolen ($11 million) — would soak up two-thirds of the payroll, an unworkable situation. They all know that at least one of them will probably be traded.

‘‘You know that there’s got to be something that they try to do,’’ Harang said. ‘‘So it will be an interesting offseason. You just hope that they don’t break it up too much.’’

Cordero’s season made him the most trade-attractive of four. He saved 39 games in 43 tries, the fourth-best total in franchise history. But he’ll be 35 next May and is due $25 million over the next two years, limiting the number of teams that could afford him. He’s also got a limited no-trade clause. Arroyo, Harang and Rolen are entering the final years on their deals.

General manager Walt Jocketty wants to add to the team’s pitching depth, sort out a murky outfield situation and decide on a starting catcher for next season. Those four big contracts will present his biggest question in the offseason.

Given how the season played out, Jocketty would like to keep the team mostly intact — and healthy — for another try.

‘‘We never really had our entire starting club on the field,’’ Jocketty said. ‘‘I think we did more toward the end of the year now and kind of what we’ll be seeing in the future, and they responded well. That’s why we’re very optimistic about next year.’’