- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIERA, Fla. — The “World Series or Bust 2013” campaign has begun. Spring training is under way for the Nationals. Pitchers and catchers have reported. Position players are showing up, too. There have been plenty of hugs, backslaps and get re-acquainted conversations.

Manager Davey Johnson’s “or bust” declaration has caught on and will hang over this team all season.

The Nationals won 98 games and made the playoffs last season. They have what it takes to win it all this year and they know it. It isn’t just crazy talk.

But there is one teensy red flag waving its small self as the team begins its work.

You hear the word “tear” in relation to a muscle and your first thought is “uh-oh.” Danny Espinosa has a torn rotator cuff in his left (nonthrowing) shoulder. Uh-oh. The choices were surgery, and a couple months of the season missed, or rehabilitation work to strengthen the shoulder.

Espinosa went the rehab route, though he admits to a bit of an uh-oh of his own when he heard the diagnosis.

“They tell me it is a tear, and you can’t repair a tear without surgery,” Espinosa said Thursday before heading out to the fields for some work.

“So I’m thinking, ‘Why are we rehabbing this?’ But once I realized we were rehabbing everything else around it, to stabilize my shoulder, to make everything in my shoulder strong around it, I felt great.

“My mind is at ease knowing my shoulder is healthy now. When it was hurt and I didn’t know what was wrong, going into the offseason and finding out it was a tear, it wasn’t the best feeling in the world. But my therapist and I worked hard to get it back to strength. I know I’m going to be healthy going into the spring.”

Can he stay healthy? Will the wear and tear of the season wear down the shoulder and leave him in pain again, render him unable to hit with any power?

Espinosa thinks he can last the season, as long as he puts in the time to do his maintenance work.

Dr. Benjamin Wedro thinks so, too. Wedro runs mddirect.org. He has no knowledge of Espinosa’s shoulder or work but spoke of rotator cuffs in general. They’re different from a labrum injury, which Adam LaRoche unsuccessfully tried to play through in 2011. It may be painful at times, particularly when he has to reach up to snare a line drive. But getting through a season with such an injury is not an unrealistic idea.

“Not at all,” Wedro said.

The website emedicine.medscape.com says, “In a patient who can achieve pain-free activities of daily living in the setting of a rotator cuff tear, surgical repair may be avoided.”

The “activities of daily living” are a bit more stressful on the shoulders of professional baseball players, though.

“I guess the good thing about it, I strengthened it so much and it is so torn, it really can’t get worse,” Espinosa said. “As long as I stay on top of my rehab and continue to do my maintenance stuff to keep it stabilized, I’ll have zero problems.”

Espinosa isn’t the first name people think of when they think of the Nats. Some may even think a couple of months without him wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. The team has a capable backup in Steve Lombardozzi.

The reality is, they’re a much better team with Espinosa playing. Just 25, he’s hit 21 and 17 home runs the past two seasons. Yes, he struck out a dizzying 189 times last season and not all of it can be blamed on the shoulder. He was only 1 for 15 in the postseason with seven strikeouts, much of which can be blamed on the shoulder.

He’s an excellent defensive player, and a 30-homer season isn’t out of the question. Sure, he’ll continue to strike out a good bit even with a healthy shoulder. But he’s a player who helps the Nats in the field and on offense.

Their chance of realizing their lofty 2013 goal is much better with him in the lineup every day. Healthy.

So they need to hope that shoulder holds up.