Injuries, the truth serum of sports

Injuries are the worst part of sports.

It’s not much of a contest, really. As infuriating as so many things in sports can be for those of us who watch — from mistakes by players and coaches to blown calls to angry debates about the commingling of athletics and social justice causes — there is nothing as deflating or heartbreaking as seeing another human being beset by a physical malady.

You hear it all the time: “Nobody roots for injuries.” And while that’s not precisely factual, reasonable people can agree that those who do are walking piles of fiery garbage and undeserving of sincere consideration.

All that said, in the course of a franchise, viewed from a narrative perspective, injuries can be expositive. The wave of hurt that has crashed on the Bay Areas’s baseball and basketball teams provides a vivid illustration of that fact.

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The Giants and Warriors have both seen a shocking number of players go down in the last few weeks — big names on both sides of the Bay, though probably bigger (and better) for Golden State. Even the Oakland A’s have felt the bite of the injury bug. In each case, we’re left with a clearer picture of the state of the franchise.

For the Dubs, a team ostensibly at the height of its powers and in the midst of a potential dynasty run, a collection of mild-to-medium hurts gives us an opportunity to see possibilities.

Nobody would have voluntarily accepted a series of Stephen Curry lower leg sprains, but we can delight in the progress of Quinn Cook and learn from the struggles of Nick Young. I wouldn’t wish Draymond Green’s “pelvic” injury on my worst enemy, but the emergence of Kevon Looney as a legitimate NBA contributor could benefit the Warriors in critical playoff moments, when they need options to counter athletic young bigs like OKC’s Steven Adams or Houston’s Clint Capela.

Injuries to, from left, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have allowed the Warriors to show off some of the team’s unsung depth. (Courtesy Golden State Warriors)

This speaks to a confidence that the four All-Stars will be reasonably healthy in those playoff moments, but it also reflects the overall health of the Golden State franchise. We believe the future is assured, in part, because we trust the Lacob-era Warriors to do whatever is necessary to maintain their level of excellence, but also because they’re at a central point in the life cycle of a championship-level franchise.

The Warriors’ stars are mid-prime and seem to get along swimmingly. They have done a good job of managing assets and adding youth despite their disadvantageous draft position, and the charming personalities of their players and front office principles, combined with perennial championship contention, make them as attractive a destination as anywhere.

Whatever happens this year — please don’t take that as a suggestion that anything other than another parade is likely — it’s hard to imagine the Dubs not being in contention for another title next season, or the season after or even the season after that …

The Giants, on the other hand, are edging closer to falling out of contention altogether for the foreseeable future. Their sudden physical breakdown — coincidental or not — paints that grim picture all too clearly.

It started with Jeff Samardzija hitting the shelf with a pectoral strain; that certainly felt like a bump in the road that could be navigated, given the possibility of a four-man rotation in the early going. But it felt ominous at the time, if only because Shark’s most valuable asset has arguably been availability — “The results might be inconsistent, but at least he’s out there every fifth day” — and things have indeed gotten much worse, with Madison Bumgarner losing time for a second-straight season, and Mark Melancon headed in the same direction.

These injuries, all to important members of the pitching staff, are an obvious detriment to this season’s prospects for a Giants team that never had much margin for error. But they also boost the volume considerably on pre-existing concerns about both the immediate and long-term future of a franchise that, in the most optimistic view, is nearing the end of a fruitful championship window.

When Samardzija went down, he was ostensibly replaced in the starting rotation by Derek Holland, who joined youngsters Ty Blach and Chris Stratton in an already shaky group. When Bumgarner, lumberjack hero to millions, took a liner off the hand, he was replaced by… nobody. We may yet see Tyler Beede or Andrew Suarez fill that spot — they could be active by Thursday evening if Melancon hits the DL — but the decision to go with a four-man rotation featuring three giant question marks and Johnny Cueto coming off of his worst season is very telling.

SEE RELATED: Samardzija injury puts pressure on Cueto to step up for Giants

Just as telling, perhaps, is the decision to send Steven Duggar to AAA for the start of the season. The story it tells is, “We need to win this year, and if we don’t, we essentially have to start from scratch anyway, so we might as well stick with veterans and push our future down the road a little further.” It’s hard to see the Duggar demotion as anything other than postponing the start of his MLB service time.

Heavens forbid, if the Giants stumble out of the gates with their depleted pitching staff and find themselves already out of contention by the All-Star break, what then?

Nothing they did this offseason sets them up for a better future. With the possible exception of Joe Panik, there is no position player on the Opening Day roster that could reasonably be expected to improve significantly. None of their young pitchers have shown promise of being a top-level starter so far, and the only position player in the system who seems close to being a major-league contributor is Duggar.

The Oakland A’s provide contrast here: The injuries to Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk are demoralizing, but they don’t appreciably affect the short-term or long-term future of the franchise.

Puk wasn’t likely to begin the season in the majors anyway. Without him and Cotton, the A’s still have a young starting rotation with several intriguing arms. Daniels Gosset and Mengden are both younger than Cotton, in fact. Meanwhile, both Cotton and Puk should be ready to pitch next season and could be a part of the future if they recover well. For a team that never saw this season as having any real championship possibility, there’s little actual difference. Their plans won’t change.

But if the Giants find themselves in that unfortunate position of staring at a lost season in June, they will be beset with big questions about the direction of the organization. The emotional connection to heroes of an arguably bygone era, combined with a lack of minor league depth and the pressures of entertaining a sold-out AT&T Park for 81 nights a year puts them in an impossible bind.

How can they sell the fanbase on attempting to compete in 2019 with yet another set of veteran bandaids to patch the gaping holes that have cropped up around the Bumgarners and Poseys and Crawfords of the world? They don’t have the assets to acquire true stars through trades and have always struggled to attract major free agents.

And yet, how can they sell a standing room-only crowd on parting ways with three-time champs to replenish a minor-league system that has run dry? Charming animal hats don’t sell themselves, and the Giants — as brilliant as they may be in the marketing department — know that Bay Area fans will tune out pretty quickly on a losing baseball team.

It’s a brutal reckoning lurking around the corner, one that these early season injuries have laid bare for all of us to see. With the regular season now beginning, every loss will throw the picture into starker relief.

Injuries are always awful, because only a monster likes seeing people get hurt, but when we zoom out it becomes apparent that injuries can serve as a sort of truth serum. For a sports franchise, injuries can expose what you really are — pictures painted in pain.

The Oakland A’s are a team in progress, able to replace one building block with another for now, if only to test the structural integrity of various options.

The Golden State Warriors are a whirring machine, willing to seize the opportunity to test some spare parts before locking the superchargers back into place for the big race.

The San Francisco Giants are teetering on the edge of a cliff, desperately duct-taping leaks as they try to get back on the road for one more sprint.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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