Angels starters very close to returning

It's about time we started with some good news for a change. We have some key players close to returning.

Josh Hamilton is expected to return to the Rangers' lineup Tuesday night, completing a stint on the disabled list caused by a strained rib-cage muscle. Hamilton played in two rehab games for Triple-A Oklahoma City and sounds confident that he's completely healed, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he tested his ribs in a multitude of ways: "I swung the bat. I had to run from first to third. In the outfield, I had to throw. Getting out of breath and breathing heavy, that was good. So we're all good." Also, the Star-Telegram pointed out that Hamilton slipped in the outfield Sunday, landing directly on his ribs, but was able to continue without hesitation. Fantasy owners should feel confident that this injury episode is behind him.

Meanwhile, the Angels have to be excited that both John Lackey and Ervin Santana could rejoin the rotation within the next week. Both aces began the season on the DL because of arm injuries -- Lackey had a forearm strain and Santana had a sprained elbow -- and both have had quiet, uneventful rehab progressions. When we don't hear much about players while they're undergoing rehab, it's usually a good sign. That means they're moving quietly from one rehab phase to the next without calling much attention to themselves. Both Lackey and Santana have made rehab starts, working on increasing their pitch counts.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Angels will study tapes from Lackey's and Santana's most recent rehab starts to assess their readiness to return, but all evidence points to those return dates' coming sooner rather than later. And their uneventful rehab progressions make a good case for their ability to be successful upon their returns. The bigger question is whether Lackey and Santana will be able to last the remainder of the season. So far, there is good reason for their owners to be cautiously optimistic.

On that note, here are a handful of players I'm tracking this week in the world of baseball injuries:

Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves: Jones sat out Monday night's game as a result of a hyperextended elbow, but he expects to return to the lineup Tuesday. Jones told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he has been dealing with a "pretty serious case of tendinitis" in the elbow all year, and after hyperextending it during a strikeout swing Sunday, his elbow was "jacked up." Although the latter is not exactly a medical diagnosis, it pretty well conveys how Jones was feeling. Jones' injury history shows that he will press and play on through injuries whenever possible until he feels he can't perform as he should. In this case, Jones couldn't make the throw from third base to first because of the elbow, and therefore removed himself from the game. His assessment was that a little rest and anti-inflammatory medication should get him back fairly quickly, which is not an unreasonable prediction.

Jones' owners most likely knew (or should have known) when they drafted him that he is a physical player who is going to be dinged off and on throughout the season. Translation: He will miss games from time to time, but he has been fairly adept at avoiding the DL for the majority of his injuries. This incident appears to fall in the category of the one-to-three-game absences, but it's worth noting that the tendinitis has been bothering him all year. If he continues to aggravate it, this could crop up again. And next time, it could last longer.

Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Cubs: The Cubs have definitely been DL-challenged this year, with a new name seemingly added every week. Just when it looked as if Ramirez was recovering from a stiff back that had bothered him in spring training and, more recently, a calf strain that caused him to sit out a couple of games, he dislocated his left shoulder Friday night while diving to try to make a play at third. Ramirez summed it up perfectly to the Chicago Tribune: "Seems like I can't be out there right now this year. I've been hurt all the time."

Well, he's certainly right about not being able to be out there right now. A dislocated shoulder means at least a month of rehabilitation, and seeing as this was not a stable shoulder to begin with (Ramirez hyperextended the same shoulder during his rookie season in 1998 and aggravated it again in 2000), it likely will take even longer to restore enough strength around the shoulder to allow him to play with confidence. Fantasy owners need to plan on utilizing a replacement at least through the All-Star break.

Derrek Lee, 1B, Cubs: The good news is that despite his neck issues, Lee likely won't require a trip to the DL. At least not right now.

An MRI this week confirmed what was already known about Lee's neck: He has a bulging disc, which is likely responsible for the pain and spasms he has been experiencing of late. But the Cubs' decision not to place Lee on the DL can be interpreted as an encouraging sign, and the Chicago Tribune reported that Lee would return to the lineup either Tuesday night or Wednesday. The Chicago Sun-Tines reported that an anti-inflammatory injection was not deemed necessary and that the most recent MRI results "revealed no additional damage and nothing to suggest long-term injury."

While it's some relief to know that there appears to be no progression of Lee's neck problem on MRI, it is arguable that this injury is indeed long-term. Consider that Lee originally injured his neck two years ago and has dealt with this type of pain intermittently ever since. A disc problem is not the type of thing that typically goes away completely; it is more likely to be the type of condition that flares up from time to time. The treatment goal is to do as much as possible in terms of strengthening and stabilization to prevent the recurrence of symptoms, and when those symptoms do crop up, to manage them as efficiently as possible. Working in Lee's favor is the fact that the symptoms have remained localized to the neck area. In the case of a severe disc bulge, there can be accompanying nerve involvement that can manifest itself as numbness, tingling and/or weakness in the arm. The further down the symptoms progress, the more problematic and the more disabling they can be.

The fact that Lee is likely to return soon is definitely a good sign, and it is possible that this will be his only episode of neck pain this season. It is also possible, however, that these symptoms will return, if not this year then in the future, as has already been the pattern for him over the past two years. Fantasy owners need not panic, but it is worth being aware that this issue can linger beneath the surface.

Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox: Pedroia was forced to leave Sunday night's game early after straining the right side of his groin while swinging. According to the Boston Herald, Pedroia originally injured the groin earlier in the month, perhaps during cold and wet conditions at Yankee Stadium, and had been playing through it. But clearly Pedroia aggravated the injury Sunday night when, according to Pedroia's account in the Herald, his cleat "kind of got caught, and it was an inside fastball, so I tried to turn on it, and obviously it hurt." Manager Terry Francona planned to hold him out Tuesday but maintained that his return to the lineup Wednesday would be "very realistic."

Pedroia already has had one muscle strain this season, an abdominal injury that forced him to exit early from the WBC. Nonetheless, he was back in full swing within a few days and has shown himself to be not only tough, but also a quick healer. He spent much of the offseason doing intensive physical conditioning and that too might play a role in why his injuries are not as debilitating as they otherwise could be. Although there is always the concern of exacerbating a strain once it exists, Pedroia appears to have avoided serious injury thus far.

Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox: Will he or won't he? That is the question Youkilis fantasy owners have been asking over the last week in reference to whether Youk would be headed for the DL because of his "sore side." Here's the answer: Yes. This was a bit of a surprise. The Boston Herald reported Monday that Youkilis could potentially be available to play Tuesday evening. By Tuesday evening, the Boston Globe was reporting that Youkilis had just been placed on the DL. Apparently he aggravated his condition during batting practice, and the team decided he needed some extra time off. The move is retroactive to May 5 since Youkilis has been out of commission for a week already, leaving the door open for him to return in another week if he is truly healthy.

The exact nature of Youkilis' condition has been a little puzzling, but manager Terry Francona described it as a deep bruise that turned into spasms after Youkilis was hit twice in the back by pitches. Youkilis however told the Boston Globe that being hit by pitches was not the cause, and that the injury had actually occurred a couple of weeks prior, although he did not specify when. He also pointed out that the tightness he was experiencing was more in his side as opposed to his lower back. It now appears that the team is classifying it as an oblique injury.

Jose Molina, C, Yankees: Last week, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada was addressed in this column after being placed on the DL because of a Grade 2 hamstring strain. This week it was Molina who was placed on the DL because of a thigh muscle strain; in this case, it was a quadriceps injury. The quadriceps muscle, or quad as it is often called, is the large muscle group that constitutes the bulk of the front of the thigh. It is made up of four separate muscles that come together in a common tendon to attach at the shin. The quad provides the bulk of the power necessary for running, but in the case of a catcher, the quad is critical for maintaining the crouch position and being able to explode out of it when necessary.

The good news is that the team does not expect Molina to miss much beyond the 15 days. Muscle strains can be hard to predict, though, so we will check on Molina's rehab status again next week.

Joakim Soria, RP, Royals: The closer was placed on the DL because of a rotator cuff strain to his right (throwing) arm. Soria has been dealing with stiffness and soreness in his throwing arm for a few weeks, and attempts to give him a few days' rest here and there were not enough. At this point, the team has not indicated exactly how long it thinks Soria will be out, but fantasy owners should plan on some insurance at the closer position for the next month or so.

The good news is that an MRI has not indicated any specific damage. The not-so-good news is that the pain is in the back of his shoulder where the rotator cuff musculature is located. Soria last pitched Thursday, and although his shoulder reportedly did not bother him during the inning, the Royals' official Web site reported that he did feel it the next day. In the scheme of things, next-day soreness is less worrisome than soreness during activity and far less worrisome than constant soreness, even at rest. The Royals are taking a proactive approach in trying to provide Soria enough downtime to hopefully resolve the issue. Although Soria believes he can be back in 15 days, the team might opt to bring him back a little slower and place him on a graduated (read: rehab) assignment. Either way, the hope is to have him for the long haul, and that looks to be a realistic goal.

On the mend

Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter is inching closer to a return. He is scheduled to throw from a mound Tuesday, and if that goes well he will throw simulated innings, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Given that he has maintained his conditioning, the team does not anticipate a rehab assignment, and he could return as early as sometime next week.

Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang is scheduled to make a rehab start Tuesday. Wang, who clearly struggled at the start of the season, was found to have lingering weakness in his hip muscles following foot surgery, but it appears this latest rehab period has really helped him. Depending on the results of his outing, Wang might be able to rejoin the Yankees' rotation within the next week.

Daisuke Matsuzaka has had two rehab starts already and is expected to have another this week. Expect him to be back in the mix when the Red Sox return from the West Coast for a homestand next week.

Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero can hit off a tee now. This is good progress, but he still is not throwing. The Angels have made it official that when he returns he will serve as the DH initially. That could happen within the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

And finally ...

Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew could return either Tuesday or Wednesday from a hamstring strain. He played in rehab games the past two days and came out feeling OK. The slow progression appears to have worked, at least so far, and fantasy owners should plan on his being available very soon.