Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Late spring update on relief pitchers
By Stephania Bell
With Opening Day just two days, let's take a look at update some of the key injury situations surrounding closers:
An oblique strain may delay Brian Wilson's 2011 debut, but likely not for long.
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants: Wilson suffered a left oblique strain in mid-March, and it was noted to be mild at the time. When the Giants' star closer attempted to throw a few days later and was forced to end the session early because of discomfort, alarm bells sounded around the Bay Area (and around fantasy leagues worldwide). But let's remember, that test came only six days after the injury occurred.
For his part, Wilson indicated he wasn't worried. "I mean, I'd like to feel superhuman," Wilson told the San Jose Mercury News. "Correction: I am superhuman. But at the same time, to be realistic, at six days out, I'm not going to feel 1,000 percent." As it turns out, just two days later Wilson was able to play some catch without incident. Since Friday, Wilson has had several light throwing sessions which have all gone well. Tuesday's scheduled 8-10 minute bullpen session is expected to be a deciding factor. Throwing off a mound is more demanding on the trunk than throwing from flat ground, so how a pitcher responds to that progression is a good measure of his recovery.
If Wilson begins the season on the disabled list, there is no major cause for concern. Even mild oblique strains typically require a couple of weeks to overcome. The Giants could backdate his disabled list designation 10 days, making him eligible to return as soon as April 5. The most important issue for the Giants is having a healthy Wilson for the bulk of the season, not pressing him into service for Opening Day at the risk of re-injury. Surely fantasy owners can agree with that.
Update: The Giants announced Tuesday that Wilson will indeed start the season on the DL. It is likely that he will be eligible to return on April 6 when the Giants play the Padres in San Diego.
Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins: This was the pre-spring training Draft Kit entry on Nathan: Nathan's 2010 season ended before it ever got underway. A torn ulnar collateral ligament in March led to Tommy John surgery and he has been rehabbing his way back to the mound ever since. So far his progress has been smooth without setbacks and he is on track for spring. It typically takes a year to return, even longer to return to form. Nathan may get his first action in middle relief and work his way back to the closer role as able.
Now that we've had a chance to watch Nathan this spring, it appears that we're not far off the mark. First and foremost, Nathan's arm feels good. As is often the case with pitchers returning from this surgery, his velocity is making nice progress, but at times his control, especially with his slider, has wavered. Nathan has pitched several scoreless innings but has also yielded some multiple-run innings. The overarching impression though is that things are returning to normal for Nathan and he is gaining confidence as the spring progresses.
A key sign that the Twins are confident in Nathan's progress is that it appears they will use him in the closer role right away. But while manager Ron Gardenhire is pleased with what he's seen from Nathan, he understands that Nathan needs to continue to build endurance for consecutive outings. Consequently, he will share the closer responsibility, at least initially, with Matt Capps. According to Phil Mackey of ESPN 1500 Twin Cities, Gardenhire says, "We're going to use them both right away," adding, "I just don't think Nathan is ready to go three, four days in a row." Fantasy owners should be aware of the shared role at the outset -- probably for at least the first month -- but stay tuned as the spring progresses for Nathan to stake his claim.
Huston Street, Colorado Rockies: The news on Street this year is, well, there is no news, at least when it comes to injuries. Street has dealt with his fair share of ailments during his career, but 2010 bordered on the unusual. His season debut was delayed by a shoulder injury, only to be further delayed when he strained his groin during recovery. In July, he had a scary moment when he was hit by a pitch in the abdomen during batting practice and had to be taken away by ambulance. Street ended the season playing through a rib injury. With the goal of entering 2011 fully healthy, Street took to easing up on his offseason workouts and so far, so good. Now if Street can stay on the mound as the season progresses, patient fantasy owners should be rewarded.
Andrew Bailey had to visit Dr. James Andrews this preseason, but it appears he has avoided major injury for now.
Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics: Bailey underwent a minor cleanup procedure on his throwing (right) elbow in the offseason, the same elbow on which he had Tommy John surgery in college. Such follow-up procedures are not unusual and it appeared he was heading into the spring feeling good. Then came March 14. Bailey was pitching in a spring training game when he suddenly grabbed his elbow in pain after releasing the ball. A visit to Dr. James Andrews brought reassurance that it was just a forearm strain, but the lingering image was disconcerting.
Since that time, Bailey's return to throwing has been a little slower than anticipated (he began light throwing on flat ground just this week), but the A's are certainly not going to rush. Bailey is going to start the season on the disabled list and will be brought back through a gradual throwing progression. In the meantime, fantasy owners should temper expectations (in other words, don't count on just 15 days) and look for Brian Fuentes to get the bulk of the A's early save opportunities.
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks: Putz had a relatively injury-free 2010 after back-to-back injury-filled seasons in 2008 and 2009. At 34 years old, he brings the experience of a successful closer to the Diamondbacks but also the wear and tear of a veteran pitcher. Putz developed back spasms a couple weeks ago and has been undergoing treatment in an effort to ready him for Opening Day. So far, his progression back to the mound has been uneventful. If a ninth-inning appearance goes well on Tuesday, Putz expects to be ready for the Diamondbacks' Friday opener.
Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies: Lidge has dealt with injury issues at the outset of the last two seasons; make 2011 the trifecta. Lidge developed soreness in his right biceps in mid-March, which, by all accounts, was deemed minor. He seemed to be making progress as far as the discomfort in his arm when he developed a new and more concerning issue, pain in the back of his throwing shoulder, which happens to be where the rotator cuff musculature rests. The Phillies made it clear that Lidge would be shut down for a period of time, as is normally the case when the throwing shoulder is hurting, but the specifics are not yet known. Lidge is scheduled for an MRI Tuesday in Philadelphia but the decision to start him on the disabled list has already been made.
Lidge has proven in the past that he can start the season on the disabled list and turn things around, but those injuries have not been to his pitching shoulder. Shoulder ailments have wide variability in terms of recovery timeframe depending on the structures involved and the degree of injury, making it hard to speculate as to how long Lidge could truly be sidelined. The uncertainty alone should be enough to make fantasy owners wary.
Update: The MRI on Lidge revealed a posterior rotator cuff strain, according to ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. The Phillies have indicated that Lidge is expected to miss three to six weeks but according to GM Ruben Amaro Jr., Lidge will not need surgery to fix the problem. Late Tuesday, manager Charlie Manuel said he is leaning towards veteran Jose Contreras as his closer.