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Strasburg's status; Harden back soon

6/22/2011

It's mailbag time again! We're mixing it up a little more this week to include some of the questions that have come in via Twitter that deserve more than a limited number of characters in response. Thanks to everyone who has been contributing to the dialogue. Great thoughts as usual.

Dan Kukla (Carlsbad, N.M.): You mentioned in your injury blog that setbacks with back injuries, like the one Hanley Ramirez is dealing with, are not uncommon. Is this the type of injury that could linger all season or is he likely to be free of it sometime after the All-Star break? Really what I'm getting at is should we invest or avoid when it comes to Ramirez and his current injury?

Ramirez has been in the news this week, but not because of his back. With the attention focused on his benching by interim manager Jack McKeon and his interaction with his teammates, it's hard to know whether Ramirez is still contending with any discomfort in his lower back. His first outings after coming off the disabled list did little to indicate that his troubles at the plate were behind him. Now he has been moved in the lineup, and at least on Tuesday, his performance improved. Ramirez has not indicated how his back is feeling, but he also didn't say anything about it in the month preceding the episode that led to his disabled list stint. The risk for recurrence will not go away this season, but it does lessen the longer Ramirez is able to play without incident. Given his struggles, the turmoil and his injury, it would be wise to spend cautiously if you are thinking about making a move for Ramirez.

@ping33: 20 team H@H, currently in 1st, starting to think playoffs: Strasburg, worth stashing on 1 of 2 DL slots?

Here's Stephen Strasburg's current activity: In early June, he was throwing from a mound several times a week, averaging 30-40 fastballs per bullpen session, according to the Nationals' website. Changeups were recently added into the mix. Although this is encouraging, he needs to expand his pitching repertoire gradually to include his full complement of breaking balls (thrown later because of the increased stress on the arm); then there is the long road back to facing live hitters and ultimately rehab assignments. There is also the matter of building up to maximum effort when throwing. Each advancement in the pitcher's progression is predicated on success established at the previous stage.

Despite the optimism with his progress, it is important to remember that although the rehab progression after this surgery has general guidelines, it remains a fluid process, adapting at every stage based on how the athlete responds. For instance, when Strasburg was early in his rehab, there were rumblings that he could pitch in late 2011. Then in mid-April, The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore pointed out that at that precise moment, Strasburg was a week behind where Jordan Zimmermann had been in his post-Tommy John program. More importantly, as Kilgore noted, that comparison is actually irrelevant because every pitcher will return at the pace dictated by his individual healing process. As Nationals head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz aptly said, "No one is in a rush."

No one except fantasy owners, that is. The Nationals organization, however, understands the larger value of Strasburg and won't risk his long-term value for a few potentially meaningless games late in the season. Even if the games are meaningful, if Strasburg is not ready, he will not pitch. It's possible that if he's ready, he could return to get some major league-competitive innings, but that is not likely to be determined until that time draws much closer. For a fantasy owner who may well need the DL for other players more likely to provide significant contributions late in the season, those spots are probably better reserved for them. If you happen to have a wide-open DL (although it seems rather impossible, given all the injuries this year), it might not hurt to place Strasburg there, but be prepared to let go.

@gameofinches: When do you expect Harden to start pitching for the Oakland A's?

Rich Harden's return to the Oakland Athletics' rotation is rapidly approaching. Although no definitive date has been given for his return, Harden made his first rehab start for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats on Monday and had a great outing. He threw three innings and struck out six batters, a performance so encouraging that it would not be surprising to see him moved along quickly. Of course, the concern is whether his strained latissimus dorsi muscle will be ready to handle the stamina of being used regularly. Given Harden's health history, the concern is understandable. It's undoubtedly a risk-versus-reward scenario, and the A's, who are dealing with a multitude of injuries in their pitching ranks, may be ready to take the gamble very soon.

Quick hits

• Pitcher Jake Peavy (right groin) has been activated from the DL and is returning to the Chicago White Sox's rotation. He is expected to start Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs.

New York Yankees shortstop and face of the franchise Derek Jeter has been doing some activity at the team's complex in Florida. In addition to his rehab activities, Jeter participated in some long toss. Although the news prompted manager Joe Girardi to say, "He's going in the right direction," the team's website noted that Girardi expects Jeter to participate in at least one rehab game before returning to the team. It's worth repeating that the biggest test after a calf strain is running, especially pushing off when beginning a sprint. No doubt the team will want to see those movements in game-related action before it puts Jeter back in the lineup. ... Meanwhile, pitcher Bartolo Colon, nursing a left hamstring strain, has begun long-toss throwing. This is a positive step, but he is not a lock to return automatically at the end of 15 days.

• After being pushed back several times, pitcher Josh Johnson finally threw his first bullpen session on Friday, and according to the Miami Herald, he felt good afterward. The team continues to be optimistic that Johnson will return when eligible from his 60-day DL designation (July 16, after the All-Star break). It's still early, however, and Johnson has to face live hitters and some minor league outings before he'll be cleared.