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Will they or won't they? Whenever the due date approaches for a player to potentially return from the DL, the natural ensuing question is "Will Player X return on time?" The follow-up, if the answer is yes, is, "What can be expected in terms of performance?" The follow-up if the answer is no is, "So when WILL Player X return?"
There are no guarantees in life but that won't keep us from taking a stab at answering the above questions for a few players of note.
Jayson Werth, OF, Washington Nationals: Werth has been sidelined since May 6, when he fractured his left wrist while attempting a sliding catch. Originally projected to be out for three months, it appears Werth will hit the target almost exactly on the money. Late last week, manager Davey Johnson hinted that Werth could return Tuesday night when the Nationals begin a homestand against the Philadelphia Phillies, Werth's former club. Johnson also told the Washington Times that Werth would not be activated until he felt ready. "I'm concerned that he feels mentally that he can go out there and not get hurt running around the outfield and having four at-bats," Johnson said.
It appears Werth does not yet feel ready, but he is close. Werth is back at Nationals Park on Tuesday and taking batting practice, as Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post reported, which indicates he could be activated at any time. While Werth's performance at the plate during his rehab at-bats has been less than spectacular, it is likely more an issue of regaining his timing than anything. Werth was hitting balls out of the park during batting practice before going out on assignment, an indication he could hit the ball hard without any discomfort. His play on back-to-back days suggests no unexpected pain, although he will encounter soreness as his activity increases, which may require intermittent rest. Adjusting to live pitching after being away from the game, especially due to injury, also takes some time. Regaining confidence is as important an element as any for a hitter and Johnson is understandably allowing his player to make a determination as to when that has occurred.
Expect Werth to rejoin his team in the lineup later this week.
David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox: Initially when Ortiz pulled up lame while running the bases in mid-July, the Red Sox hinted at a short absence. That absence is going to extend beyond the 15-day minimum, as Ortiz continues to experience soreness in his right heel. Ortiz is eligible to return Wednesday, but persistent symptoms mean that activation will not happen imminently. So when will he return? According to ESPN Boston, Ortiz summed it up this way: "I can't say right now exactly when I'll be ready to play, let's see how the process goes."
To be fair, that's about as honest as it gets. Clearly in a player of his age and size, with this not being his first episode of pain in the Achilles or heel area, there is concern about pushing too aggressively and ending up with a more significant injury. Symptoms sound the alarm, which drives the activity level when it comes to Achilles injuries, so as long as there is pain, the activity will be limited. The fact that he was having pain when swinging the bat as recently as Saturday and that his primary exercise is currently in the pool hints at a delay of more than a few days.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays: He has been on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham since last Thursday but only as a DH. And that's the role he will retain, even when he returns to the majors, at least initially.
While manager Joe Maddon sounds encouraged by Longoria's ability to get through a handful of games without incident, it is worth pointing out that he is functioning in a limited capacity. Before beginning his rehab assignment, Longoria told reporters his left hamstring was not 100 percent, that he still felt it doing defensive drills and that he was about as "ready as [he's] going to be" offensively. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the hope is that he will get enough at-bats to be comfortable potentially rejoining the Rays' lineup and then over time, work his way back defensively.
The bottom line is that what is not being said is no one seems to be targeting a full recovery, at least not right now. In fact, Longoria noted he was told he couldn't make the injury worse by playing. While that statement is puzzling, since there is always potential to strain the muscle belly of the hamstring itself, if indeed Longoria tore a portion of the tendinous attachment, that tissue often does not heal on its own and sometimes warrants a minor procedure to remove the frayed piece. While the team has not offered any specifics on the exact location of Longoria's injury, this concept would fit with the program that is in place. Longoria's ability to return would be dictated by his ability to function in the presence of discomfort, something he seems to be able to largely avoid at present by staying away from defensive drills.
If the Rays get his bat back into the lineup, they may be willing to work with whatever they can get from Longoria given the limitations of his recovery. This is one case where a return to play does not look like the same thing as a return to full health.
Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds: When Votto underwent surgery to address a torn left meniscus in mid-July, he was projected to miss three to four weeks. Halfway through that timetable, it's not yet clear whether he will meet that projection or not. The good news early was that he was quickly able to walk normally, without pain. But as is typical following even a relatively minor arthroscopic procedure, when it comes to resuming more aggressive activities, the process slows down.
Votto recently told the Cincinnati Enquirer that while he was running and doing agility drills, it was "not at 100 percent." He hasn't yet resumed hitting. He'll need to progress through all the straight-line activities, add corners and turns, and show he can react with quick, lateral movements and slides into base which, it's worth noting, is how he hurt his knee in the first place. That's a tall order for one week, perhaps even for two, which is why Votto is no doubt reluctant to offer up a return date. The unknown is how his knee will respond to each new rehab challenge. If any swelling or soreness occurs, the program is adjusted accordingly.
It's in Votto's -- and, of course, the Reds' -- best interest to wait until he is clearly ready to return before placing him back in the lineup. If he were to come back early, he would run the risk not only of stirring up inflammation in the joint but potentially straining one of the muscles around the knee. A forced second round on the DL could ultimately cost more time than postponing his return to play on the front end.