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Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Updated: August 22, 2:02 PM ET
High-risk, high-upside injury returns

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Roger Clemens is attempting a comeback.

Pardon me for a moment, I need to redo the "Sixty Feet, Six Inches" rankings and squeeze him in on one of the higher tiers.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Wait, what? He's 50?

Never mind, then. Clemens' "comeback" makes about as much sense as the no-out, two-on sacrifice bunt, but at least he picked the right week to announce it, considering this week is chock full of other, more relevant comeback stories.

There's a key difference, though: Clemens' comeback is straight off his couch, while the six pitchers below are returning from injuries. In compiling this week's rankings, I noticed that the majority of risers came from this group, the pitchers recently (or soon to be) activated from the DL. What better time to discuss their individual outlooks? Call it an extended "Three up," with every one of these six pitchers likely to be fantasy-relevant the rest of the way.

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees: He's the name you've become used to seeing in the top 10, but after two disabled list stints, with a mere 25 days of active status in between, Sabathia's health has become a question for the first time in years. Although it was a groin problem that originally sidelined him for 18 days in early July, it's elbow stiffness that has him on the shelf this time.

Fortunately for Sabathia, he's scheduled to return Friday at Cleveland, representing a minimum stay, and as colleague Stephania Bell noted at the time of his most recent DL placement, Sabathia's lack of a history of elbow issues -- as well as the fact that the injury itself wasn't in the inner part of the joint -- somewhat eases the concern. However, the Yankees, currently four games up in the American League East race and boasting a magic number of 35 to clinch a playoff spot, might go easy on Sabathia for the remainder of the regular season. He has averaged 7.00 innings per start during his Yankees career, but expect something closer to 6.50 going forward, yet with similar production to his 3.24 ERA and 1.19 WHIP for the team. Volume alone, though, explains why he's ranked 16th rather than, say, ninth.

Sabathia's remaining schedule (8 starts): Fri 8/24 @CLE; Wed. 8/29 TOR; Tue. 9/4 @TB; Sun. 9/9 @BAL; Sat. 9/15 TB; Fri. 9/21 OAK; Wed. 9/26 @MIN; Mon. 10/1 BOS.

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: His might be the boldest ranking of the recovering starters, considering he hasn't taken the hill since June 11. But at the time he got hurt, Morrow was performing as a better-than-his-No. 34-ranking starting pitcher, and his stat line in five rehabilitation starts includes a 2.21 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 20 1/3 innings. He's tentatively scheduled to return to the Blue Jays' rotation either Friday or Saturday at Baltimore.

Now the question becomes: Will the pre-injury 2012 Morrow, the one who traded velocity and strikeouts for command and a few extra grounders, be the one who returns, or will it be the lots of K's but lots of walks model from 2010 and 2011? Morrow's 0.58 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio during his rehab sure looks more like the 0.71 mark he posted in 2011 than the 0.88 he had earlier in 2012, though his 2.66 walks-per-nine innings ratio looks much more like his 2.78 number of early 2012 than his 3.46 number in 2011. The answer is probably in between, but I'm leaning more upon the walk rate and saying he'll pick up where he left off.

Morrow's remaining schedule (8 starts; assumes he pitches Friday, not Saturday): Fri. 8/24 @BAL; Wed. 8/29 @NYY; Mon. 9/3 BAL; Sun. 9/9 @BOS; Sat. 9/15 BOS; Fri. 9/21 @TB; Wed. 9/26 @BAL; Mon. 10/1 MIN.

Jamie Garcia
The Cardinals' Jaime Garcia looked good Sunday in his return from a shoulder injury.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: With Garcia, we have the advantage of a post-DL stint start in the bank, and what a start it was: eight innings, 10 strikeouts, no walks, no earned runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Most importantly, his fastball averaged its highest velocity in any single start of his season (89.0 mph), and his changeup was responsible for three of his 10 strikeouts, a season high, and generated seven of his 14 swings and misses. He looked like the Garcia of old, able to change speeds, get a decent number of swings and misses and generate a healthy number of ground balls (12 out of 18 balls in play).

Granted, the Pirates as a team have struck out the third-most often since the All-Star break, but that serves more to explain Garcia's better-than-a-K-per-inning performance than it should cause us to discard it. The Pirates, after all, have hit the second-most homers since the break (46), so it's not like it's the easiest matchup anymore. Expect future Garcia outings to fall into more of a 5-K's-in-7-innings line, but he has earned a rankings restoration to near his preseason average draft position (44th among starting pitchers, on average).

Garcia's remaining schedule (8 starts): Sat. 8/25 @CIN; Thu. 8/30 @WAS; Tue. 9/4 NYM; Mon. 9/10 @SD; Sat. 9/15 @LAD; Fri. 9/21 @CHC; Wed. 9/26 @HOU; Tue 10/2 CIN.

Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves: He met the quality start minimums in his first start back from the DL against a Los Angeles Dodgers team sporting Victorino, Kemp, Ethier and Ramirez, meaning that was hardly a cakewalk matchup. Still, Hanson's velocity continues to hover under 90 mph -- he averaged 92.6 in 2010 -- and this is the second consecutive season in which he made a trip to the DL after the All-Star break. Couple that with his taxing delivery, and there are legitimate concerns as to whether he's injury-prone.

Hanson's stuff is of high-enough quality to justify his ranking, but that rank is still a couple of tiers beneath either his 2011 or 2012 ADP value. Part of that accounts for his rising walk rate. Part of it accounts for the risk he'll get hurt again.

Hanson's remaining schedule (8 starts; assumes five-man rotation beginning Aug. 31): Thu. 8/23 @SF; Wed. 8/29 @SD; Tue. 9/4 COL; Sun 9/9 @NYM; Sat. 9/15 WAS; Fri. 9/21 @PHI; Thu. 9/27 @MIA; Tue. 10/2 @PIT.

Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee Brewers: His anticipated return date is the haziest of the bunch, but based upon the one run he allowed in six innings in a rehabilitation start Monday for Class A Wisconsin, Marcum should return either Saturday or Sunday at Pittsburgh. The latter would give him back-to-back turns against the strikeout-happy Pirates, so he might warrant a look in start No. 2, the home game, but he'll bear careful attention this weekend either way.

Though Marcum's two-month absence for elbow tightness raises questions about his health looking forward, his 3.33 K-to-walk ratio in 12 2/3 innings in three rehab starts for Wisconsin compares favorably to his 2.67 career number in the big leagues. Just look at his remaining schedule below and say you don't think he might even be under-ranked this week.

Marcum's remaining schedule (8 starts; assumes he takes Mark Rogers' spot beginning Sunday): Sun 8/26 @PIT; Fri. 8/31 PIT; Wed. 9/5 @MIA; Mon. 9/10 ATL; Sun. 9/16 NYM; Sat. 9/22 @WAS; Thu. 9/27 @CIN; Tue. 10/2 SD.

Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: He's the latest Tommy John returnee, having gone under the knife July 14, 2011, meaning his return to the Athletics' rotation Tuesday comes exactly one year, one month and one week later. Anderson's rehabilitation, however, is hardly complete. The comeback trail from such an injury is lengthy, with many pitchers needing several months of big league action to recapture their pre-surgery form, and most face an innings cap in the first full season following their return to action.

Anderson's rehabilitation-stint statistics aren't overwhelming: He had a 4.62 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 25 1/3 innings spread across six starts, though in his defense he had a 1.78 walks-per-nine innings and 1.40 groundout to air out ratio, which are within range of the 2.31 and 1.46 numbers he posted as a 30-start regular in 2009. He also has been heralded as one of the game's better up-and-coming left-handers, and at 24 years old has tons of career remaining. Anderson might be 2012's late-season low-end helper, a la Tim Hudson in 2009, Jordan Zimmermann in 2010 and Stephen Strasburg in 2011. Here's how those three fared in their brief late-season stints immediately following Tommy John surgery: 19 total starts, 5.12 innings per start, 3.51 ERA, 1.23 WHIP.

Anderson's remaining schedule (9 starts; assumes he's replacing Dan Straily in a five-man rotation): Tue. 8/21 MIN; Mon. 8/27 @CLE; Sat. 9/1 BOS; Fri. 9/7 @SEA; Wed. 9/12 @LAA; Tue. 9/18 @DET; Sun. 9/23 @NYY; Fri. 9/28 SEA; Wed. 10/3 TEX.

Streamer's delight

Among streaming starter options -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent or fewer of ESPN leagues -- for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:

Tuesday, August 21: Scott Feldman versus Baltimore Orioles
Wednesday, August 22: Hisashi Iwakuma versus Cleveland Indians
Thursday, August 23: Bartolo Colon at Tampa Bay Rays (another weak day for streaming options)
Friday, August 24: Patrick Corbin versus San Diego Padres
Saturday, August 25: Jose Quintana versus Seattle Mariners
Sunday, August 26: Lucas Harrell at New York Mets
Monday, August 27: Bronson Arroyo at Arizona Diamondbacks

Past picks

Tuesday, August 14: Lucas Harrell -- W, QS, 8 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
Wednesday, August 15: Justin Germano -- W, QS, 6 1/3 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Thursday, August 16: Kris Medlen -- W, QS, 9 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K
Friday, August 17: Hisashi Iwakuma -- W, QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Saturday, August 18: Patrick Corbin -- W, 7 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Sunday, August 19: Clayton Richard -- W, QS, 8 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
Monday, August 20: Joe Saunders -- 3 2/3 IP, 12 H, 9 ER, 0 BB, 2 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 6 W (85.7%), 5 QS (71.4%), 49 IP, 44 H, 16 ER, 5 BB, 33 K, 2.94 ERA, 1.00 WHIP
Season total: 126 GS, 57 W (45.2%), 68 QS (54.0%), 767 1/3 IP, 731 H, 327 ER, 246 BB, 568 K, 3.84 ERA, 1.27 WHIP

Three up

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers: He has won six consecutive starts since the All-Star break -- five of them were quality starts -- and has a 1.30 ERA that ranks second among qualified starters during that span. Control has been a plus; he has allowed two or fewer walks in each of his past eight starts, which is a career-best streak for him. Billingsley also has limited left-handed hitters to a .118 batting average against his offspeed pitches since the break, throwing 76 of his 87 offspeed offerings low, away or both, per ESPN Stats & Information, and he has thrown a pitch in the zone 64 percent of the time in two- or three-ball counts since the break, up from 54 percent before the break. Whether he can sustain this both through year's end and into 2013 is unclear -- the guess is that he probably can't -- but for now he's well worth having active every time out.

Matt Harvey, New York Mets: He continues to impress in his Mets audition; three of his past four outings have been quality starts, and he has a 10.20 K's-per-nine ratio despite four of his five starts thus far coming in road games. During his brief big league career, Harvey has generated misses on 29 percent of hitters' swings, the sixth-best rate of any qualified starting pitcher since his July 26 big league debut. Evidently, he has swing-and-miss stuff at this level, and although opponents eventually might catch up to him, there's no hint that it's imminent.

Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: He flourished during the first two months of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but while he faded thereafter in 2011, he has actually improved in performance since the All-Star break this season. Six of his past seven outings have been quality starts, and he has a 2.17 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 2.83 K-to-walk ratio since the break, every one of those numbers right in line with (or better than) his year-to-date numbers and substantially improved upon any single past season in his big league career. Four and a half months of season represents a sizable enough sample that Lohse can safely be declared an every-start pitcher from this point forward.

Three down

Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Angels: The return to the American League hasn't gone smoothly for Greinke; he's another big-name player who has struggled initially as a result of leaving the National League Central for the Angels (see Pujols, Albert). Like Pujols, Greinke might eventually return to his high-strikeout, low-WHIP ways, but it's troubling that he has now gone four consecutive starts of allowing four runs or more, the longest such streak in his career, per ESPN Stats & Information. His strikeout rate is down -- he has averaged 7.88 per nine with the Angels, down from 8.93 with the Brewers -- and his walk rate is up (3.66 per nine with the Angels compared to 2.05 with the Brewers). That quells much of the FIP argument in Greinke's favor from earlier in the year; more walks and fewer K's adversely impact a pitcher's FIP.

Dan Haren, Angels: Here we go again. Haren, who surrendered 10 earned runs on 12 hits in seven innings combined in home games against the Rays and Mariners, has been pushed back in the Angels' rotation, as whispers have begun that they might soon consider a four-man rotation, with him excluded. The move was explained, per the Los Angeles Times, as an opportunity for the right-hander to throw several bullpen sessions to improve his release point and clean up mechanical issues caused when he was trying to pitch through a back injury. Considering Haren's season-long struggles, however, those issues hardly seem like an overnight fix.

Johan Santana, New York Mets: Speaking of whispers, now some have surfaced that the Mets might consider shutting down Santana, who is in his first season back from capsule surgery, following the Sept. 1 roster expansion. He hasn't had a quality start since June 30, a span of five starts, and he hasn't recorded more than 15 outs (five full innings) once during that time, either. Santana's 117 innings and 21 starts for the season might not seem like much, but they're not necessarily easy for a 33-year-old who didn't throw a pitch in 2011. Consider formulating a contingency plan now if you're a Santana owner.