Sometimes low expectations can pay off. Exceeding those expectations, while not necessarily difficult to do, is all the more rewarding when it happens. Well, Mike Hampton may be just the guy who surprises everyone this season, and expectations for him at this point are anything but high.
Hampton has suffered through a slew of injuries over the past five years, with two of them requiring surgery on his throwing arm, and he has not pitched in the majors since 2005. Hampton underwent Tommy John surgery to reconstruct his left ulnar collateral ligament (the ligament that reinforces the inner side of the elbow joint) in the fall of 2005, forcing him to sit out all of the 2006 season. He returned to camp the following spring, only to tear a flexor tendon in his left forearm, for which he subsequently underwent surgery to repair. The flexor muscles, or the muscles that work to flex the wrist and control grip, are on the palmar side of the forearm, and their tendon -- the part that attaches to the bone -- inserts near the inside of the elbow. Strength of the flexors is critical to countering torque produced at the elbow during the act of pitching. The presence of a flexor tendon tear can be as equally devastating as a ligament injury. Hampton thus spent the 2007 season working to rehabilitate and strengthen his flexor muscle group in preparation for pitching again in 2008.
Could Hampton actually make it through to the 2008 season without a setback? We'll see. Although the throwing arm injuries have certainly been the most significant issue for Hampton, his latest ailment was a hamstring strain he sustained in the fall during his first outing in the Mexican Winter League. He had to be wondering what he did to deserve yet another injury as he attempted another comeback. The good news is that Hampton appeared to bounce back from this latest injury and came into spring training healthy. General manager Frank Wren told The Associated Press that Hampton was "100 percent" and he had "no restrictions going into spring training." So far, Hampton's performance has borne this out. He reportedly has been feeling well and looking sharp, causing manager Bobby Cox to describe him as "absolutely outstanding" to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer after Hampton's impressive two-inning outing on Sunday. Hampton told the Ledger-Enquirer the arm feels great,
but that he is still getting his legs back. He was able to mix up his pitches and throw primarily strikes, suggesting that not only is he healed so that he can throw without pain, but also that his command is back.
The question on everyone's mind, of course, is how long will he last before the body gives way to yet another unforeseen injury. Clearly there is no definitive answer, and Hampton has his baseball age and prior injury history working against him. That being said, there is no reason to think that he cannot be effective, especially since he is demonstrating such good control this early on after so much time away from the game. For fantasy owners, Hampton might be a value pick. Many will avoid him altogether, but he may turn out to be a productive player. It is unlikely he will avoid the disabled list the entire season, likely missing time with some type of muscle strain, but there is no reason to expect that he is destined for another major injury. After all, he has had plenty of forced rest while rehabilitating his prior ailments. Caution is in order, to be sure, but if you keep your expectations low, Hampton may surprise you.
Stephania Bell is a physical therapist who is a board certified orthopedic clinical specialist and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She is the injury analyst for ESPN.com Fantasy.