Eagerly awaiting several key returns

At the All-Star break, there was an All-Star team on the disabled list, proving again there are three leagues these days: the AL, the NL and the DL. But when the second half resumes, or by mid-August, a number of players will be healed enough to play. Those players' returns could affect several division races -- if not all of them -- if not the balance of power in the game.

Any discussion of injuries begins in Boston, where the Red Sox had 11 players, most of them significant contributors, on the disabled list at the break. But the news is finally getting better. Josh Beckett, who last pitched May 18 due to a back injury, was on a rehabilitation assignment during the All-Star break. He is expected to return next week, Clay Buchholz (strained left hamstring) before that. Each would fortify a rotation that, when healthy, might keep the Red Sox in the race for the rest of the season.

The news still isn't good with Boston's everyday lineup. Left fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (injured ribs) has resumed baseball activities, meaning he'll be out at least another two weeks. Catcher Victor Martinez might be out until Aug. 1 with a fractured left thumb. "It is getting better," Martinez said, "but I'm not sure when I'll be back." And, most importantly, second baseman Dustin Pedroia still could spend another month on the DL with a broken left foot. He has been taking ground balls from his knees and hitting while kneeling on a stool. He is dying to get back on the field.

"It will be a huge boost when they all come back," Buchholz said. "Pedey will be back three weeks before the doctors say he will. But I'm not surprised how well we've played [with all the injuries]. If we'd done it for 10 games, it would be a fluke, but we've done it for 50."

"If we could just get one back, there will be a trickle-down effect after that," Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester said. "It will be fun when they get back, but we've had some guys who have done a great job filling holes. There's going to be no room for them. That's sad to me."

The Rangers made the biggest move of the season last week, acquiring ace left-hander Cliff Lee from Seattle, and now Texas is hoping right-hander Rich Harden (gluteal strain) and young lefty Derek Holland (strained left shoulder) can get healthy and help the pitching staff down the stretch and possibly in the postseason. Harden will make his second rehabilitation start Friday, while Holland is a little further behind. Harden is going to have to show he can command his stuff if he's going to get a rotation spot when he returns.

"We have to see how many spots we have," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "We have a lot of arms and we have guys who are capable of throwing shutouts or going seven innings. It's going to be tough to figure out who is going to start and who is going to the bullpen. It's tough to crack that front five [Lee, Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter]. The good news is, if someone gets hurt, we have arms behind them."

National League contenders have even more impact players set to return. It all starts with the Mets' Carlos Beltran. He underwent surgery on his right knee in January and is expected to make his 2010 debut in center field and bat fourth in the lineup when the second half begins for the Mets on Thursday night in San Francisco. Angel Pagan, Beltran's primary replacement in center field, has played so well that he will at least initially switch to right field, pushing the slumping Jeff Francoeur to the bench. When healthy, Beltran is a terrific player. He could be a difference-maker in the NL East race or the NL wild-card race. But Beltran's knee likely won't be 100 percent when he returns, meaning he likely won't be the same dynamic player racing across the outfield or running the bases he once was.

"When he's healthy, Carlos can put a team on his back and carry it for a month," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "[First baseman] Ike [Davis] can hit wherever you put him, but with Carlos back, everyone drops down a spot in the order. His return creates a real good problem to have. We have four really good outfielders right now for three spots."

The Phillies have been hammered lately by injuries as well. Second baseman Chase Utley, their best player and team leader, probably will be out until Labor Day with a broken right thumb; he is irreplaceable, given the way he plays the game. The Phillies are expected to get third baseman Placido Polanco (sore left elbow) back as early as this upcoming weekend but no later than early next week.

"We're in a tough spot," one Phillie said. "We were having trouble scoring runs even with Chase. And now …"

The NL Central race might be decided by the health of injured pitchers. The Reds are hoping Homer Bailey (sore right shoulder) might be able to help them down the stretch, and they are really hoping Edinson Volquez, who has missed the past year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, can give them something.

The Cardinals' Brad Penny developed pain in his right triceps warming up for a rehab start, pushing back his expected arrival date until early August. Rookie third baseman David Freese, meanwhile, is nursing a sore right ankle and also likely won't return until early August. Right-hander Kyle Lohse (right forearm strain) likely won't be far behind, perhaps returning by mid-August. Not much has gone right for the Cardinals, but to be only one game out of first place at the break and with help on the way, they have to feel good.

The NL West race could turn on the health of Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (broken left wrist). Amazingly, the Rockies have not only survived without him for the past three weeks, they have thrived. He is expected to take batting practice at some point after the break, then go on a rehab assignment, making it possible he could return by the first week of August. Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez (strained right hamstring), meanwhile, spent the All-Star break on a rehab assignment; he is due back soon.

Now that Lee has been traded, there might not be big help arriving for many contenders through trades. That means help for the stretch run will come from healthy players returning from the disabled list.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.