Commentary

Five key injury comebacks

Derek Jeter's ankle, Jose Bautista's wrist, Victor Martinez's knee …

Originally Published: January 28, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We're now two weeks -- yes, two weeks -- from Pitchers and Catchers. And best we can tell, every injury update you read these days goes something like this:

Joe Knee Surgery told reporters today he's feeling great, he's ahead of schedule and he's sure he'll be ready for (pick one) spring training/Opening Day/Dancing with the Stars.

Right. Thanks, Joe. Hey, of course all these guys feel great right now. They haven't played baseball in months. No wonder nothing hurts anymore. It's not supposed to hurt. It's January.

But it's safe to say not all of these prognoses will turn out to be as rosy as they sound at the moment. And not all injury comebacks are created equal. So to help you separate the baloney from the prime rib, we now present …

The Five Most Important Injury Comebacks of 2013.

Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

What's the diagnosis? Until July 17, Bautista was rolling along, second in the AL in homers and on pace for close to 50, when one swing wrecked his season -- and his team's. He damaged a tendon in his left wrist, played in just two games the rest of the year and needed surgery on Sept. 4 to repair the tendon.

What he's doing now: The Blue Jays report Bautista has been swinging a bat for more than a month and is now taking batting practice almost daily. But he won't face live pitching until he arrives in spring training next month. During a visit to Toronto nearly three weeks ago, he told reporters he was pain-free, had full range of motion and could play in a game right now. Which, of course, won't be necessary, since our schedule seems to indicate there are no games right now -- and none for another month, either.

[+] EnlargeJose Bautista
G Fiume/Getty ImagesAfter slugging 54 home runs in 2010 and 43 in 2011, Jose Bautista was limited to 27 last season because of a left wrist injury.

State of his team's optimism: As we mentioned, this is a time of year when nobody ever sounds worried about much of anything. So it's no surprise that GM Alex Anthopoulos says he's "very encouraged" by Bautista's progress and that "I fully expect him to be ready to start spring training." Anthopoulos says the team will "monitor him closely" this spring, but they "expect him to make a full recovery and be in our Opening Day lineup."

Reason to worry: If there's anything scarier than a wrist injury for a hitter, it's a wrist injury to a power hitter. "A wrist injury to a hitter is like an elbow or shoulder injury to a pitcher," says one scout. "And especially for a guy like Bautista, the way he hits. He's got exceptionally quick hands. And as hard as he swings, I think something like this is problematic. We've all seen hitters with wrist problems take a long time to get back to what they were. I'll be interested to see where he's at this spring."

Why he's on this list: On the day Bautista first hurt his wrist, the Blue Jays were 45-44 and were six runs away from leading the entire sport in runs scored. From that point on, they went 28-45, scored the fewest runs in the American League and tied for the third-fewest runs scored in either league. So no matter how many other upgrades this team has made all over the diamond this winter, he's still their most irreplaceable player.

"I think he's the guy who makes it go," says an executive of one team. "Even with everything else they've added, we're still talking about the best bat in their lineup, a guy who can affect all of them. So if he isn't right this year, that's a huge thing for that team."

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

What's the diagnosis? On one hand, Halladay "only" missed eight starts last year with a strained right lat (behind his shoulder) and took his regular turn from July 17 on. On the other hand, the red flags were flying from his first start of spring training until his final start of the season. According to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity was a career-low 90.6 miles per hour (down about 2 mph). He all but abandoned his four-seam fastball in favor of two-seamers and a much heavier diet of cutters and changeups. His walk rate (2.07 per 9 IP) was its highest in eight years. And even Halladay admitted late in the season he was never completely healthy, even complaining in September of "spasms" behind his shoulder.

"

Our guys know what he's meant to us, particularly in 2010 and '11. So even with the fact that he wasn't quite the same Doc last year, I think that feeling still prevails. … He's a special guy.

" -- Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.
on Roy Halladay                 

What he's doing now: Halladay threw off the mound for the first time Tuesday, and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. reports that session was "encouraging." Amaro says he was told Halladay's delivery "looked clean" and that he "feels he's farther along than he has been in the past at this stage. He's doing well." So there you go.

State of his team's optimism: Amaro has issued nothing but glowing reports about Halladay's offseason progress and has consistently shot down rumors to the contrary. "He's been working on different areas this winter," Amaro says. "When you've had success for a long time, you tend to stick with the same things you've always done. But what with the issues he had last year, he's changed some things he's done with his core. He's doing some different things with his shoulder. And he's worked on a couple of changes to his delivery to take some of the stress off his shoulder. He's doing very well."

Reason to worry: Halladay has launched 36,763 pitches in his career, the seventh-most of any active pitcher. And since 2006, only Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia have thrown 115-plus pitches in more starts than he has (46). Has that mammoth workload finally taken its toll? You'd be surprised by how many scouts believe that Halladay, who turns 36 in May, won't ever be the same. "You look at his age, for one thing," says one scout. "He doesn't throw as hard as he used to. So location is paramount. But his command wasn't the same last year, either. I'll be looking in spring training for better late life on his fastball. That's often the last thing to come back. He needs to have that extension and late life, and command, at this stage of his career." Yet another scout says, bluntly: "I don't know if we'll ever see the real Roy Halladay again."

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesWithout Roy Halladay in the rotation last season, the Phillies went 15-28.

Why he's on this list: We could have included Chase Utley and/or Ryan Howard on the Phillies' array of health worries. But here's why we didn't: No team in baseball has its fate tied to its rotation more than the Phillies. ("That," said one NL exec, "is what's going to make that team or break that team.") And no member of that rotation is more important than Halladay. Consider this: In the month and a half he was out last season, the Phillies went 15-28. A team that played at that winning percentage (.349) all year would lose 105 games. But when Halladay was in their rotation, they went 66-53, a .555 winning percentage that would have gotten them into the postseason if they'd won at that rate over a full season. Think that's a coincidence? Amaro doesn't.

"It's not a coincidence," the GM says, emphatically. "His presence is very important to our club. … Stuff-wise, both Cole [Hamels] and Cliff [Lee] are No. 1s. But I think Doc's overall presence, the way he leads by example, means a lot to our team. There's a feeling a team gets on the field when its No. 1 starter is out there that affects everybody. Our guys know what he's meant to us, particularly in 2010 and '11. So even with the fact that he wasn't quite the same Doc last year, I think that feeling still prevails. … He's a special guy."

Carl Crawford/Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

This is the first tag-team entry on our list. But it's hard to separate these two when assessing the state of the Dodgers' health. Don't you think?

What's their diagnosis? Crawford has been pretty much a physical train wreck over the past two years. First, he had wrist issues that led to surgery in January 2012. Then, he returned late in spring training, tore an elbow ligament and eventually needed Tommy John surgery on Aug. 23. In between, he squeezed in just 31 games and 125 plate appearances. Kemp, meanwhile, needed what was described as "significant" left shoulder surgery to repair a detached labrum on Oct. 5, about six weeks after he'd clanked into a fence in Colorado. But GM Ned Colletti says his center fielder had been dealing with "wear and tear" issues with that shoulder even before that.

"

Tommy John surgery is very successful in this day and age, especially for somebody who doesn't make a living as a pitcher. And we're talking about a player who, a year and a half before we traded for him, was one of the most sought after free agents in baseball, at a young age.

" -- Dodgers GM Ned Colletti
on LF Carl Crawford      

What they're doing now: The Dodgers report that Crawford began easing into baseball activities about three weeks ago. He's swinging a bat and has been doing some light throwing. Colletti says they're "encouraged" (there's that word again) by his progress and overall condition. And Kemp began hitting off a tee this month while continuing to strengthen and rehab his shoulder. He isn't expected to be ready to rock at the beginning of spring training, but he told the Los Angeles Times last week, "I'm not trying to be 100 percent for the first game of spring training. I'm trying to be 100 percent for the first game of the season."

State of their team's optimism: If Colletti is worried that either of these guys won't be ready for Opening Day, he's doing an excellent job of hiding it. In the long haul, he says, he's actually more concerned about Crawford's persistent wrist issues than his recovery from Tommy John surgery. And the GM's upbeat assessment of Kemp's shoulder went like this: "A lot of players have this. It's really from a lot of swings. When he ran into the wall in Colorado, that pushed him over the edge. But it's a common injury. It's just wear and tear on the shoulder. But they say once you have it done, it should be good for a very long time. It's not like a labrum issue with a pitcher, where a guy comes back and he can't throw as hard as he did before. This isn't even his throwing shoulder."

Reason to worry: Ah, but in Kemp's case, it wasn't just his shoulder that was an issue last year. He hit 12 home runs in April -- and 11 in the other five months of the season combined. He pulled a hamstring muscle in mid-May, blew it out again in late May and didn't make it back from hamstring purgatory injury until after the All-Star break. Then, he hit just five homers in 184 trips between his return and the day he met up with that fence in Denver. So after April, he had pretty much a lost season. Then there's Crawford, whose .711 OPS the past two years ranks behind the likes of Ryan Roberts and Emilio Bonifacio (who make a lot less than 20 million bucks a year). "He's not just an X factor for me," one scout says of Crawford. "He's a capital X factor. Not many guys have had multiple health issues like he's had, with Tommy John and the wrist problem. And they're counting heavily on this guy. To me, he's a huge part of the puzzle, with all the money they've invested in him and this team."

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY SportsMatt Kemp's season turned upside down on Aug. 28, when he injured his left shoulder in a collision with the outfield wall at Coors Field.

Why they're on this list: Do we really have to explain this? Baseball-reference.com is projecting the Dodgers to have a $217 million payroll. That's $60 million higher than the next-closest team in their league. Kemp is arguably the face of their franchise. And the gamble they've taken on Crawford is the most unique roll of the dice we can ever remember a team taking on any player. He had Tommy John surgery on Aug. 23. The Dodgers traded for him -- and the more than $100 million in salary he still had coming -- the next day. True, it was part of a much bigger deal and a much bigger storyline. True, he's no longer in Boston, where he looked like the wrong player on the wrong team at the wrong time. But the Dodgers still need this to work if they're going to be the team they expect to be. Right?

"First of all," Colletti says, "Tommy John surgery is very successful in this day and age, especially for somebody who doesn't make a living as a pitcher. And we're talking about a player who, a year and a half before we traded for him, was one of the most sought after free agents in baseball, at a young age. Now he's still at a youngish age (31), and we think he has a chance to be the player Boston expected him to be when they signed him. He should still be in his prime. And he's coming to a different team and a different situation, which we believe should be a plus for him." All we can say is, it had better be.

Derek Jeter/Alex Rodriguez/Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

What's their diagnosis? We'll take the easy ones first. Jeter is about three months removed from fracturing his left ankle, and GM Brian Cashman says he's "exactly where he needs to be." Jeter keeps predicting, extremely matter-of-factly, that he'll be ready for Opening Day. And how can you doubt him? He's Derek Jeter. Meanwhile, it's nearly 10 months since Rivera tore his right ACL while shagging flies in Kansas City. So by now, "he's 100 percent," Cashman says. "He's just rusty." But then there's A-Rod. It's three months since he first complained of issues with his left hip, in the midst of his disastrous 3-for-25, uh-oh-they're-about-to-pinch-hit-for-him postseason. But surgery wasn't performed until last week. So if he follows a normal recovery schedule, he isn't expected back until after the All-Star break. And even then, who the heck knows what he's capable of at this point. As Cashman himself conceded last week, it's at least possible, though unlikely, that he might be missing in action all season.

"

We've just got to wait it out and give him a chance to go through the physical therapy. But this is complicated by the serious nature of the injury. It's not an ankle. It's not a torn ACL. Alex's injury comes with a much higher degree of difficulty.

" -- Yankees GM Brian Cashman
on 3B Alex Rodriguez         

What they're doing now: Rodriguez is still recovering from his surgery, so he's only in the early stages of rehab. Jeter is finally out of his walking boot, Cashman reports, has been running on a partially submerged treadmill and was cleared to begin light fielding and hitting drills late this month. He won't do any running on actual land, though, until spring training. And Rivera has been throwing for about a week and is following a normal pre-spring schedule. He may even pitch slightly more than usual this spring, just to shake the cobwebs off. Then again, he has pitched a total of 11 official innings in the past two Grapefruit Leagues combined. So that bar isn't exactly as high as the Empire State Building.

State of their team's optimism: The Yankees have projected total confidence on Jeter and Rivera. And if you overlook their age, that's probably justified. Jeter had your basic fracture, with no complications, 15 weeks ago. It's a six-to-eight-week recovery window. The typical recovery time after an ACL surgery like Rivera's is eight months. So with Opening Day about 11 months after his trip to the operating room, the Yankees see no reason Rivera wouldn't be ready to pitch three to four innings a week by April. Even in A-Rod's case, they've been told by his doctor (Bryan Kelly) that his October issues were a direct result of this injury and that the "minimal" cartilage damage found during surgery was a best-case scenario. But the ever-realistic Cashman concedes that "in Alex's case, there are no guarantees. He had a very complicated surgery. With him, there's a lot more unpredictability than there is with the other two guys."

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesFracturing his left ankle in last year's ALCS opener against Detroit probably isn't Derek Jeter's favorite postseason memory.

Reason to worry: There's no such thing as a routine injury when we're talking about men who will be 43 (Rivera), 39 (Jeter) and 38 (Rodriguez) by the end of July. But age seems like the only real concern with Rivera and Jeter, because their injuries are essentially standard stuff. "If you want to take health out of it," Cashman says, "and talk age and say, 'When will the sun set?' I don't know the answer. Until they stop doing it, I can't really speak to it." In Rodriguez's case, on the other hand, "this is a serious situation," Cashman says. He'd never had a player who had one surgery like this on his hip. Now he's dealing with a player who has had labrum surgery on both hips. "We've just got to wait it out," he says, "and give him a chance to go through the physical therapy. But this is complicated by the serious nature of the injury. It's not an ankle. It's not a torn ACL. Alex's injury comes with a much higher degree of difficulty."

Why they're on this list: Why? C'mon. It's not real complicated. These three guys are not just Yankees. They might be the three most important Yankees on the planet. What's interesting is that, when you ask people from other organizations on which of these three this team could least afford to have disappear or decline, the answers are all over the map.

"It's all three," says an exec of one club. "Who's going to close for them if Rivera can't -- me? And suppose they had to play without Jeter and A-Rod. That's not a real good left side of the infield. You can't replace Jeter in any way. He's massive for that organization." But one NL exec says: "I'm not concerned about Jeter coming back at all. Broken bones heal more than shoulders and elbows and hips. And Rodriguez was already in definite decline. So for me, it's Rivera. Without [Rafael] Soriano, they don't have a proven closer if Rivera [isn't healthy]. And you can't win in New York without a proven closer, in my opinion."

One scout, though, doesn't even think Rodriguez belongs in this debate anymore. "They've had to survive without him for the last three years, basically, anyway," he says." But before we dismiss A-Rod, remember that this is a team that has waved sayonara to a group of hitters who combined for 101 home runs last year. So Kevin Youkilis signing or no Kevin Youkilis signing, it's a little too easy to say they won't miss a 647-homer man. Isn't it?

Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers

What's the diagnosis? Precisely one year and one week ago, Martinez was minding his own business, doing some simple preseason conditioning calisthenics -- and wound up blowing up his entire season, thanks to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He had microfracture surgery two weeks later. And he was initially scheduled for reconstructive surgery in April to repair the ACL. But Martinez's knee responded so well to the microfracture procedure, his doctor called off that ACL surgery. For several months last year, the Tigers thought he might even be back in time for the postseason. That never happened, obviously. But Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski reports Martinez's recovery has gone so smoothly since, "he doesn't have any pain whatsoever."

[+] EnlargeVictor Martinez
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesA healthy Victor Martinez could give the Tigers' lineup a tremendous boost.

What he's doing now: As the Detroit News recently reported, when the Tigers made the decision late last season not to push to get Martinez ready for the postseason, it enabled them to slow down his rehab schedule to make doubly certain he wouldn't have any setbacks heading into this season. So Martinez has gradually resumed baseball activities over the winter. He began hitting over a month ago. He has been running in a straight line for several weeks. And he started jogging around the bases last week. "Basically," Dombrowski says, "he'll be ready when spring training starts. I can't say he'll be 100 percent at that point. But basically, he'll be ready to go."

State of his team's optimism: Dombrowski admits he was nervous about Martinez's future after microfracture surgery. But now, he says, "we're past that point with Victor. It's been a long time since the surgery, and he's feeling really good." One result of Martinez's injury is that the Tigers have pulled the plug on his catching career and plan to DH him almost exclusively. "And I would guess," Dombrowski says, "that there's less risk of reinjury when you're only involved in one area of the game. But everybody has a risk of getting hurt, no matter what they're doing. He got hurt last year just working out. So you never know. But from what we've been told, and knowing his work habits and how hard he's been working … we feel comfortable he'll be ready to go."

Reason to worry: Microfracture knee surgery still scares front-office people across the continent, even though players like Carlos Beltran have recovered from it just fine. "Grady Sizemore never came back from microfracture surgery," says one NL executive. "And it took Beltran a really long time. And he's a better athlete than Victor Martinez -- and not as heavy. I worry about hitters who have any major knee problems in general. Your knee has a lot to do with balance and your weight shift. So you need it to be stable."

Why he's on this list: It's hard to call a player who didn't get a single at-bat last season indispensable. But that No. 5 spot in the Tigers' order, behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, is one of the most pivotal slots in any team's lineup. And last year, it was a black hole, manned primarily by the since-departed Delmon Young. The Tigers' No. 5 hitters ranked next-to-last in the AL in OPS (.671) and OBP (.284) and, incredibly, third-worst in runs produced (124), even though the two men who hit ahead of that spot, Fielder and Cabrera, finished 1-2 in the major leagues in most times reaching base. So "if this guy comes back," says one scout, "and he's the Victor Martinez, wow. That's one hell of a lineup."

"He's huge for us," Dombrowski says. "We already like our lineup. We think it's a good lineup as it is [without him]. But if we get him back, that's a situation where we'd put three RBI bats in a row together, and I think that's a significant difference. We never had production last year from the 5-spot on down on a consistent basis. Now, if we've got Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez 3-4-5, with [newly signed] Torii Hunter No. 2 and Austin Jackson No. 1, the top of our lineup becomes that much deeper and more dangerous."

Just for the record, in 2011, Martinez hit .330, batted .404 with men on base and was the third-toughest hitter in the American League to strike out. So as you'll see from our Honorable Mention section, we could have dropped a lot of names in this section. But why Victor Martinez? Easy. When healthy, he's a franchise-changer.

Honorable Mention

Among the many names who were extremely tough to omit …

• Brian McCann, Braves
• Chris Carpenter/Jaime Garcia, Cardinals
• Corey Hart, Brewers
• Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
• Neftali Feliz/Joakim Soria, Rangers
• Ryan Madson, Angels
• Joey Votto, Reds
• Chase Utley/Ryan Howard, Phillies
• John Danks, White Sox
• David Ortiz/John Lackey, Red Sox
• Johan Santana, Mets
• Lance Berkman, Rangers

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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