Keep an eye on these potential impact players

Originally Published: July 18, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

An American League executive predicts lots of exploratory phone calls and very little dish-rattling movement approaching the trade deadline, unless the Houston Astros suddenly decide to run up the white flag and make Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge available.

Given owner Drayton McLane's reluctance to concede anything, that's a major long shot, which means the pre-July 31 activity could consist of some Texas Rangers changing addresses here, a few Kansas City Royals moving on there and a round-the-clock Jose Contreras watch.

Translation: The excitement level will rank somewhere between Paris Hilton's release from jail and the audio version of the Joe DiMaggio diaries. ("Today, I spent $6.95 for a tuna melt with a side salad.")

The biggest news, in the end, might come from players who've spent more time pumping Advil than fastballs in recent weeks.

This week's "Starting 9" is devoted to big leaguers whose return from the disabled list could be a major boon for pennant contenders down the stretch. Sorry Yankees (Jason Giambi), Athletics (Huston Street) and Cardinals (Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder). At a combined 29½ games out of first place, you have some work to do before you're officially considered "contenders."

Pedro Martinez

Martinez

Pedro Martinez, Mets
1 It's tough to get a read on Martinez's comeback from shoulder surgery. While the Mets remain positive in their updates on his rehab, the team's recent decision to have Martinez take a one-week breather generated skepticism in front offices throughout the game.

"I'm not buying it," said an American League official. "They can spin it however they want, but when they slow down his rehab, that's a little bit of a red flag."

Martinez has been more a finesse pitcher than a power guy for a while now, so don't expect him to return packing 95 mph heat. He's shown he can be effective with a kitchen-sink repertoire, but at this point in his career, he probably doesn't qualify as a savior.

General manager Omar Minaya will troll for help, but the Mets don't think Contreras is better than what they have. If the playoffs began today and the Mets could run out Tom Glavine, John Maine, Orlando Hernandez and Oliver Perez, it might be enough to get them through a weak National League playoff gauntlet -- provided they hit.

That's why another recovering Met might have a bigger impact than Martinez. Moises Alou, out since May with a quadriceps injury, just began a rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League. He could add a dose of toughness to a lineup that one scout labeled "soft."

Alou has a knack for surprising people. Last year, he was so banged up and nonproductive, there were doubts he would even play in 2007. Alou rallied to hit .330 with a .727 slugging percentage for San Francisco in September. He can make a huge difference in a lineup when he's hot.

Joel Zumaya

Zumaya

Joel Zumaya, Tigers
2 General manager David Dombrowski has done his best to patch the holes in the Detroit bullpen, acquiring Jose Capellan from Milwaukee and Macay McBride from Atlanta in trades. The return of Zach Miner from the disabled list also helped.

It appears the Tigers have survived the worst. Detroit's bullpen posted a 1.48 ERA and held opponents to a .202 batting average in the first 10 games in July.

Better yet, the cavalry is on the way. Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, working their way back from the DL, played catch for 10 minutes Thursday in Seattle. The Tigers are still monitoring Octavio Dotel, Chad Cordero and the usual suspects, but a deal might not be necessary.

Rodney, out with shoulder tendinitis, should be back before Zumaya, who is targeting mid-August for his return from finger surgery. Among those who'll be watching closely is America's No. 1 fan, President Bush, who spoke highly of "Zumala'" in an interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech.

"If one of those two guys come back, the Tigers will be dangerous," an AL scout said. "If they both come back, they'll win the whole thing."

Curt Schilling

Schilling

Curt Schilling, Red Sox
2 Schilling takes offense at the perception that his winter workout motto was, "Make that one with extra cheese, please." He's even sparred with ESPN's Peter Gammons about his offseason conditioning.

We talked to several people who would know, and their assessments of Schilling in the spring ranged from cardiovascularly challenged to a tad girthy. So this isn't just a media invention.

By all accounts, Schilling has worked hard during his rehab and made encouraging progress from tendinitis in his right shoulder. He will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Pawtucket on Saturday and could rejoin Boston's rotation during a series with Baltimore later this month.

The Red Sox, with a sizeable lead in the AL East, had the luxury of taking their time with Schilling. If he returns with his batteries recharged, this hiatus might prove to be a blessing. A lot of people around baseball roll their eyes every time Schilling opens his mouth. But there aren't many pitchers you'd rather see on the mound in a big game.

Brett Myers

Myers

Brett Myers, Phillies
2 Typical Phillies: Just as they start to piece the bullpen back together, the starting rotation is a mess.

Tom Gordon returned from shoulder problems Monday, and Myers could begin a rehab assignment shortly. Throw in Antonio Alfonseca and Ryan Madson, and manager Charlie Manuel appears to have the last three innings covered.

The first six innings? Not so good. Jon Lieber and Freddy Garcia are down with injuries, Adam Eaton's ERA is approaching Kip Wells territory, and Jamie Moyer, at 44, looks worn out after throwing 100 or more pitches in eight of his first 12 starts. Rookie Kyle Kendrick, a desperation call-up from Double-A Reading, has been Philadelphia's second most reliable starter after All-Star Cole Hamels.

Manuel plans to ease Gordon and Myers back in slowly, and if all goes according to plan, look for Myers to eventually reclaim the closer's role. The Phillies have been adamant that they're not going to bend to short-term pressures and shift him back to the rotation.

Randy Johnson

Johnson

Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks
2 When you're 43 years old, have a history of back trouble and the combination of your name and the word "epidural" generates 16,800 matches on Google, it's not a positive sign.

Johnson, who has struck out 72 batters in 56 2/3 innings this season, limped off the mound in pain after his last start in late June, and he's determined not to rush things in his comeback. So he remains stuck on 284 victories, and Diamondbacks fans will be seeing a lot of Yusmeiro Petit.

General manager Josh Byrnes said the D-backs should have a better read on Johnson in about two weeks. Whatever Arizona gets from the Big Unit this year should be considered a bonus.

"When he pitches, he's fine," an American League scout said. "But he's a very risky investment at this point. I sure wouldn't put my money on it."

Randy Wolf

Wolf

Randy Wolf, Dodgers
2 The Dodgers, so desperate for an offensive upgrade a month ago, have responded well to the switch from Eddie Murray to new hitting coach Bill Mueller. They're working counts and taking better at-bats, and it's reflected in the results. They recently registered 12 or more hits in five straight games for the first time since 1995, and James Loney, Matt Kemp and the kids have given them some welcome energy.

But what about the pitching? After Brad Penny and Derek Lowe, manager Grady Little has been going with Chad Billingsley, Mark Hendrickson and Brett Tomko at the back of the rotation. General manager Ned Colletti is looking at starters (Contreras) and relievers (Octavio Dotel) in an effort to upgrade the staff and keep pace with the Padres.

Wolf posted a 1.48 ERA in May, ballooned to 6.15 in June, then went down with shoulder soreness. He's done nothing more strenuous than play catch, so it's doubtful he'll return until August. With Jason Schmidt out for the year after shoulder surgery, the Dodgers need Wolf to be productive to take some pressure off Penny, Lowe and the bullpen.

Juan Rivera

Rivera

Juan Rivera, Angels
2 The Angels rank fifth in the American League in runs scored even though they're 13th in homers. Vladimir Guerrero, baseball's new Home Run Derby champion, has gone deep twice in his past 36 games and failed to leave the yard in 68 at-bats.

Reggie Willits, Garret Anderson and the Angels' other five left-field starters have combined for three homers and a .383 slugging percentage. Manager Mike Scioscia could use an infusion of thump from Rivera, who's finally rounding into baseball shape after suffering a fractured left tibia in winter ball in December.

Rivera is taking batting practice, running, throwing and looking comfortable enough that an August return looks like a realistic possibility. He's shown enough that general manager Bill Stoneman, renowned for his cautious approach, will probably sit out the deadline rather than deal for a bat.

Bill Hall

Hall

Bill Hall, Brewers
2 Hall, on the disabled list with an ankle sprain, began running in the outfield Tuesday. He's eligible to return Friday, but next week is a more reasonable target.

Is this an injury that could linger?

"That's always a concern," Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash said. "One of the dilemmas with Bill is, we have no injury history with him, so we don't know if he's a quick healer or a slow healer. I would think it's going to be sooner rather than later."

While Hall does more running now that he's playing center field, he's also immune from the constant stopping, starting, changing direction and pivoting required of a middle infielder.

Hall's production is down markedly from last season, when he cranked out 35 homers for the Brewers. But if he can produce down the stretch, he'll give manager Ned Yost another power bat to complement Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. With Ben Sheets out for possibly six weeks with a finger injury, the Brewers need all the runs they can get.

Mark Lowe

Lowe

Mark Lowe, Mariners
2 Lowe, Seattle's fifth-round pick in 2004, showed lots of promise last year when he arrived with limited experience and struck out 20 batters in 18 2/3 innings. Then his career prospects took a downward turn when Dr. Lewis Yocum got him on the operating table last October and discovered his right elbow was essentially bone on bone.

Yocum performed delicate "microfracture surgery" -- the same procedure used to repair the knees of NBA players Jason Kidd and Amare Stoudemire and Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow -- and nine months later, Lowe's velocity has crept back into the low 90s. Since his slider still needs work, the Mariners sent him to the Double-A Southern League to work on his mechanics with pitching coach Brad Holman.

Lowe is a fine prospect, so the Mariners won't risk his future by rushing him. But Seattle's bullpen has logged the fourth-biggest workload in the American League, and the Mariners could use another power arm in front of J.J. Putz.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer