Commentary

Huge health issues to watch closely

Mauer, Hamels and A-Rod among the list of players on disabled list to begin season

Originally Published: April 9, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't always the best team that wins the World Series. It's the healthiest.

We think it was Branch Rickey who said that. But possibly Dr. Jonas Salk. Or maybe even our grandmother.

But whatever, we know it's true. So with that in mind, here are five huge health stories we'd advise you to watch verrrrry closely in April:

Joe Mauer
Mauer

Joe Mauer

The prognosis: As we wrote last month, this is one of the most baffling baseball "injuries" in a long time. It isn't as if Mauer hurt his back this spring while playing. He showed up at spring training and wasn't able to do much of anything, while the medical staff worked nonstop to try to figure out what was wrong and what to do about it. About all the Twins have been willing to disclose is that he has inflammation in the right sacroiliac joint, a rare condition for a 25-year-old athlete who'd been off all winter. But they're providing almost no other details about his rehab, and they're intentionally dodging all timetables. So will he be back by May or September? We'd bet sooner over later, but who the heck knows?

Stephania Bell's take: ESPN's injury guru has been out front of this story for weeks, and she continues to describe Mauer's condition as "highly unusual." She told Rumblings she remains skeptical about reports of "progress," with no real details to support those reports. "You hear how much better he feels on this new medication," Bell said. "But he hasn't really put any stress on the area, either -- maybe that's why he feels better. When he runs and it doesn't bother him, then I'll start paying attention."

Can the Twins survive: Mauer is about as irreplaceable as any player alive. He ranked No. 12 last year on Baseball Prospectus' WARP list, where he was rated as being worth 9.6 more wins to his team than an average replacement. Mike Redmond, who will log most of the shin-guard duty while Mauer is out (if healthy himself), got a 0.6 WARP rating, last among position players who spent all season with the Twins. "You can't replace that guy, for their lineup," one scout said of Mauer. "Defensively, there are catchers out there who can do the same things he does. It's the offense part they'll miss -- what he does and who he protects in that lineup. If he's out six weeks, they're in trouble."

John Lackey/Ervin Santana/Kelvim Escobar

The prognosis: The Angels have more than baseball issues to deal with, clearly, in the wake of Nick Adenhart's tragic death. But the toughest part of tragedies like this is that the baseball part of Adenhart's absence has to be dealt with, too. And it doesn't help any that the Angels' three most dominating starters all began the season on the disabled list. If things go well, all three could be back by sometime next month.

Kelvim Escobar
Escobar

Ervin Santana
Santana

John Lackey
Lackey

But the L.A. Times reports that Escobar has already had a setback, even though it doesn't appear serious. And Lackey has just started playing catch, after receiving a cortisone shot for elbow inflammation. Santana, meanwhile, has a partial tear of the dreaded ulnar collateral ligament. He's expected to resume throwing off the mound by this weekend. So they're all essentially on track. But there are also danger signs for all three. Escobar is a guy who has had both shoulder and elbow surgery, and has spent nearly 350 days on the DL, since 2005. Lackey has now missed Opening Day with the same elbow injury two straight years. And no one knows whether Santana can be himself with a damaged ligament.

Stephania Bell's take: For the most part, Bell told Rumblings, all three of these guys are doing well. Escobar was so far ahead of schedule anyway that Bell said she's "not terribly worried" about his setback. But in Lackey's case, a second straight year of the same elbow issue "does not bode well," she said. "I think he'll make it back, but I think he's showing signs of his pitching age." And as for Santana, a lot of pitchers are able to pitch with his condition. "But even if he does," Bell said, "you know that the [ligament] damage is lurking in the background." So watch this guy's progress carefully.

Can the Angels survive: The big difference between the Angels' situation last April, when they went 15-11 with Lackey and Escobar out, and this April is this: There's no Ervin Santana-type talent to gallop to the rescue this year. So they need their big guns to come back. "The guys they're plugging in there … are just fifth starters," said one scout. "I don't see any impact arms in this group. It's a lot different than a team like Tampa Bay, which can go get David Price or Wade Davis if somebody goes down." So if Lackey and Santana are out, or even not themselves, for much of the year, "I would say that division becomes wide open," said another scout. "Their offense isn't the same without [Mark] Teixeira. So if they lost both [starters], they're not the favorite anymore. They're just one of four teams."

Ryan Braun
Braun

Trevor Hoffman
Hoffman

Ryan Braun/Trevor Hoffman

The prognosis: The good news is, Braun is back playing, after another flare-up of his pesky oblique issues, and he went 4-for-8 in his first two games of the season. The bad news is, this is the second straight year he's been bothered by the same injury. The worse news is, Hoffman has been shut down, also with an oblique strain, for the past three weeks, and is only now ready to do anything more strenuous than playing catch. So about the earliest he could be back is late April.

Stephania Bell's take: Bell told Rumblings she's "concerned" about Braun's injury, because it "was there last year -- and it gets aggravated by swinging the bat," which happens to be what he does for a living. Braun has proven he can, and will, play through it, "but obviously, it's been an issue through the spring," she said, "and I suspect it will continue to be -- at least off and on." Meanwhile, in the big picture, Bell said Hoffman's outlook is good. But what makes his injury unusual is that it's on his right [throwing] side. "This is the less commonly injured side for a pitcher," Bell said, "so it may be easier for him to get back. But it's also a bit odd that it happened. His age works against him, but generally, I'm not overly worried."

Can the Brewers survive: Baseball Prospectus ranked Braun third among all NL Central players on the WARP list last year, behind only Albert Pujols and (surprise) Ryan Ludwick -- and calculated Braun was worth 8.2 more wins than an average replacement. But this year, he might be even more irreplaceable, because "that pitching staff is really ordinary, without CC [Sabathia] and [Ben] Sheets," said one scout. "So they're going to have to score a lot of runs." Hoffman's worth, on the other hand, is a little trickier to calculate. One NL executive said Hoffman's stuff has declined so much that "I don't see that working" even if he's healthy. But the flip side, said one scout, is "they don't have anybody who can do what he can do. Without him, it's a scramble for them to figure out how to close a game. That's a huge question mark." For the record, Carlos Villanueva gets first crack. His career save total: Three.

Cole Hamels
Hamels

Cole Hamels

The prognosis: Hamels' elbow trouble doesn't appear major, but it's also a little early to say he'll be fine. An MRI last month showed no structural damage. He threw 83 pitches in an exhibition game last weekend, and he's set to make his first start of the season Friday in Denver. But he's also a guy with a history of health issues, he felt enough inflammation to require a cortisone shot and he's coming off a season in which he took a scary 82-inning workload jump, counting the postseason. So stay tuned.

Stephania Bell's take: Bell has said for weeks that she didn't view Hamels' symptoms as particularly ominous, and she hasn't changed her mind. For one thing, she told Rumblings, it's encouraging that he only complained of "tightness," not pain. The fact he experienced those symptoms between innings, as opposed to throwing, is another good sign. And it's notable, she said, that the issue is with the "postlateral" region of the elbow -- "more to the outside of the joint" -- and "not on the inner elbow, where the ligament is." So while she's "not saying there's zero reason for concern," Bell said she isn't as worried about Hamels as a lot of people seem to be.

Can the Phillies survive: One issue that has quietly worried the Phillies is Hamels' velocity, or, to be more specific, his lack thereof. His fastball was in Jamie Moyer territory (80-83 mph) much of the spring and sat at only 85 in his final exhibition start last Saturday. "He had no velocity the whole spring," said one scout. "If you were talking about some older guys, it wouldn't bother me as much. But with a kid, you think something is going on." Hamels clearly intends to pitch. But if this condition flares up, to the point that he misses extended time, you're looking at a season-altering event for this team. "They've constructed their whole staff around him," said one scout. "It would probably take them out of the race," said another. "It would gobble them up," said another. So this is a story that could need constant monitoring all season.

Alex Rodriguez
Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez

The prognosis: We almost left A-Rod out of this column, just because he can't do a sit-up at this point without somebody reporting it. But then again, he's A-Rod. And he's our clear winner of the Most Visible Injury On Earth award. So what the heck, he had to make this list. The latest: He's about to head back to Tampa, Fla., to step up his baseball activities. And a bunch of reports this week indicated he's ahead of schedule for what was supposed to be a May 15 return. But let's remember that, when he first had his hip surgery, the Yankees said he could be out anywhere from six to nine weeks. So a late April comeback would still be within that time frame.

Stephania Bell's take: Pay attention now: It tells us something that Bell isn't getting caught up in the he'll-be-back-early stampede. "I just hope he's really ready to play when he plays," she told Rumblings. "He certainly is athletic enough to come back sooner, but I think it is too soon to get all giddy about it. He has really not tested the hip in rehab yet -- very, very simple stuff early on. I want to see what his baseball activities look like once he gets to Tampa, and then I'll get a better feel for where he's at."

Can the Yankees survive: Hoo boy. They'd better. In the Baseball Prospectus WARP rankings, A-Rod wasn't even the most irreplaceable Yankee. (Mariano Rivera was.) And his 8.9 wins above replacement level was actually the same rating as Dan Uggla's. But again, he's still A-Rod. So while everyone agrees there's "a huge drop-off" to his replacement, Cody Ransom, there's more disagreement than you'd think about how devastating his loss is to the Yankees. "Look at their payroll," said one scout. "It should be enough to sustain one injury." But another scout said: "I don't think their lineup is that strong without him, to be honest. We'll find out a lot about Mark Teixeira. I will say that." And there's one more X factor: When he does come back, no one knows whether they'll be getting vintage A-Rod. "He had surgery, but he didn't have the complete surgery," said one scout. "So what are they getting? Is he going to be 75 percent? Or 85? I don't know if the guy is going to be healthy enough to do the things he can do. So for me, this ball is really up in the air right now."

Health watch honorable mention: Brandon Webb, Geovany Soto, Justin Duchscherer, Rich Harden and Bronson Arroyo.

TRIVIALITY

If you heard Mike & Mike agonizing over this one Thursday morning, you know this won't be easy. But here goes: With Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina now visiting the 17th tee instead of the mound, only two right-handed pitchers in the entire sport began this season (A) on an active roster and (B) with 150 career wins or more. Can you name them? (Answer below.)

Ready to Rumble

• Here comes the sun: No World Series game has been played in the afternoon since the Reagan administration. But fasten your seat belt. We're hearing that's about to change.

Bud Selig told Sirius XM Radio this week that MLB is working hard on earlier starting times, including one day game, for this year's World Series. Here's what the commish has in mind, according to sources: The stunner would be a 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. ET start for one of the weekend games -- almost certainly Saturday's Game 3. And Selig's hope is that Series night games could begin as early as 7:30 p.m. ET, with 7:55 or 8 p.m. as the fallback.

The problem with 7:30 starts is that Fox's local affiliates would pout over having to give up their beloved right to air "Seinfeld" and "King of Queens" reruns in those slots. But here's the question we'd ask: How come CBS' affiliates have no problem allowing March Madness games to begin at 7 p.m. ET four weeknights a year, but Fox affiliates can't give up a half-hour of syndication heaven four weeknights a year for the World Series? The answer, of course, is: They can. And as Selig told Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, they "should."

• Trades that never happened, Part 1: How worried were the Angels about their rotation at the end of spring training? We know they made a run at the Reds' Aaron Harang. Now we're also hearing they talked to Washington about left-hander Scott Olsen. Names that were believed to have been kicked around included Dustin Moseley, Shane Loux and Jason Bulger, a guy who was once interim Washington GM Mike Rizzo's No. 1 pick in Arizona.

• Trades that never happened, Part 2: We're also hearing that Tampa Bay made inquiries, earlier this spring, about Josh Willingham, one of the odd men out in Washington's incredibly overpopulated outfield/first-base rotation. The buzz is that the Rays dangled Jason Hammel, but the two sides never got any momentum going toward finishing off that deal.

Kevin Millwood
Millwood

• Trade bait shop: With an $11-million salary this year and $12 million coming next year if he pitches 178 2/3 innings this season, Texas' Kevin Millwood looked just about untradeable, oh, about a week ago. But we might have to revise that assessment after Millwood's Opening Day gem (7 IP, 5 H, 1 R) against the Indians. "If he pitches like that all year, he's a very attractive guy," said an executive of one team who watched Millwood's start closely. "That's as good as I've ever seen him, including the Braves years. But now I want to see him do it again five days out, 10 days out, 15 days out, and find out if that's what he's really got."

• Cliff diving: But we can't say the stock rose on the other starting pitcher in that game, Cliff Lee. The 2008 Cy Young winner is a free agent in seven months. But he had an ugly spring (46 hits in 21 2/3 innings), and he was a mess again Monday (5 IP, 10 H, 6 R). "He was awful this spring, but I chalked it up to spring training," said one scout. "He was better than that Monday, but not a whole lot. The common thread was, everything was middle-middle, and high all the time. It didn't matter what he threw. It was up, and it was out over the plate."

• Jake-ing it: If the Padres have the kind of year people expect they'll have -- and folks who saw them in Arizona this spring were casually throwing around loss estimates like 110 -- it might make Jake Peavy more tradeable. But it also might make him less marketable, said an executive of one team with Peavy on its radar screen.

"What I wonder is," he said, "if things keep going like they're going there, and if he's pitching like Sabathia was for Cleveland last year, doesn't the value have to change? Look back at all the big-name guys who were traded last year. To me, the only team I think got a lot of value back was Baltimore in the [Erik] Bedard deal. If you look at the other deals -- [Rich] Harden, CC, [Johan] Santana -- they were all fair deals, but it wasn't like anybody overpaid."

Remember, the Padres were talking about a five-for-one trade with the Cubs last winter, and both four-for-one and five-for-one scenarios with the Braves. But deals that mammoth are rare in-season, especially when one of those teams is taking on nearly $60 million. Also, bear in mind that the Cubs have no idea whether new owner Tom Ricketts would allow them to assume a contract that big.

Milton Bradley
Bradley

• Lou's kind of guy: Since we're talking Cubs, let's address one of the most dubious theories of the winter after the Cubbies signed Milton Bradley -- that Lou Piniella was too flammable a manager to keep Bradley on an even keel. Two friends of Piniella say that premise makes zero sense.

"How could Lou not see some of himself in Milton Bradley?" one of them asked. "Lou was a volatile guy himself at times. And he was a very passionate player. So I'd rather have Lou handle a guy like Milton than someone else, because Lou knows the passion Milton Bradley plays with."

The second friend posed this question: "Name a veteran position player Lou has had issues with. Relief pitchers are one thing. Veteran position players are another thing. Lou doesn't have a lot of tolerance for relief pitchers who walk people. But he likes position players."

• Lost in the Sheff-le: Gary Sheffield chose the Mets over the Reds and Phillies in large part because he saw the opportunity for more playing time. But longtime Sheff watchers see trouble ahead.

"I saw him play the outfield two days in a row last year," said one scout who has known Sheffield for 20 years. "And he's gone from a guy who was incredibly athletic early in his career to a guy who now can't even really surround a fly ball. So now you're a National League team that's going to try to play him out there and hope the bat drives in more than he lets in? I don't know about that. And if you think you're just going to bring him off your bench and get him three or four at-bats a week, whoa. You're going to hate him by the end of three weeks, because he doesn't see himself that way."

So in other words, it's trouble if you play him -- and maybe more trouble if you don't. Uh-oh.

Jason Motte
Motte

• Closing time: Cardinals rocket-launcher Jason Motte had scouts buzzing all spring. But one NL executive says he wasn't shocked by Motte's ninth-inning Opening Day meltdown against the Pirates.

"You find out things are a little different when the big lights come on," he said. "He'd better find a second pitch. Hey, the kid's got a little moxie. He doesn't appear like he's afraid. But if you're going to close, you'd better have an out pitch you can go to and grab whenever you need it. He's got a good major league fastball, but it's not an out-pitch fastball. You need more. Name me one real good major league closer who gets it done with just a fastball. Maybe Billy Wagner, once upon a time. But name me one right now. You can't do it."

• Bird land: It's hard to find one baseball person who spent any time around the Orioles this spring who doesn't see brighter days ahead -- and not far ahead, either.

"I'm going to say next year," said one front-office man. "Start with that kid they took in the draft last year, [Brian] Matusz. You could put that kid in the big leagues right now. Every pitch he has is above average. We're talking No. 1 starter stuff. Now you throw in their other young pitchers -- [Jake] Arrieta and [Chris] Tillman and guys like [Matt] Wieters, Adam Jones, [Nick] Markakis and [Brian] Roberts, that's a real good team waiting to happen."

• It's a small world: Finally, there's lots of stuff about the WBC that needs tweaking. But let's begin here:

On the way to its WBC title last month, Team Japan played Team Korea five times -- and all the other countries in the field only three times. So what's up with that?

AS WBC organizers try to clean up the glitches, they know that Japan-Korea deja-vu mess highlights an issue they have to address: Eliminating the final round-robin game in the first two rounds.

Those games were used just to determine seedings for the next round. But all they really accomplished was unnecessarily prolonging an already-elongated event -- and forcing the survivors to play each other over and over. And any format that chews away the intrigue and romance of what's supposed to be a magical championship game clearly needs a serious overhaul.

Track meet of the week

After watching Marlins burner Emilio Bonifacio run out his Opening Day inside-the-park homer in 14.2 seconds, we asked a group of scouts to help us compile the five fastest men in the big leagues. Here's our top five:

TRIVIA ANSWER

Tim Wakefield (178) and Bartolo Colon (150). When John Smoltz is activated by the Red Sox, assuming he ever is, he'll be the only active right-handed 200-game winner. How amazing is that?

1. Emilio Bonifacio: "Fastest player I've ever seen in my life," said Hanley Ramirez.

2. Willy Taveras (Reds): Consistently timed at 3.9 to 4.0 seconds to first base, from the right side.

3. Joey Gathright (Cubs): "Might be the fastest prospect I ever clocked," said one scout. "He's not quite the same guy now, but pretty damn close."

4. Trevor Crowe (Indians): "You'd have a tough time convincing me he's not No. 1," said one scout.

5. Michael Bourn (Astros): Only one problem: Speed might be his only usable tool.

Honorable mention: Shane Victorino (Phillies), Jordan Schafer (Braves), Denard Span (Twins), Jose Reyes (Mets), Carlos Gomez (Twins), Ichiro (Mariners).

Late-nighter of the week

From David Letterman:

"People come up to me on the street all the time and they say, 'Dave, what do you think? What do you think? Is Alex Rodriguez going to be able to play this season?' I say, 'Don't worry, he'll have the surgery. It will take six to eight weeks, something like that, but he'll be back in time to choke in the playoffs.'"

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in, from the February issue of the always-entertaining Chicago sports-parody publication, "The Heckler":

OBAMA BECOMES FIRST SOX FAN
TO WEAR SUIT AND TIE TO WORK

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com