Commentary

Ouch, that really hurts!

Injuries to indispensable players have impacted pennant races

Updated: May 24, 2011, 2:53 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

If Josh Hamilton can start launching homers about 12 seconds after returning to action and the Phillies could score 10 runs on Chase Utley's first night back, we can only wonder: What's next?

Another Brett Favre un-retirement? Another doomed Bonnie Hunt sitcom? Another Ross Perot run for the White House?

OK, let's hope not. But as we've seen this week, injuries have been leaving a serious dent in pennant races all over baseball this year. So let's take a look at the Five Injuries That Have Had the Biggest Impact on the 2011 Season (So Far):

1. Joe Mauer, Twins catcher

Injury: Knee/leg weakness      Games missed: 37      Expected return: Next month?

Joe Mauer
Mauer

You think the Twins miss this guy? They own the worst record in the American League. They're off to their fourth-worst start in team history (15-31). They were the last team in baseball to get a home run from a catcher. And the four catchers they've run out there (including Mauer, for nine games) have combined for a lower batting average (.147) and on-base percentage (.195) than the Astros' PITCHERS -- not to mention the lowest of any position on any team in baseball.

"I don't think there's been an injury in the game that's affected any team the way his has," one NL executive said, "because of where he hits in the lineup and the position he plays. He does a great job behind the plate, putting the fingers down. And on the offensive side, he's among the elite. So how do you replace a guy like that?"

Correct answer: You can't. Mauer is now DH-ing in extended spring training, so his return is finally on the horizon. But by the time he gets back, there may not be much left to rescue in Minnesota. After Monday, the Twins were -- yikes! -- 15.5 games out of first.

2. Josh Hamilton, Rangers left fielder

Injury: Fractured humerus     Games missed: 36      Returned: Monday

Josh Hamilton
Hamilton

The Rangers were the best team in baseball (9-2) the day Hamilton got hurt last month, slugging .511 and averaging nearly six runs a game. Then down went the MVP, and -- in a related development -- in the 36 games he missed, they slugged just .378 and scored a measly 3.9 a game.

Now, clearly, Hamilton wasn't the only reason the Rangers went 15-21 in that stretch. And as Nelson Cruz could attest, he wasn't their only significant injury. But just one man on their disabled list was the defending MVP. There's a reason for that.

"He's what I call a 'carry' guy,'" the same NL executive said. "He can carry your club for a month, or more. And if you're a 'carry' player, you can't replace that."

In truth, Hamilton and Utley fit that description. And both of their teams were able to stay in first place without them. So why did we rank Hamilton above Utley? Because the Rangers had a far worse record without Hamilton than the Phillies did without Utley (28-12). And Texas is more dependent on the thunder in its lineup than the Phillies are.

"Without Hamilton in their lineup, they're a totally different club," one scout said. "They have a whole different attitude. The Phillies could win without Utley, because of their pitching. I don't think the Rangers could win without Hamilton."

3. Kendrys Morales, Angels first baseman

Injury: Fractured tibia     Games missed: 160     Expected return: Opening Day 2012

Kendrys Morales
Morales

We're just days away from the one-year anniversary of one of the strangest injuries of modern times -- Morales getting swallowed up in the celebration of a game-ending grand slam and disappearing for the rest of last season and all of this season.

What's the best way to capture the impact on the Angels of losing a masher such as this man? How about this: At the time he went down, he'd hit more home runs (30) than any player in the American League since the 2009 All-Star break. And in the year since, only two players on the Angels' current roster (Torii Hunter, with 21, and Bobby Abreu, with 16) have even hit half that many homers.

"Without him, they've basically got a bunch of smurfs running around," one scout said. "It looks like a jockeys' camp."

When Morales got hurt last year, it was "like pulling a pin out of the balloon," according to a second scout. And the Angels death-spiraled to just their second sub-.500 finish ever under manager Mike Scioscia. This year, they've somehow managed to manufacture enough runs to stay within a half-game of first place. But they're still averaging only 3.94 runs a game, exactly a half-run less than they were scoring with Morales healthy last year.

4. Chase Utley, Phillies second baseman

Injury: Patellar tendinitis/bone inflammation     Games missed: 46      Returned: Monday

Chase Utley
Utley

Once upon a time, the Phillies ran the most feared lineup in the National League onto the field. Uh, not this year. Before Utley showed up, the 2011 Phillies hadn't scored more than three runs in any of their last nine games (for the first time since 1972), and they were on pace to score a ridiculous 620 runs -- a nadir they've reached in exactly one full season in the last four decades.

The absence of Utley sure wouldn't account for all of that, just as his 0-for-5 debut didn't account for the 10 runs they put on the board Monday. But it would account for the fact that, heading into Monday, Phillies second basemen ranked last in the National League in homers (nada), RBIs (10) and slugging (.277). So how the heck could Utley not be an upgrade over that?

"I would be shocked if he didn't make a big difference in that lineup," one NL scout said. "He's one more tough guy you have to pitch to before you get to [Ryan] Howard. And that's a big factor. When I saw Howard, you could see he recognized the club was struggling, and he's been trying to do more than he would normally do. So getting Utley back has to have a big impact just on him."

But merely because Utley is back on the lineup card doesn't mean it's safe to assume he'll go back to being the same Chase Utley who led all second basemen in the big leagues in homers, extra-base hits, on-base percentage and slugging from 2005-10. The Phillies need to manage Utley's playing time carefully, or risk a relapse that could wind up sabotaging not just this season but the rest of Utley's career.

"It's one of those things where until we see what he does we really won't know what kind of impact he's going to have," the same scout same. "Can he play every day and hold up? That's something we just don't know."

5. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals third baseman

Injury: Abdominal tear     Games missed: 39     Expected return: Mid-June

Ryan Zimmerman
Zimmerman

We almost elevated Jake Peavy into the 5-hole in this lineup. But the more we thought about it, the harder it was to overlook Zimmerman, one of the most underrated difference-makers in the sport.

Last year, according to our friends at FanGraphs, this guy finished in the top five in baseball in Wins Above Replacement (7.2). This year, with Zimmerman missing in action most of the year, Nationals third basemen rank 13th in the NL in WAR. And Zimmerman's three fill-ins at third have combined for six extra-base hits in six weeks. At one point last April, the guy they're replacing had six extra-base hits in five games.

Zimmerman's absence also has had a ripple effect on this entire team, last seen hitting an attractive .228. And it's possible no one on the roster has felt it more than Jayson Werth, who was supposed to have Zimmerman hitting behind him to share the face-of-the-franchise burden.

"I don't agree when people say Werth is just a complementary player, but he's not a guy who can shoulder the whole load," one scout said. "But Zimmerman is that guy. He's some kind of player. Defensively, it's ridiculous some of the plays he makes. That team is not going to win anything without him. I'll tell you that."

Obviously, the Nationals aren't built to win this year, with or without him. But they ARE built to be a team on the rise. So until their third baseman returns in about three weeks, their assignment is mostly to see how much water they can tread.

Honorable mention: Peavy, Andrew Bailey; Adam Wainwright; Pablo Sandoval; Johan Santana; Dodgers closers Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Vicente Padilla; Cubs starters Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner; A's starters Dallas Braden, Brandon McCarthy and Tyson Ross; Indians "M*A*S*H" squad (Grady Sizemore/Travis Hafner/Mitch Talbot/Alex White/Carlos Carrasco); Phil Hughes; and Red Sox starters John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Ready to Rumble

• As we spoke with people around the game this week in the aftermath of Fred Wilpon's stunning quotes to the New Yorker, we could boil their reaction down to three main themes:

A) It's hard to imagine Wilpon thought he was being quoted when he was busy dumping on his franchise players. But he's been in ownership for more than 30 years now. He knows how the media biz works. So he has nobody to blame but himself for not making it clear his in-game rants were off the record.

B) Now that this episode of "Fred Wilpon Unfiltered" has made it onto the air, he's left his general manager, Sandy Alderson, in an awful position. How is the GM supposed to get full value for somebody such as Carlos Beltran when his owner has been quoted saying he ain't what he used to be?

C) As an official of one club put it, "Most of what he said [about those players] is probably true. But by saying what he said, he fails the knucklehead test. It just lets his fans say, 'If you think your best players stink, why should we come out and watch them?'"

Astros

• If we had to pick one club in baseball that has the look of a sure-fire seller in July, we'd pick the Astros. But there are two things to remember: 1) As GM Ed Wade pointed out, the Astros actually have a better record this year (18-30) than they had in late May last year (17-34) -- and last year's team went 59-52 the rest of the way. 2) Until the Astros' sale to Jim Crane is approved (most likely sometime in July), Wade can't even have a conversation with the new owner about his philosophy on team-building.

But at a time in which his club is obviously rebuilding, Wade says he expects to take the same approach this July that he took last July: "Anything that builds the type of depth that will get us where we need to be, it would make sense to explore."

Wade declined comment on all specifics. But other clubs believe he'd gladly listen to bids on the likes of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Clint Barmes and Bill Hall. (Carlos Lee's no-trade clause keeps him out of that mix.) As for just about anyone else, Wade said, "We're going to be very protective of our younger players."

Hunter Pence
Pence

• So where would a guy such as Hunter Pence (28, and three years away from free agency) fit in that mix? We've heard rumblings of early interest from the Braves, Orioles and Phillies. But an executive of a fourth club says he believes there's a "1 million percent chance" Wade would need, essentially, a job-saving haul in return to even consider trading Pence.

"If you're Jim Crane walking in the door," the exec wondered, "how can you trade the one guy on your team who represents that part of Texas -- a blue-collar, hard-nosed player?"

• Meanwhile, continuing rumors of the Phillies' interest in Pence appear to be exaggerated. Clubs that have spoken with the Phillies report they're doing no more at the moment than compiling a shopping list of potentially available bats. But since their payroll is wedged right up against the luxury-tax threshold, they've been telling other teams they can only talk about hitters making no more than about half of Pence's $6.9 million.

Braves

• One team that's actively stepping up its search for bats: The Braves, who have been looking for a right-handed-hitting outfielder for a couple of weeks but just put two left-handed-hitting outfielders (Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth) on the disabled list. Also on the Braves' shopping list: a utility infielder who can back up Alex Gonzalez at shortstop.

• It's fascinating how many clubs hunting for pitching mention the name of Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie. But scouts covering the Orioles remain skeptical that their president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, has any serious interest in trading Guthrie.

"I don't see him looking to move Guthrie," one of those scouts said. "If somebody blew him out of the water, he might do it. But I don't see that happening."

Neftali Feliz
Feliz

• Scouts covering the Rangers report that since closer Neftali Feliz came off the disabled list, he's had trouble locating any pitch besides his fastball. But the Rangers still project Feliz as a starter in the long haul. And their pitching coach, Mike Maddux, told Rumblings Feliz would have no trouble maintaining his full repertoire over the kind of innings teams look for from top-of-the-rotation starters.

"I don't see why not," Maddux said. "He sure was able to sustain it in spring training. He got up to five innings and about 80 pitches, and he sustained it great."

• One of the big questions sweeping the game as we reach late May goes kind of like this: When it's time for clubs to go shopping in July, will there be more than three or four teams open for business?

As the Elias Sports Bureau pointed out Monday, 21 teams were within five games of .500 heading into this week. And over the last 95 years, it's only the fifth time that 70 percent of teams were within five games of .500 after at least 46 games. The others: 1974, 1968, 1958 and 1944.

"Looks like Anheuser-Busch is going to have a new beer," an exec of one team quipped. "There's Bud, Bud Light, Bud Ice and Bud Parity."

Five Astounding Facts From the Weekend

Mariners

1) If you don't live in the 206 area code, it's easy to overlook almost everything that happens in Seattle. But the Mariners' rotation just finished an amazing streak of nine consecutive starts of at least seven innings and no more than two runs. Totals for those nine games: 70 innings, six runs, just 38 hits, 0.70 ERA. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first team to get that many innings and an ERA that low from its starters over nine games since Jack Morris' 1986 Tigers compiled exactly the same ERA over exactly 70 innings from July 17-25.

2) On the other hand, the trusty Royals staff walked 13 hitters in one game Sunday -- for the second time in four days. Last team to issue that many walks twice in one week, according to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index: Zack Taylor's 1951 St. Louis Browns. They walked 16 Red Sox in a 13-inning game on Aug. 22 then walked 13 Yankees in a 10-inning game six days later. Amazingly, all 29 walks were issued by the same starting pitcher, Tommy "Crash and" Byrne.

3) Joe Mather's four-hit, four-RBI game out of the Braves' 9-hole Saturday was a line you won't see in the box score of many National League teams, even via the miracle of interleague play. According to the Play Index, Mather was only the third NL player in the last 50 years to get four hits and four RBIs while hitting ninth. And the others were pitchers: Micah Owings for the Diamondbacks on Aug. 8, 2007, and Claude Osteen for the Dodgers on May 26, 1970.

James Shields
Shields

4) Another interleague-play special: The Rays' James Shields whiffed 13 Marlins AND drove in the winning run Sunday. He was the first AL pitcher to cram an RBI and at least 13 strikeouts into any game -- regular season or postseason -- since Nolan Ryan did it on July 27, 1972.

5) So who had the more surprising three-homer game in the last week? Was it Jason Giambi, zero for his last 18 over the previous 39 days? Or was it Corey Hart, who was homerless in 76 at-bats for the season before his three trots Monday? We'll take Hart. Believe it or not, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent, Hart was the first player since 1900 to make it to May 23 or beyond, sputter through that many homer-free at-bats then hit his first three homers of the season in the same game.

Tweets of the Week

It wasn't a great week to be the real Fred Wilpon. But it was an excellent week for his fictitious alter-ego, @FakeFredWilpon, to amuse us no end with these pithy tweets.

• As the clock ticked toward two momentous events Saturday evening, we got this important bulletin from FakeFred:

The Rapture will have no effect on the day-to-day operations and long term plans of the Mets. The outcome of the Preakness may however.

• Then, on Monday, as the New Yorker crisis erupted, we got this hopeful spin from a desperate FakeFred:

I know for a fact that Reyes, Beltran and Wright never read The New Yorker so I don't expect this to be a big deal.

• Finally, FakeFred knew just how to comfort the late, great 19th-century iron man, @OldHossRadbourn, after OldHoss tweeted at him: "I remember when F. Wilpon said I wasn't worth "King" Kelly money ($5). That hurt." FakeFred's retort:

Always considered you good not great.

Headliner of the Week

And this just in from the humorists at Sporstpickle.com:

INDIANS UNSURE WHICH SUPERSTITION

IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR UNLIKELY START

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

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com