Commentary

Back from the doctor's office

These nine guys are ready to make an impact after closing '09 on the DL

Originally Published: February 16, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Ben SheetsJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Oakland A's are taking a costly gamble on right-hander Ben Sheets. Will it pay off?
Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training later this week, with position players to follow. Based on the medical reports, some big leaguers will spend more time than others hobnobbing with the training staff.

We've already caught up with Jeff Francis and checked in with Brandon Webb in their comebacks from shoulder surgery, and Buster Olney broke down Jeremy Bonderman's travails in his blog. Brad Lidge, Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, Grady Sizemore, Kevin Slowey, Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones, Xavier Nady, Billy Wagner, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Rich Harden and Edinson Volquez are just some of the other players whose health issues will merit watching.

In this spring aches-and-pains edition of Starting 9, we look at nine other players who missed significant portions of last season with injuries and ended the season on the disabled list. Is there a comeback player of the year or two in the mix? We shall see.

Jose Reyes

Reyes

Jose Reyes, New York Mets

Judging from the dour mood in New York, you get the impression the Mets have been a nonstop fiasco since the 2000 Subway Series. But they did come awfully close to making the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, and they had reason to be hopeful this past season until a staggering wave of injuries hit.

The Mets were 21-19 and second in the National League East, one game behind the Phillies, when Reyes went down for the year with a leg injury on May 20. He underwent surgery to repair a torn right hamstring tendon in October.

There's no overstating the void Reyes' absence created in the New York lineup. Even with Reyes' 36-game contribution factored in, New York's shortstops ranked 27th in baseball with a .623 OPS. Fans at Citi Field saw way too much of Alex Cora, Anderson Hernandez, Wilson Valdez and Angel Berroa.

Now Reyes is back and ready to hit leadoff, steal bases and set the tone for the Mets' lineup. New York Post writer Kevin Kernan recently watched Reyes work out at a facility in Long Island, N.Y., and was blown away by how well Reyes handled a rigorous two-hour grind. The paper's headline: "Amazin … and Blazin. Rehabbing Reyes 100 percent, Ready to Roar.''

Reyes appeared in 633 of a possible 648 games from 2005 through 2008, so people forget how durable he was. If he can regain his pre-injury form, the Mets can focus their attention on Oliver Perez and John Maine, Johan Santana's elbow, the team's lack of an established catcher, and Carlos Beltran's comeback from knee surgery. General manager Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel have plenty of other concerns besides Reyes on their plate.

Ben Sheets

Sheets

Ben Sheets, Oakland Athletics

"With Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer now leading off the rotation, the first A's promotional giveaway should be rosary beads to the first 10,000 fans (presuming they get that many),'' wrote Carl Steward of the Oakland Tribune.

Good line. At Sheets' introductory news conference, GM Billy Beane conceded the A's were living "life on the edge a little bit'' when they invested $10 million in a pitcher coming off flexor tendon surgery. But Duchscherer, Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Vin Mazzaro and Gio Gonzalez all will be logging their share of innings in Phoenix, so manager Bob Geren has some options.

The A's anointed Sheets their Opening Day starter the day they signed him, so they're not going to baby him. Recent historical precedents are all over the map: Andy Pettitte is 74-53 and has averaged 210 innings a season since undergoing the same surgery in 2004. Jason Jennings had his flexor tendon repaired in August 2007, went in for a second procedure nine months later and is 2-9 with a 5.50 ERA in 88 1/3 innings over the past two seasons.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau , the last pitcher with at least five years of major league experience to throw zero innings in a season and then return to throw 150 innings-plus the following season was Joe Mays of the Twins. He went 6-10 with a 5.65 ERA in 2005.

If Sheets turns out to be Pettitte redux, the A's are in business. If he's Jennings or Mays, hey, Beane took his shot.

Chris Young

Young

Chris Young, San Diego Padres

Good news for Princeton sports fans: The Tigers are in the thick of the Ivy League men's basketball race, and notable alum Young is right on schedule in his recovery from surgery. Doctors did a cleanup on Young's right shoulder in August, and he's been throwing since November. He recently completed his rehab program and transitioned into his typical Cactus League preparation.

"Everything feels really good and I'm right on schedule for spring training,'' Young said in an e-mail. "I've thrown several bullpens and have no restrictions for spring training.''

You can file San Diego's rotation under "intriguing.'' Kevin Correia quietly put together a nice 2009 season with 12 wins and a 3.91 ERA in 198 innings, and the Padres signed Jon Garland to a one-year, $5.3 million contract in late January. Barring a change of plans, Clayton Richard and Mat Latos will slot into the Nos. 4 and 5 spots.

Manager Bud Black and Darren Balsley, San Diego's underrated pitching coach, have a knack for getting the most out of a staff, and the Padres will try to build on their 39-35 second half from this past season. Young will play a big part in that effort.

Rickie Weeks

Weeks

Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers

It's the same old storyline for Weeks. He was off to a strong start last spring, with nine homers and a .517 slugging percentage, when he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in May. He had surgery to repair a torn tendon sheath after only 37 games.

One positive: The injury came early enough in the season that it shouldn't have a carryover effect in 2010. That wasn't the case previously, when Weeks hurt his wrist in July 2006 and hit .221 in the first half of the 2007 season.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin said the team's doctors don't think Weeks' penchant for hand and wrist injuries will necessarily be a recurring concern. Weeks has a .351 career OBP with 20-homer, 20-steal ability over a full season, and he'll combine with shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Carlos Gomez to give Milwaukee lots of speed and athleticism up the middle.

"Rickie brings his game to the park every day,'' Melvin said. "He's very determined, and he plays the game hard. He's a tough kid, and we miss that when he's not out there.''

With Weeks at second base, Casey McGehee gets first crack at third and will be challenged by Mat Gamel. That leaves Craig Counsell to be the utility guy. Counsell was a lifesaver for the Brewers in 2009, and he held up surprisingly well in August and September. But he doesn't need to be logging 459 plate appearances again as he approaches his 40th birthday in August.

Jake Westbrook

Westbrook

Jake Westbrook, Cleveland Indians

How much is Cleveland counting on Westbrook? He is 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since May 2008, and the Indians already have anointed him their Opening Day starter. He'll slot into the rotation ahead of Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, David Huff and Aaron Laffey.

Westbrook posted a 44-34 record and averaged 212 innings a season from 2004 to 2006, and he can be a bullpen saver when he's on his game and churning out ground balls. Two starts before his elbow began bothering him in April 2008, he threw a 95-pitch complete game to beat the Angels.

Westbrook suffered a late setback that prompted the Indians to back off this past fall, but he made four peace-of-mind starts in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and the Indians aren't going to coddle him.

"If this were a guy who was 22 years old and not 32, it might be different,'' Cleveland pitching coach Tim Belcher said. "Obviously, we're going to pay close attention in spring training and until April when the weather warms up. But if everything is fine, we're taking the attitude, 'Let's go. Give us what you can give us.'"

Westbrook will make $11 million this season in the final year of a three-year deal, so he'll be setting himself up for one more fling at free agency if he can give the Indians 30-plus starts.

Troy Glaus

Glaus

Troy Glaus, Atlanta Braves

Atlanta's incumbent first baseman, Adam LaRoche, kept downsizing his expectations before signing a $4.5 million contract with Arizona in January. Meanwhile, the Braves took a $2 million flier on Glaus before Christmas. Manager Bobby Cox, who remembers Glaus fondly for their time together on a tour of Japan in 2000, gave the deal his seal of approval.

Braves fans and the local media weren't quite as enthralled. "Troy Glaus is a big bopper only if we're in a time warp,'' Atlanta Journal columnist Mark Bradley wrote.

That's a bit harsh. Glaus hit 27 homers, drove in 99 runs and slugged .483 for the Cardinals in 2008 before missing all but 14 games last season with a shoulder injury. Now he'll try to make the switch to first base, where he's made a grand total of four of his 1,319 big league starts.

Glaus' résumé includes eight seasons with at least 350 at-bats, and he surpassed 20 homers and 60 walks all eight times. The question is, can he handle 500 at-bats?

"We liked him more as a platoon-type guy,'' said an official with an NL club that had some interest in Glaus. "He's a quality guy to have. But with his age and injury history, you're gambling that he's going to hold up as a starter for you.''

Glaus spent the winter working out at Jack Cust's facility in New Jersey, and he visited Dr. Lewis Yocum and made his medical records available to all 30 clubs -- a show of faith in the state of his shoulder. He's expected to hit cleanup between Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, so he better come out swinging.

Conor Jackson

Jackson

Conor Jackson, Arizona Diamondbacks

Jackson appeared in only 30 games last season after contracting a case of Valley Fever, an illness caused by inhaling fungus spores in desert soil. The condition is manifested in flu-like symptoms and fatigue that can last for months.

Jackson mercifully is over it now. He spent two weeks in the instructional league in Tucson, then hit .425 during a seven-week stint in the Dominican winter league. That put to rest a brief flurry of speculation that the Diamondbacks might consider non-tendering him in December.

After a few weeks off, Jackson has been working out at the Athletes' Performance Institute since the new year began. He's regained the 30 pounds he lost because of his illness.

"I feel great,'' Jackson said in an e-mail. "I think I can finally put all of this behind me. I'm not feeling any side effects anymore, and I can say that I wake up every day feeling like my old self again. I am chomping at the bit to get back on the field.''

Jackson doesn't fit the classic "corner man'' profile: He has single-season highs of 15 homers and 79 RBIs in Arizona. But he's a .361 career on-base guy, and he's a nice fit on a team that can be too free-swinging for its own good. The Diamondbacks ranked 11th in the NL with a .324 OBP last season, and they were ninth overall with 571 walks.

With the arrival of Adam LaRoche at first base, Jackson officially takes over in left field. He can hit anywhere from second through sixth in the order for manager A.J. Hinch.

Scot Shields

Shields

Scot Shields, Los Angeles Angels

Shields ranked first among major league relievers with 425 innings pitched from 2004 through 2008. He averaged 95 innings per season during one three-year stretch, and the Angels rationalized his onerous workload by declaring he had a "rubber arm.''

No one ever said anything about his knee. The right one began causing Shields more and more problems before he resorted to season-ending patella tendon surgery last June.

Although the Angels will tread cautiously with Shields this spring, they're ecstatic to have him back in the mix. Strong bullpens have been a hallmark of Mike Scioscia's tenure, and the return of Shields and the arrival of Fernando Rodney will make for a deeper group than in 2009, when Los Angeles' relievers ranked 23rd in the game with a 4.49 ERA.

Joel Zumaya

Zumaya

Joel Zumaya, Detroit Tigers

Zumaya can still make a radar gun cry out for mercy: According to the Bill James Handbook, he surpassed 100 mph a total of 198 times last season. Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton ranked second in the majors with a mere 90 triple-digit gun readings.

The bad news: Zumaya made one appearance after the All-Star break before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in August. After pitching 83 1/3 innings in 2006, Zumaya has logged a total of 88 innings in the three years since.

The Tigers signed Jose Valverde to be their closer, but the bullpen would look a lot more formidable with Zumaya throwing pellets in the seventh and eighth. At last check, Zumaya was working out at Detroit's spring training complex in Lakeland, Fla., and the team was pleased with his progress.

Pitching coach Rick Knapp said Zumaya is throwing with his hand a "tick higher'' on the baseball, which gives his pitches more late, riding life as they approach the strike zone. But it won't matter much if he's on the DL in April or May.

"That's everybody's big question on him: 'How are you going to keep him out there?''' Knapp said. "I don't know if we have a secret formula to answer that.''

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