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Jeter, Rivera, Pujols among key players coming back from injuries in AL

Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano Derek Jeter is working his way back from a broken ankle to begin his 18th season as the Yankees' starting shortstop.

Derek Jeter's 2012 season ended on an awful note. The Yankees shortstop fractured his left ankle while diving for a ball in the 12th inning of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Tigers, and had to be carried off the field. Not only was he rendered unavailable for the remainder of the series — in which the dispirited Yankees were quickly swept — but he underwent surgery, with a metal plate and screws inserted. He spent five to six weeks all but glued to his couch and used a motorized scooter to navigate around his 30,000 square foot mansion. "My offseason was terrible," he told reporters on Sunday. "Absolutely terrible."

Jeter's ankle has healed, and he has been cleared to return to all activities, though thus far he has only run on a treadmill and participated in fielding drills. He expects to begin running on grass this week, but needs to work his way back into baseball shape.

That's certainly a tougher task at 38 than it would have been a few years ago — it's not as though he needs further hindrance to his range afield — but despite the typical doomsayers, there's no particular reason that he won't be able to recover. Fractures heal more predictably than soft tissue injuries, and he's coming off a strong year with the bat (.316/.362/.429 with an MLB-high 216 hits). He won't appear in an exhibition game for two or three weeks, and will probably spend time at DH once he does, but barring a setback, he should be in the team's Opening Day lineup on April 1.

Without even the most meaningless of games to report yet — exhibitions start on Friday, though the Yankees' first Grapefruit League game isn't until Saturday —much of the current focus around the majors is on players returning from injury. Here's a rundown of the key ones in the American League and their current prognosis. Note that I'm not a doctor, and don't even get to play one when I'm on TV.

Brian Roberts, Baltimore Orioles: A two-time All-Star, Roberts once ranked among the game's most durable players; from 2004-2009, when he averaged 152 games a year, and made just one trip to the disabled list, though his 2005 season ended with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Over the past three years, Roberts has been limited to just 115 games due to a slew of injuries that have made him one of the game's hard-luck cases; he spent 104 days on the DL with an abdominal strain in 2010, 239 days on the DL in 2011-2012 due to a concussion and its aftermath and played in just 17 games after returning last June before a right hip labrum injury sent him back to the DL. He underwent surgery on August 3, then needed an additional surgery to repair a sports hernia in December.

Fortunately, the now-35-year-old has healed and has no restrictions this spring. If he is truly healthy, the career .280/.351/.413 hitter would provide a big boost for the Orioles given that they received just a .213/.273/.323 showing from their second basemen in 2012, not to mention a .255/.308/.393 line from their leadoff hitters.

Mike Napoli and John Lackey, Boston Red Sox: Though he missed five weeks in August and September due to a left quad strain, Napoli ended the year without any word of injury, and during the Winter Meetings in Nashville, he reportedly agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with Boston. During his physical, however, the Sox medical staff discovered that the 31-year-old slugger is suffering from avascular necrosis in both hips, a degenerative condition caused by loss of blood to the bone, but one for which he wasn't outwardly displaying symptoms.

It took seven weeks to rework his contract; he's now on a one-year deal that guarantees $5 million, with incentives that can take him back to $13 million. He's working out on schedule and the Sox plan to use him as their everyday first baseman; with David Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia slated to handle the catching duties, and Ryan Lavarnway in reserve, Napoli isn't likely to catch except in an emergency.

As for Lackey, the 34-year-old righty didn't pitch at all last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on November 1, 2011 — an injury that goes a long way toward explaining his ghastly 6.41 ERA that season. Thus far, he's this spring's leader in Best Shape of His Life alerts, having drawn comment from many teammates and reporters after shedding considerable weight. A major bust in Boston so far — he's put up a 5.26 ERA (82 ERA+) over 375 innings for $48.5 million — he could help shore up the Sox rotation if he's in anywhere near his old Anaheim form; over the course of eight seasons, he delivered a 3.81 ERA (116 ERA+) for the Halos. He's far enough removed from surgery that he should be unhindered in his progress.

John Danks and Jeff Keppinger, Chicago White Sox: After nine starts with a 5.70 ERA, Danks went on the disabled list in late May last year and never returned. He underwent surgery on Aug. 6 to repair a tear in his shoulder capsule and to clean up both his rotator cuff and biceps tendon, though his labrum was said to be sound. The 28-year-old southpaw has thrown two bullpen sessions and is said to be on track to start the season with the big club, though it's worth keeping an eye on how he handles the stress and recovery as he nears game-like intensity. Given that the Sox have just one pitcher who has qualified for the ERA title in both of the last two seasons — that being Gavin Floyd, who nonetheless served two stints on the DL for elbow trouble last summer — they appear particularly vulnerable in the rotation.

As for Keppinger, he broke his right fibula after falling down the stairs in November, but he's healed and ready to go.

Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Ryan Madson, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Pujols played in 154 games last year, his first in Anaheim, but he hit just .285/.343/.516 with 30 homers, down from even the relatively modest .299/.366/.541 he hit in his final year with the Cardinals. He underwent a cleanup of his right knee on Oct. 9 for an injury stemming from a baserunning mishap on Aug. 22, after which he missed four games, hit just .291/.340/.455 with two homers in 144 PA upon returning, the vast majority of those coming while he served as DH. The 33-year-old slugger isn't doing much running yet but should be good to go.

Wilson, who like Pujols struggled to live up to expectations in Anaheim after signing a big free agent deal, is coming off Oct. 23 surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow. Though he topped 200 innings for the third year in a row, his 3.83 ERA was his highest as a starter, particularly when the change from the Rangers' hitter-friendly park to the Angels' pitcher-friendly one is taken into account; his ERA+ dipped from 142 in 2010-2011 to 99 last year. His walk, strikeout and home run rates all moved in the wrong directions, and his overall performance was significantly worse in the second half (5.54 ERA) than the first (2.43). There hasn't been much word on his condition thus far, but he was said to need just 4-to-6 weeks to recover, and is presumably good to go for spring training.

As for Madson, who underwent Tommy John surgery last April 11, he's likely to begin the year on the disabled list. He had thrown four bullpen sessions prior to Feb. 1, when he was shut down due to inflammation — hardly an uncommon occurrence for a rehabbing TJer — but his MRI came back clean. At this writing, the Halos were hoping he could resume throwing today (Monday), though he won't be available for Opening Day; mid-April is more realistic.

Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia, New York Yankees: Jeter isn't the only key player in pinstripes working his way back from the operating table. Rivera tore his right anterior cruciate ligament and damaged a meniscus on May 4 last year, ending his season. The 43-year-old all-time saves leader is throwing regular bullpen sessions while wearing a knee brace, and is more concerned about fielding his position than his progress on the mound. Manager Joe Girardi says Rivera won't appear in an exhibition game until later in March, and won't make any road trips, but he's presumed to be ready for Opening Day.

As for Sabathia, the 32-year-old lefty underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow on Oct. 25, that after hitting the disabled list for an arm problem for the first time in his major league career. He took the mound for the first time since the surgery on Saturday, a 29-pitch bullpen session in which he threw nothing but fastballs and changeups. He'll throw again on Tuesday, but won't add breaking balls to the mix until he throws them off flat ground. He's unlikely to make his first start until the first week of March, but there's no reason yet to think that his streak of seven straight Opening Day starts is jeopardy.

Grant Balfour, Oakland A's: Coming off a year in which he established himself as a regular closer and notched 24 saves with a 2.53 ERA, the 35-year-old Balfour began his spring on a down note. Shortly after he reported to camp, the A's discovered that he needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, which he underwent on Thursday. He's expected to miss four to six weeks, but is already rehabbing, and should be only a couple of weeks behind the other pitchers. Opening Day — a little over six weeks after the surgery — isn't out of the question, but with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle available to handle ninth-inning duties, Oakland isn't likely to rush him.

Joakim Soria, Rangers: A two-time All-Star closer with the Royals, Soria was hit for a 4.03 ERA in 2011 and then missed all of last season due to April Tommy John surgery, the second of his career (the first was back in 2003). He signed an incentive-laden two-year, $8 million deal with Texas, one that reflects the likelihood that he won't be available to start the season on the active roster. He has thrown four bullpen sessions thus far, but the Rangers aren't planning for him to be available until late May. Meanwhile, Texas also has Colby Lewis (July flexor tendon surgery) and Neftali Feliz (August Tommy John surgery) also on the mend, but neither will be available until at least midseason.

Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays: With 27 homers before the All-Star break, Bautista appeared to be on his way to leading the AL for the third straight season when he injured a tendon in his left wrist while swinging a bat on July 16. He returned to action after 38 days on the DL, but made just five plate appearances in two games before going back to the bench, and he underwent surgery on Sept. 4.

Though he has been hitting since January and is likely to be in the lineup on Opening Day, there are plenty of reason to be concerned about the 32-year-old slugger. Thanks to a career-low .215 batting average on balls in play, his slash stats had already taken a significant dip, from .280/.412/.613 in 2010-2011 to .241/.358/.527. Such wrist injuries are notorious for sapping power. In 2010, Beyond the Box Score's Dan Turkenkopf found an average dip of 30 points of isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) below projections for players returning from wrist injuries, while his colleague Jeff Zimmerman noted the particular loss of pull-side power in sluggers David Ortiz and Edwin Encarnacion following their wrist injuries. No two injuries are the same, but given that Bautista is among the most pull-happy hitters in the game — 169 of his 183 career homers have gone to left field or left-center — that's a particular cause for concern going forward.

 

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