Kemp, Garza lead key NL players returning from injury
On Monday, I ran through a list of key American League players who are returning from injuries. Here's a look at their National League counterparts and their current prognosis. Again, note that I'm not a doctor, not even when I'm on TV.
Brandon McCarthy and Daniel Hudson, Arizona Diamondbacks: McCarthy has spent a large portion of the past eight seasons on the disabled list — 493 days, according to the Baseball Prospectus injury database, and that's just at the major league level — to the point that he has qualified for the ERA title just once. But nothing could have predicted the injury he suffered while pitching for Oakland last Sept. 5, when a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar fractured his skull and necessitated emergency surgery. Fortunately, McCarthy's been cleared by neurologists to resume baseball activity, and on Tuesday he faced live hitters for the first time since the surgery, throwing batting practice to his new Arizona teammates from behind a protective screen without incident.
McCarthy says he's more concerned about his shoulder, specifically his recurring scapular stress fractures, which he has suffered five times in the past six years, and which tend to knock him out for a period of about five weeks. He and the Diamondbacks are hopeful that the team's medical staff can manage the risk; the injury tends to recur in May or June. For now, he's healthy, and Arizona has a deep rotation, one that will get deeper once Hudson returns from his July 2012 Tommy John surgery, probably sometime after the All-Star break.
Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves: After six straight All-Star seasons during which he hit a combined .287 /.359/.491, McCann slumped to .230/.300/.399 last year, then underwent offseason surgery on his right shoulder to repair his torn labrum and remove a cyst; the shoulder was actually prone to subluxation (partial dislocation) while hitting. The recovery period for such surgery is typically six months, which means that the soon-to-be-29-year-old will likely miss Opening Day but be back by mid-April. Winter free agent signing Gerald Laird will assume primary catching responsibilities in his absence, then settle into the backup role once McCann returns. Meanwhile, Brandon Beachy, who underwent Tommy John surgery last June 21, has begun throwing off flat ground and is on track for a June return.
Scott Baker and Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs: Baker didn't pitch in the majors at all last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on April 17, but that didn't stop the Cubs from signing him to a one-year, $5.5 million deal as a free agent. He's throwing at about 70 percent maximum effort right now, and the team doesn't expect him to be ready in time for opening day, but an April return is still possible for the 31-year-old righty.
Elsewhere in the rotation, there's more cause for concern with Matt Garza, who cut short a throwing session on Sunday after suffering a mild lat strain. The 29-year-old righty didn't pitch after July 21 due to a stress fracture in his elbow, and he faced just three hitters in his first batting practice session since the injury before suffering the strain. He's scheduled to be reevaluated on Monday, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the Cubs slow his pace a bit. Chicago has Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Travis Wood in the rotation until these injuries sort themselves out, with Carlos Villanueva also a possibility.
Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers have several players coming back from significant injuries this spring, with Kemp atop the marquee. The 28-year-old centerfielder underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, an injury he suffered after running into a wall in Colorado on Aug. 28; he hit just .214/.267/.420 the rest of the way before surgery revealed that the injury was worse than initially feared. He's going to miss at least the first week of exhibitions, and will initially be limited to DH duty in the exhibition season upon returning, though Opening Day is still a possibility.
A similar timeline is in place for Crawford, who was limited to 31 major league games last year due to wrist and elbow injuries, the latter of which required late August Tommy John surgery just before he was part of the blockbuster deal between the Red Sox and Dodgers. He took his first live batting practice of the spring on Sunday and said he felt good, but his throwing is progressing more slowly."I think I can hit the cutoff man by Opening Day, but I don't know if that's when they'll want me to come back," he said last week.
Meanwhile, both Billingsley and Lilly are the question marks among the eight starters the Dodgers have under contract. Billingsley hit the disabled list in late August with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, and while a platelet-rich plasma injection didn't help him recover in time to return to active duty, he was pain-free and touching 94 mph in a simulated game in November, forestalling Tommy John surgery for the moment. Lilly went on the DL with shoulder inflammation in late May, and after several setbacks, finally underwent surgery to clean up his labrum in mid-September. He threw his first bullpen session since the surgery on Feb. 14, and might face a trip to the bullpen even if he's healthy given the team's plethora of starters.
Logan Morrison, Miami Marlins: After hitting .259/.351/.460 in 2010-2011, Morrison slumped to .230/.308/.399 with 11 homers in 93 games last year. In September, he underwent surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, an injury that originally occurred in early May and that dragged down his production. The 25-year-old first baseman is still recovering, and will be examined today to determine the further course of action; once he's cleared, it will take him at least a month before he plays in an exhibition game, which makes Opening Day a longshot. Last week, Miami inked free agent first baseman Casey Kotchman, who should serve as an adequate insurance policy in the interim.
Corey Hart and Mat Gamel, Milwaukee Brewers: In the wake of Prince Fielder's departure for free agency following the 2011 season, the Brewers' first base spot has become the Black Hole of Calcutta. Gamel, who initially took over first base duties last year, tore his right ACL in early May and missed the remainder of the season, which prompted the team to move Hart — who had missed most of spring training due to surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee — from rightfield to first base. Hart did just fine there, but he underwent another meniscus surgery and a smoothing of the joint surface in the same knee on Jan. 23; while he's believed to be ahead of schedule, he won't be cleared to increase the intensity of his rehab until after a March 8 MRI, with a late April return a best case scenario.
That appeared to reopen the door for Gamel, whose power once made him a well-regarded prospect, but last week during the team's first full squad workout, he re-tore the ACL, which will cost him the entire 2013 season. Milwaukee has a number of candidates in-house to cover first until Hart returns, including recently re-signed infielder Alex Gonzalez, utilityman Taylor Green, non-roster invitee Bobby Crosby and rookie Hunter Morris. The latter is a 24-year-old lefty who hit .303/.357/.563 with 28 homers at Double-A Huntsville, good enough for him to rank as the team's top hitting prospect on Baseball America's list, though his defense rates as a concern.
Frank Francisco, New York Mets: Francisco saved 23 games for the Mets last year, albeit with a gruesome 5.53 ERA, and he missed time due to both an oblique injury and tendonitis in his elbow. On Feb. 12, the team said that Francisco is dealing with inflammation in that elbow and would be shut down. He could resume throwing after laying off for a couple of weeks, but the team has already decided that Bobby Parnell will begin the season handling closer duties.
Mike Adams and Delmon Young, Philadelphia Phillies: Adams signed a two-year, $12 million deal to serve as the Phillies' top righty setup man, but the 34-year-old is questionable for the start of the season due to mid-October surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. As of last week, he had thrown off a mound three times this spring and was said to be on schedule in his return, though he may not pitch in the Grapefruit League until the second week of games — more due to the extended length of spring training because of the World Baseball Classic than to his injury.
As for Young, the Phillies signed the 27-year-old hacker to a one-year, $750,000 deal knowing that he was coming off microfracture surgery to repair cartilage in his right ankle, with the latest report saying that he could miss up to the first month. Given the abysmal .267/.299/.403 he has hit over the past two seasons, that actually rates as good news in that it opens the door for former top prospect Domonic Brown to get a longer look before the inevitable organizational yo-yoing resumes.
Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Neil Walker, Pittsburgh Pirates: The Bucs agreed to terms with Liriano on a two-year deal back on Dec. 21, but he broke the humerus of his non-throwing arm after slamming into a door in an attempt to scare his kids on Christmas Day. The injury forced the team to restructure his contract so that he assumes any risk for time lost due to the injury in 2013. Last week, the Pirates said it will be at least a month before he steps on a mound, which could mean a DL stint to start the season.
Elsewhere in the rotation, Morton is recovering from June Tommy John surgery and has thrown four bullpen sessions off the mound; he's eying a June return. Walker, who played in just eight games after Aug. 26 due to a herniated disc in his lower back, was cleared for the start of spring training and hasn't had any setbacks.
Cory Luebke and Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres: A late-blooming former first-round pick (2007), Luebke enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, striking out 9.9 per nine with a 3.29 ERA in 139 2/3 innings, but he made just five starts last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late May. The 27-year-old righty has been playing catch and is aiming for a June return. The 26-year-old Cashner, who missed two and a half months due to a lat strain last year after losing five months to a rotator cuff strain the year before, is currently recovering from a lacerated tendon in his right thumb suffered when he was dressing meat in early December. He's aiming to be back on the mound around March 1, which would make him a candidate for the rotation. In the interim, the Padres have Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard, Jason Marquis, Freddy Garcia and Eric Stults as their starting five.
Rafael Furcal and Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: Furcal didn't play after Aug. 30 due to a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, but opted to forgo surgery in hopes of being ready for Opening Day. Thus far, the 35-year-old has been able to participate in drills, and it appears he'll be on a fairly normal spring program. Even so, his lack of durability — an average of just 98 games a year over the past five seasons — led the Cardinals to pick up Ronny Cedeno as an insurance policy to join light-hitting sub Pete Kozma, who came up big in October but has never hit much in the minors. As for Garcia, he was limited to 20 regular season starts and 121 2/3 innings last year due to partial labrum and rotator cuff tears, then lasted just two innings in his lone postseason start. He rehabbed without undergoing surgery, and said he felt strong after throwing his first session of live batting practice on Saturday. He's on a normal schedule, and even in the wake of news that Chris Carpenter will likely miss the season due to a recurrence of numbness in his right shoulder, the Cardinals have considerable depth in their rotation to allow him to ease off the throttle if he suffers a setback.
Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmmerman, Washington Nationals: Ramos suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in mid-May and needed two surgeries, one to repair a torn meniscus in early June, then a second one to fix the ligament in mid-July. The 25-year-old backstop is making progress as expected; on Monday, he caught multiple bullpen sessions for the first time, and the team expects him to be ready for Opening Day. Midsummer acquisition Kurt Suzuki will handle the bulk of the catching duties early in the season to allow Ramos to build up his strength.
Zimmerman underwent surgery on October 25 to clean out an arthritic section of bone in the acromioclavicular joint in his right shoulder after battling shoulder woes all year; he served a DL stint in April and May and received four cortisone shots during the season to combat pain and inflammation. The injury affected his throwing more than his hitting, and he's not yet 100 percent. He may not make his exhibition debut until the second week of March, but should still have enough time to be ready for Opening Day. Espinosa recently opted out of the World Baseball Classic in order to focus on rehabbing his left (non-throwing) shoulder; he has a torn rotator cuff, but has rehabbed it and will avoid surgery.