Wednesday March 25th, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. -- The man sitting in front of Alex Rodriguez's corner locker at Legends Field on Tuesday afternoon was most decidedly not Alex Rodriguez.

Even if A-Rod didn't possess one of the most recognizable visages in the world today, the easiest way to tell that the temporary resident flipping through a book in front of the cubicle by the side door was not the much-maligned slugger was this: There was no one else around him. For when A-Rod is back in town, the whole world will know it. His every move will be chronicled, his every swing discussed, his every word dissected.

Rodriguez's return will also mean that the Yankees will be ready to seriously challenge the Red Sox and Rays for AL East supremacy. If the silver lining to A-Rod's absence is the calm that it has brought to Yankee land, it is the dark cloud of his hip injury that threatens to overshadow the Yankees' efforts to return to the postseason. For now, Rodriguez remains in Colorado, rehabbing his hip after surgery and his image after a cutting experience of a different kind this spring.

Rodriguez is far from the only big-name player to be sidelined in recent weeks, but in typical A-Rod fashion his ailment is the one dominating the headlines. Among the other injuries afflicting major stars this spring -- Dustin Pedroia's abdominal strain, Johan Santana's troublesome knee and Manny Ramirez's lingering hamstring, to name a few of the notable -- most are mild enough to keep their teams from panicking as Opening Day approaches. Some, however, may well linger into the start of the season, which would begin impacting a team's performance and ability to get off to a good start. Here are 10 injuries that fit that description:

Injury: Surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip; out until May.

Prognosis: A-Rod's injury is troublesome not only for the impact it will have on the Yankees this season but in future years, too. If his condition worsens, or even if it never allows him to return to the superior level of play that he's shown throughout his career, the Yankees will have invested a great deal of time and money in a player with diminishing ability. Manager Joe Girardi is optimistic that A-Rod's rehab, which is going well, will allow him to return to the team and perform well, but it'd be nice if that return came sooner rather than later. The Yankees have been notoriously slow-starters in recent years; a similar effort is inadvisable in such a power-packed division.

Injury: Tightness in left pitching elbow; likely to miss Opening Day start.

Prognosis: Nothing makes the heart of a manager or general manager jump faster than hearing his ace has an injury in his pitching arm. In the case of Hamels, any serious time off would put a major dent in the Phillies' hopes of repeating as NL East champions, much less world champions, so the news that he came through his return to the mound feeling fine after receiving an anti-inflammatory shot was welcome indeed. (Though his return on Tuesday was overshadowed a bit by the returns of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino from their stint with Team USA at the World Baseball Classic.) Pitching coach Rich Dubee hasn't officially said that the World Series MVP won't be ready to start Opening Day, but all indications are that Hamels won't make his season debut until about a week into the '09 campaign. After that it's likely that the Phillies will proceed cautiously, rather than risk a flare-up of the injury.

Injury: Surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Prognosis: Upton played through that injury for most of 2008, but saw steep declines in his power numbers, from a .508 slugging percentage and 24 home runs in 2007 to .401 and nine in '08. Even after rebounding to hit seven homers in the postseason, he underwent surgery in December to fix his shoulder, and he still hasn't recovered enough to be ready by Opening Day. His power may be slow to return, but Upton remains a major offensive threat in other ways: his .383 on-base percentage last year was nearly identical to his number from '07, and his 44 stolen bases were double his previous year's output. His ability to get on base at the top of Tampa Bay's order is critical.

Injury: Lower back pain due to inflammation.

Prognosis: The initial problem for the Twins was finding out exactly what was wrong with their 25-year-old All-Star backstop (GM Bill Smith told MLB.com that it was "not a common ailment among players"). The new problem is finding out when the two-time AL batting champion will be back on the field. There is no timetable yet for his return to the Twins -- and any significant missed time not only getting back on the field but returning to his MVP form would be a potentially devastating blow to Minnesota's chances in the AL Central.

Injury: Strained oblique muscle.

Prognosis: Brewers manager Ken Macha has been trying to patch together a pitching staff that has had to replace almost half of its members from a year ago. One spot he wasn't anticipating having to worry much about was closer, where Hoffman was bringing his fierce changeup, Hell's Bells intro and MLB-record 554 saves from San Diego to Milwaukee. But with Hoffman unlikely to be ready by Opening Day, Macha is left with two possible replacements -- Carlos Villanueva and Seth McClung -- who have combined for just nine career saves.

Injury: Inflammation in rotator cuff in right (pitching) shoulder.

Prognosis: Another of the casualties of Team USA, Lindstrom's stats may be dwarfed by Hoffman's (five career saves to Hoffman's 554), but he is no less important to his team's chances of competing. Without Lindstrom and his 100 mph fastball for at least another few weeks, Florida is going fishing for a replacement to shore up its already questionable bullpen. The most likely temporary closer is Leo Nunez, who has never recorded a major league save.

Injury: Right shoulder surgery; out until at least May.

Prognosis: With reigning MVP Albert Pujols and emerging slugger Ryan Ludwick, the Cardinals are in decent position to withstand the loss of Glaus for a short period and stay in the hunt in division that, aside from the Cubs, is wide open. But his original hope to return by mid-April has been deemed by Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to be almost impossible, leaving a growing hole in the middle of the St. Louis lineup. While no-names such as Joe Mather and David Freese struggle to replace Glaus' production (27 homers, 99 RBIs), the bigger concern will be how much Glaus resembles his previously fearsome self when he finally does get back on the field.

Injury: Right labrum tear.

Prognosis: After a career year in 2007 (18-7, 3.40 ERA), Escobar missed all of 2008 with a torn labrum. He had surgery last summer and was expected to be out until midseason. But after showing significant progress without additional pain in a minor league start last week, his timetable has been moved up to early May. The team is putting him on a schedule designed to increase his pitch counts and build up arm strength to get him back as quickly as possible. He likely won't face major league hitters in that period, but his return for the majority of the season would help lessen the damage incurred by the loss of Ervin Santana, who has been shut down with an elbow injury and does not have a return date.

Injury: Recovering from shoulder surgery.

Prognosis: Rarely is the rehab of a 41-year-old, oft-injured pitcher cause for much attention, much less optimism, but when that pitcher is a future Hall of Famer like Smoltz and that team is the Red Sox, all bets are off. The ageless Smoltz, who joined Boston in the offseason after spending 21 years with the Braves, has not pitched since last June, but his experience and ability as both a starter and reliever made him a worthwhile gamble for the Red Sox. He's still at least two months away from debuting for Boston, but his addition, whenever it comes, will give the Red Sox a boost to their rotation -- at no additional cost -- that their AL East rivals will be hard-pressed to match.

Injury: Right shoulder surgery.

Prognosis: McGowan suffered a setback this spring while trying to get back to big-league action for the first time since undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery last July, and his return date is still undetermined. While McGowan's injury opens the door for some of the Blue Jays' top prospects, such as Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero, to earn a spot in the rotation, the Jays' chances of replicating their success of 2008, when they led the AL in ERA and won a respectable 86 games, hinge in large measure on the return of McGowan to the middle of their rotation.

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