Sizemore, Morneau among top hitters returning from injury
Who needs a shiny new car when an oldie-but-goodie can be taken to the shop, refurbished and restored to near-peak condition? While some teams had to spend millions to overhaul their offenses -- like the Nationals ($126 million for Jayson Werth), Rangers ($96 million for Adrian Beltre) and White Sox ($56 million for Adam Dunn), among others -- some teams head into the 2011 season with optimism thanks simply to the return of injured players to their lineup. As the start of spring training draws near, here are five players who have been missed in their respective lineups and should make an immediate impact, provided they don't require any further repairs.
The Indians need a bounce back season from their franchise player if they are to have any hope of reversing last year's 93-loss campaign. When healthy, Sizemore is a rare combination of speed, power and defense. In his first four full seasons, he averaged almost 27 home runs and 29 stolen bases a year while making three All-Star teams and winning two Gold Gloves. But after being limited to just 109 games because of injury in 2009, Sizemore played only 33 games in 2010 before an awkward slide in May forced him to undergo season-ending microfracture surgery on his left knee. He has been cleared to resume modified baseball activities but the recovery for that type of surgery surgery is long and tenuous. The Indians are hopeful he can be healthy by Opening Day, but as eager as they are for their 28-year-old star to be back in their lineup, he needs the regain his stroke at the plate just as badly. He was batting just .211/.271/.289 with no home runs at the time of his injury and has an $8.5 million club option for 2012 that will put Cleveland in a precarious position to either trade Sizemore or let him become a free agent if he doesn't return to form.
Fans, teammates and coaches alike will be ecstatic if 2011 results in a healthy return for oft-injured Justin Morneau. He suffered a concussion on July 7 and missed the entire second half of the season and the Twins' loss to the Yankees in the Division Series with post-concussion symptoms but is expected to make his long-awaited comeback in spring training. But the sensitivity of a concussion and the possibility of symptoms coming back are worrisome and could prolong his return. Last year, catcher Jason LaRue retired because of ongoing concussion symptoms and the Mets' Jason Bay missed the last two months of the season after suffering his own concussion. While Morneau's injury might not be career threatening, Twins doctors will keep a close eye on the power hitter in the spring and through the duration of the year. Michael Cuddyer filled in nicely at first base in Morneau's absence, but Minnesota clearly missed the presence of the former AL MVP:
Players like Delmon Young, Jim Thome, and Cuddyer will reap the benefits of hitting behind Joe Mauer and a healthy Morneau in Minnesota's lineup. If he doesn't have any set backs, Morneau's return will create more RBI opportunities and take pressure off of the sluggers who filled in for him in second half of last season.
A familiar face will be roaming the outfield for the Boston Red Sox this season, though this one might be somewhat overlooked after their flurry of big-ticket offseason moves that included landing All-Stars Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Ellsbury, 27, had only 78 at-bats last year because of nagging hairline fracture to his ribs that forced him to make three separate trips to the disabled list. In Ellsbury's limited playing time, he hit a mere .192 with a .241 OBP and only stole seven bases after snagging 70 the year before. If Ellsbury is back at full speed, Boston can run wild with the combination of Crawford and him on the base paths. In fact, they could become the first teammates since Ricky Henderson and Roberto Alomar of the 1993 World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays to steal more than 50 bases in the same season.
Even though they whiffed on landing any big hitters via free agency, arguably the biggest addition to the Angels lineup will be the return of Morales. In his first full season as the starting first baseman for the Angels in 2009, Morales hit .306 with 34 home runs and slugged .569, second best in the American League. Morales was poised to build on his success, but suffered one of the most fluke season-ending injuries in recent memory. After a game-winning grand slam last May 29, Morales jumped into a swarming group of teammates and broke his left leg when he landed awkwardly on home plate. With his season cut short at 51 games, the Angels offense never really recovered. Manager Mike Scioscia plugged nine different players into the first base spot vacated by Morales and the team hovered around .500 for the remainder of the year. With the switch-hitting Morales in the middle of their lineup, the Angels offense was second in runs scored and third in OPS in the AL in 2009 but finished ninth and 10th in those categories, respectively, in 2010.
The relatively unknown Freese won the starting third baseman's job last spring but got just 70 games and 270 plate appearances before a pair of ankle injuries ended his season. Following two surgeries on his ankles, Freese has designs on regaining his position for 2011. As insurance, the Cardinals added light-hitting Nick Punto in the offseason, but despite playing in 18 fewer games, Freese still had better numbers (.296/.361/.404, four HRs, 36 RBIs) across the board than Punto (.238/.313//302, one HR, 20 RBIs) did in 2010. Freese resumed baseball activities in December and starting running on his fragile ankles in mid-January. If he can stay healthy in 2011, his power-bat can help jumpstart a sputtering Cardinals offense and bring the team back into postseason contention.