Top Comebacks to Watch in 2013 Spring Training

Will Carroll@injuryexpertSports Injuries Lead WriterMarch 7, 2013

Top Comebacks to Watch in 2013 Spring Training

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    Spring training is a time of hope and there is no more hopeful thing than a comeback. Players show up in Florida or Arizona after a major injury and a lost season searching for redemption alongside health. For some, they'll find it in the sun, feeling their legs back under them or their fastball popping the glove.

    It will be a bigger struggle for some of these players. They'll spend as much time in the training room as they will the back fields. They'll have setbacks and existential crises, while the front office tries to figure out how to back them up or whether to send them on their way. Baseball can be a cruel sport.

    At the end of the road for each of these players is a different result. Some might end up back in October, some might be headed to a new contract, and others could be forced to figure out what comes next. Let's take a look at the biggest comebacks as we head towards the 2013 MLB season:

Mariano Rivera (KNEE)

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    INJURY: sprained knee (ACL)


    Mariano Rivera was pressing to return at the end of the 2012 season, just four months after spraining his knee. The Yankees weren't convinced that was a good idea (and had put together a pretty good bullpen in Rivera's absence), but that alone gives every indication that Rivera will be ready for Opening Day.

    Rivera's freak accident happened while shagging flies, something he's done as part of his pre-game routine for years. He says he'll continue to do it and there's no reason to believe much else will be different about Rivera. As long as he has that Hammer of God cutter, he should be able to keep racking up saves.

    Yovani Gallardo is the best injury comp here. Gallardo suffered his ACL tear and came back in the same season, but showed no problems at all the following year or since. Rivera doesn't have the same demands, but his easy motion will probably make things even more positive for him. 

    One scout I spoke with wondered about how the time off might affect Rivera's pitching. His velocity was down over a mile per hour last season, the first real sign of age that Rivera has shown. 

    Rivera will make his spring debut this weekend, so look to see if he's able to push off normally, field his position and if that cutter still bedevils hitters like it has for two decades.

Derek Jeter (ANKLE)

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    INJURY: fractured ankle


    Oh yeah, the other injured Yankee. Just kidding.

    Derek Jeter is in many ways the face of the Yankees, but it's his ankle that has fans worried. The injury that happened in last year's playoffs made many think that he would miss time this season or at least get pushed to DH at the start, but neither looks to be happening.

    Jeter was able to play shortstop as early as January and has been running since spring training opened. The Yankees have been very conservative with getting The Captain back into spring games, but there's been no indication at all that he won't be ready for Opening Day.

    One of the biggest signs of progress actually came when the Yankees brought in Travis Hafner. Hafner has his own long history of injury problems and has no other position than DH. If the Yankees believed that Jeter would need that slot even on a part-time basis, they likely wouldn't have brought in Hafner. The DH slot does offer a plan B for Joe Girardi if Jeter needs the occasional day off. 

    Jeter will also be available to give advice to Brian Cashman, who recently broke his ankle in a skydiving accident.

Troy Tulowitzki (GROIN)

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    INJURY: nerve entrapment in groin


    The Rockies couldn't win without Troy Tulowitzki last season. Now we'll find out if they can win with him this season. 

    We do know that Tulowitzki dealt with a very difficult injury last season. While it was initially treated as a simple groin strain, his history of problems there led to an unforeseen complication. A nerve that runs through the area got entrapped by scarring and caused a constant throbbing pain in the area.

    Yes, go ahead and cringe as you read that sentence.

    Tulowitzki was close to a return at the end of last season, but the Rockies had nothing to play for and knew that Tulowitzki's competitive spirit might cause more problems than any confidence a return could have given both player and team.

    The Rockies have brought Tulowitzki back slowly, but he's shown no problems with that or with the elbow injury that also affected him early last season. He's playing in games and showing no deficits. At age 28 this season, Tulowitzki should have every chance to come back from this lost year and prove he's still one of the top shortstops in the game.

Brandon Beachy (ELBOW)

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    INJURY: elbow reconstruction


    Twenty-six pitchers are coming back from Tommy John surgery. The near-miraculous surgery will give them their careers back, but there's a year lost that even Dr. James Andrews can't give them. There is no more impactful injury than an elbow ligament tear; nearly half of the injuries on this list are Tommy John surgery rehabs.

    Brandon Beachy is the first of them and could be the first to return. His surgery was in mid-June so the normal 9-12 month rehab period has him back sometime before the anniversary. Beachy has been making good progress and has progressed to throwing bullpen sessions as he nears the nine month mark. 

    While he won't be ready to make the Opening Day rotation, he's not going to be far behind. Beachy is likely to get a couple starts at various minor league affiliates, probably Rome (A) and Gwinnett (AAA) due to their proximity to Atlanta. 

    The question then is where he fits into a deep Braves rotation. He could save innings for a young pitcher like Julio Teheran or he could fit in behind an injury like the one he had last season. Options are good and it's a problem that Frank Wren won't mind having as early as late April.

Victor Martinez (KNEE)

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    INJURY: microfracture on left knee


    The initial injury reported was an ACL sprain, occurring in an offseason workout. It was not a rupture and in fact, the ACL itself was not repaired. The surgery that was done was significant enough to not only cost Martinez the 2012 season, but to put into question whether he can come back at all.

    Martinez had two procedures done, one to perform microfracture on the damaged knee and another to repair damage to his meniscuses that occurred in the workout. This is difficult to get a read on because there's both a trauma that involved a ligament and an injury that could be the result of chronic damage from catching. 

    Baseball does not have a good history with microfracture surgery. No player that has had it has come back to level. It's admittedly a small sample size and a bad set, but it doesn't offer up hope that Martinez can come back well, though there always has to be a first, right?

    Things have gone well this offseason and through the start of spring training. Martinez even thinks he can catch, which is very unlikely even in an emergency situation. He's played some first base in spring training, but he's also had some minor back problems. Martinez is going to have to be watched carefully, but the Tigers can likely get 100-120 games of production from him. In a lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, that might be enough for another chance at October.

Ryan Madson (ELBOW)

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    INJURY: elbow reconstruction


    The Reds never got to see Ryan Madson pitch for them outside of spring training. Last season he didn't make the trip north, except to get his elbow reconstructed. The Angels are hoping to get a bit more from him on this one-year deal.

    His rehab hasn't gone particularly well since joining the Angels either. Madson had to back off in his early mound work as spring training open and as of now, he's not back on top of a mound. There's still plenty of time for him to make it back for Opening Day, though the Angels have always said that they expected to start Madson out in the minors, going with Ernesto Frieri at closer for at least the first month.

    Madson is a high-effort pitcher and some, like Joe Nathan, often struggle a bit to find again their form after Tommy John surgery. Madson has enough stuff to be able to adjust if need be and the Angels have enough depth to give him the time to figure things out.

    Look to see when he gets back on a mound and whether he struggles with command to see where he's going to be in the first half of the season. Even if those go negatively, he might be worth a late-round stash in fantasy leagues given the possible upside.

Brian Roberts (CONCUSSION)

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    INJURY: concussion, hip surgery


    Remember Brian Roberts? The Orioles barely do, but what they remember is enough to give Roberts another chance to play a productive second base for the team. That, and he's in the final year of a four-year contract.

    Roberts hasn't played a full season since 2009 and has barely been on the field since a nasty concussion in May of 2011. Concussions are very difficult to get a read on and like most, this one can only be really assessed in retrospect. Roberts has been cleared for all activity at the start of spring training and seems past the symptoms of the head injury.

    Of course, that's not all. Roberts also had hip surgery this offseason. He had the acetabular labrum surgery of the type undergone by Alex Rodriguez and Chase Utley. Most players come back from this well and Roberts is already moving pretty well in camp. 

    If Roberts can hold together, he'd be a big improvement over the patchwork that Buck Showalter put together at second base last season. Little improvements like this could help the Orioles from sliding back after last season's big run, but it's a big if with the injury-prone and aging Roberts.

Neftali Feliz (ELBOW)

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    INJURY: elbow reconstruction


    Neftali Feliz injured his arm early in his first season in the rotation, but didn't have surgery until August. That puts his return anywhere from around the All-Star break to the anniversary of his surgery. A lot is going to depend on where the Rangers put him once he's back and that depends on what happens this spring.

    The Rangers are dealing with a number of injuries besides Feliz's Tommy John rehab and those moving parts are all interrelated. They often say that you can't tell the players without a scorecard, but Mike Maddux might need one for his pitching staff. Feliz has relieved in the past and could return to the pen more quickly than he could to the rotation. 

    In addition, Colby Lewis is returning from forearm surgery and should take a spot in the rotation. Joakim Soria is coming back from his own Tommy John surgery and is expected back in June to take the set-up role that Feliz has previously occupied. Robbie Ross could be in either the rotation (where he's currently vieing to replace Martin Perez) or the pen. 

    Got all that?

    Feliz will focus on his rehab and let the pieces fall where they may. His arm is good enough to play in almost any role and gives Jon Daniels some flexibility to fill in a gap midseason.

Cory Luebke (ELBOW)

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    INJURY: elbow reconstruction


    Cory Luebke was becoming Kris Medlen before Medlen. The lefty was coming into his own as a starter when an early season elbow injury ended things. It's an all too common tale, but one that no team, not even the pitching-savvy Padres, have figured out. (If anyone's close to cracking things, it's the Rays.) 

    Luebke should be back by May given how he's throwing in the spring. His stuff is all the way back though like most Tommy John rehabs, the command is still a work in progress. Look for Luebke to make a few starts at nearby Lake Elsinore (A) before coming back.

    What you can't count on is big superficial stats. The Padres are just starting a rebuild under new ownership and moving the fences in won't help the pitching staff. By the end of the season, more people will know who Cory Luebke is and how to pronounce his name.

Wilson Ramos (KNEE)

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    INJURY: sprained knee (ACL)


    Wilson Ramos survived a kidnapping, but blew out his knee last season. If he could ever stay healthy, he could be a top offensive catcher, but that's an if that he's never been able to answer. Pairing him with the durable Kurt Suzuki is a smart play and they'll amount to a platoon in order to keep Ramos healthy.

    Ramos has shown no issues with the knee through camp. He's got good movement and has always had solid mechanics behind the plate. 

    If Ramos is healthy, he adds another offensive weapon to what could be the best lineup in the National League. This is probably Ramos' last chance to show that he's more than just a nice half-time guy with injury problems and there's a ton of upside if he takes the chance and runs. Or squats, rather.

Brian Wilson (ELBOW)

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    INJURY: elbow reconstruction (second)


    Brian Wilson isn't far from a return, but it's not yet clear where that return will happen. The Man with The Beard is still a free agent, with flirtations with the Mets, Tigers and a return to the Giants all unproductive so far. 

    Wilson had his Tommy John surgery, his second, in April. While Dr. James Andrews thought this winter that Wilson would be ready for Opening Day, no one seems to think that's the case now. It's more about the work he'd need to do to be ready and without being in a structured program with a team right now, it's hard to envision.

    That's not to say it's not possible. Wilson feeds off doubt and some think that this is a perfect situation for him if there's one team that will buy in enough to give him a one year contract. Wilson hasn't been sitting around and shouldn't take long to be back. The money and situation are all that has to work out now. 

    Wilson could end up almost anywhere, but the worst case is that he needs to spend a little bit of time finding his control in setup, the way the Rangers plan to do with Joakim Soria when he returns mid-season. As Wilson himself showed, a lot of closers get hurt, so there's bound to be someone to take a chance before long. It just won't be the Yankees, who have a policy against facial hair. 

    Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. He is a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.