Injury Comebacks to Look out for in Second Half of MLB Season
Injuries can decide seasons. The players listed here are major contributors to their respective teams, or in the very least, players who are substantial upgrades over their replacements. Their return could be the difference between October baseball and October golf.
From Ryan Braun's return for another MVP push, to Derek Jeter's bat and leadership helping the New York Yankees to the AL East title or Troy Tulowitzki shifting the odds of a tight NL West in the Colorado Rockies' favor, it's clear that injuries are one of the biggest storylines for the rest of the season.
Most teams have played to or near the 81-game mark. Three months of the season is in the books with three to go. Getting these stars back during the second half will only add to the drama.
Let's take a look at the some of the most important injuries and how they could affect the game in the second half.
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Troy Tulowitzki might be stuck with the dreaded injury-prone label. His health history and his age aren't in his favor, but the team is going to have to figure out how to keep him productive rather than on the DL, where he's been for the better part of the last two seasons.
Does the team decide they'll ride with him, lock him in at shortstop and do their best to prevent worse damage? Or do they decide to protect him with a shift to third or maybe even the outfield?
Both this year's injury to the ribs and last year's in the groin are on that line between traumatic and chronic. It's very difficult from the outside to say whether there was any way to prevent either of these. It's hard to think that Tulowitzki is out of shape, nor is there any indication that he's breaking down systematically at 28. Seeing and talking to him on Opening Day, Tulowitzki was extremely positive and looked ready to go.
How Tulowitzki and Rockies athletic trainer Keith Dugger manage this situation over the rest of the season is key to determining whether the Rockies are contenders in the NL West.
Derek Jeter, Yankees
Derek Jeter missed the first half of the season. The image of "The Captain" lying on the field in pain, then refusing the stretcher, during last year's playoffs has become something of a rallying cry inside the Yankees locker room, but they would do better with him on the field.
Jeter had a major setback late in spring training, re-fracturing his ankle. The weakness in the bone is worrisome, as is the very conservative pace of his recovery. The Yankees are being very cautious, with Jeter not even back to full activity as we head into July.
Jeter's setback happened when he was running the bases, which is the one thing he hasn't started doing yet. That last hurdle has to happen sometime soon, but even so the lack of activity is going to force Jeter to have at least 10 days of rehab. That makes coming back right after the All-Star break nearly impossible right now, with a more likely target of August 1.
Jeter is likely going to need extra rest, meaning Joe Girardi is going to have to juggle the DH slot and bench, as well as keep a defensive replacement in place for him, limiting his in-game options. With the trade deadline coming up, Jeter's status will be paramount in GM Brian Cashman's decision-making.
Expect to see Jeter start a rehab assignment just before the All-Star break. His hitting should be fine, but his lateral range and baserunning will be down significantly. Shifting him to a full-time DH is a possibility, though Jeter has been notably resistant to that throughout his career.
Michael Pineda, Yankees
The Yankees have become a team reliant on pitching this season. New York lacks an ace though, with CC Sabathia losing some of his stuff and Hiroki Kuroda a sure-and-steady No. 2. They lack a dominant power pitcher that can take a good-hitting team out of its shoes. Michael Pineda can be that guy.
Pineda lost the previous year-and-a-half to a serious shoulder injury. The pitcher was told to throw all-out at a point when his shoulder wasn't ready, and the mechanism of his shoulder simply broke down. The surgery to repair it is relatively new, but it is showing success with other pitchers.
The early results on Pineda's recovery have been good and show that patience in his rehab was judicious. Pineda is showing mid-90s velocity, according to Newsday, with scouts I've spoken with saying it's an easy delivery and that there may be a couple more ticks on the radar gun once Pineda gets a bit more confident that his shoulder is going to stay intact.
Pineda is going to have some rust and control might be an issue for him, but with his movement and velocity, he doesn't have to be perfect. The bigger concern for the Yankees is going to be managing his fatigue. Pineda's recovery between starts will be key so that he doesn't lose velocity in back-to-back outings. If his fastball ticks down more than a mile per hour, that's a big red flag.
A.J. Burnett, Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in baseball as I type this.
The Pirates have achieved this feat with their top-three pitchers heading into the season currently sidelined. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald's injuries shows just how much depth the organization has.
Burnett has missed almost a month with a calf strain, though the Pirates medical staff has been very conservative and deliberate with his rehab. Pittsburgh's depth allows him to take it slow, and it wouldn't surprise me if they're using this as a way of keeping the 36-year-old Burnett a bit fresher than he would be if he pitched 200 innings this season.
While the Bucs might go out and make a deal similar to the one they made last year to bring in Rodriguez, getting back Burnett is a nice addition.
Keeping the veteran healthy is going to have to be a priority, since he's the only pitcher on the team who has ace potential right now. (Cole isn't there yet and needs a workable third pitch before he's even got the right stuff to take that role.)
Brandon Beachy, Braves
Brandon Beachy's expected return from Tommy John surgery has been delayed by setbacks over the course of the season. The Braves have enough depth to deal with this, but they were counting on having Beachy back in the rotation by this point. Mike Minor has progressed nicely in his second full season and Julio Teheran could be finally putting it all together for Atlanta. Beachy could add another weapon to the Braves rotation. At worst, could alleviate the worry of putting too many innings on Teheran or filled in the back of the pen, where the team has lost two key pieces to elbow injuries.
Beachy's setback is the type occasionally seen in Tommy John rehabs, but it's hardly typical. The majority come back without any issue, picking up right where they left off. Beachy saw significant inflammation and had to shut things down. While he's throwing again, he's going to need a set of rehab starts to build his stamina unless the team decides he's headed for the pen.
Johnny Cueto, Reds
Johnny Cueto shouldn't be on this list. The team nursed him through a lat strain and got him back on the mound last weekend, only to see him reinjure the muscle, as noted by Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay.
Cueto has been injury-prone for the last couple seasons and his weight could be the culprit. The Dominican has put on significant weight since debuting a few years ago, and while his mechanics have always been complex, putting additional mass into the equation puts his throwing motion more at risk.
The bright side here is that the lat is a large and adaptable muscle. This isn't so much an arm injury as one of the kinetic chain, but when we do see these kinds of injuries, it does often indicate that the body simply can't hold up to whatever force is being pushed through it. We've seen these with high-force pitchers like Stephen Strasburg and with older pitchers like Ben Sheets.
The Reds were an early-season favorite because of their talent, and while Mat Latos has stepped up to become the team's ace, the team still needs Cueto down the stretch.
Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays have been on a roll since getting Jose Reyes back. A decade-long issue the team has had is keeping its pitchers healthy. That will be the key this season as the Jays are relying on some risky pitchers. Their status and ability to make starts will go a long way in deciding whether or not the Jays stay in the hunt.
Brandon Morrow has been a health risk for several years now, though to their credit, the Jays have both minimized his issues and gotten good performance when he's been available. Getting him back would be a big addition to the club, but only if he can overcome the forearm trouble that has plagued him this past season.
Morrow had a setback during rehab, pushing him back at least two weeks, if not longer. Forearm issues can turn into elbow issues, as they did recently with highly-touted Orioles' prospect Dylan Bundy, but there's no evidence that the Jays are worried about this being the case with Morrow. They are watching him and have been conservative with his rehab, especially after additional inflammation showed up during and after rehab games.
If Morrow can't come back as a starter, the Jays could use him as a reliever, but that would be a huge blow to their playoff push. Watch to see if Morrow can make it back through another set of rehab starts and if he can make his side sessions as well, indicating that the medical staff has gotten a handle on the postgame inflammation.
Ryan Braun, Brewers
Ryan Braun has had a tough season on and off the field. The black cloud of PED use continues to hang over one of baseball's most marketable stars, and Braun isn't able to just hit out of trouble. A thumb sprain and nerve issue has kept his hands off the bat and could until after the All-Star break.
The sprain itself is bad, though players like Dustin Pedroia have played through worse but similar injuries. Braun was never in danger of needing surgery. The real problem is the nerve issue, which causes pain and inflammation, a cycle that takes rest to calm.
Patience is hard, especially with Milwaukee struggling in last place in the NL Central, but there's really no way to accelerate the process. Once Braun is able to get back to swinging, he should come back quickly and without real problems. Neither of these issues, alone or together, tend to linger or cause any real deficits.
The Brewers can afford to be patient now, with the difference of a couple weeks essentially meaningless. Once Braun returns to the cage, he should be close and could have only a short rehab assignment before returning to the heart of the lineup.
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
Its amazing that Chris Carpenter is even in this discussion. Carpenter all but retired at the start of the season after his shoulder gave him the same kind of issues it did last year. Carpenter's contract is insured, and while the Cards didn't plan on not having him this season, they did understood that it was always a possibility.
Carpenter's absence pushed Shelby Miller into the rotation from day one, and his workload is a concern for the team. They saw what happened when Lance Lynn hit a wall last season and don't want to see Miller have the same kind of struggles.
The return of Carpenter, even if it's a cameo like last year's return, would help take some of the workload off Miller, and to some extent Lynn and Michael Wacha. As the innings increase for those pitchers, Carpenter could be smartly worked in on extended rest to spot each of them a turn in the roation. (I'm assuming Wacha will be back up soon.)
Carpenter's rehab has sputtered, but getting him back in June would have created as many problems as it solved. Getting him back in mid-July might be early, given what they can really expect from him, but again, Carpenter is more likely to be a spot guy rather than a true rotation replacement.
Creatively maximizing their assets have made the Cardinals successful over the last few years. It's put some rings on their fingers and put them in a position to give Chris Carpenter one more chance as he tries to leave baseball on his own terms.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers
The Ranger's success cycle is hardly closing on them, but this current team might need some fine-tuning before they're ready for another World Series push. Part of that is pitching, they've lost Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis from the rotation. Their replacements, Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch have pitched well, but have not completely filled the void.
The bullpen has been solid but schizophrenic. Depth has been an issue with Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and Martin Perez (who could start or relieve) being out.
With a repaired elbow, Feliz should be headed back to the pen, where he complement Joe Nathan and Soria by shortening games from the back end. That's three valid closers, an embarrassment of riches for pitching coach Mike Maddux and Ron Washington to use at will.
Soria is out on a rehab assignment right now and looking lights-out. Feliz is a couple weeks behind, so he's likely to head out on a rehab assignment right around the All-Star break, giving the Rangers chance to evaluate him heading into the trade deadline. Watch to see if Feliz has any issues with command once he gets into games. .
If they all end up healthy and effective, the Rangers will have a leg up and Jon Daniels will have built that bullpen into a weapon.
Everth Cabrera, Padres
Everth Cabrera exploded in the early part of the season, becoming a fantasy all-star and a valuable part of the Padres offense. Both were waylaid by one of the worst injuries a pure speed player like Cabrera can have: a serious hamstring strain.
While Cabrera is only going to miss the minimum, the worry is that he's lost some speed or will be a bit more reluctant to run. Worse, hamstring strains have a tendency to reoccur, and losing Cabrera for any extended period would be a devastating blow for a team that's contending in the NL West.
When Cabrera comes back, watch to see if he immediately runs and if his home-to-first times are consistent, indicating that his hamstring is handling his sharp first step.
Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and the New York Times. All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand.