9 MLB Stars Whose Injury Returns Could Shake Up 2014 Pennant Races
The talk of the baseball world the past few weeks has been about the trade market, and understandably so, as a number of high-profile players, headlined by David Price and Jon Lester, changed teams at the deadline.
Teams can still explore trades via waivers, but there are also a number of contenders who will be getting notable in-house additions for the stretch run as key players return from injury.
What follows is a ranking of nine players who are currently sidelined who could have the biggest impact on the 2014 pennant races.
Players were ranked strictly based how much they mean to their respective teams' chances of making the playoffs and succeeding beyond that once October rolls around.
It should be noted that players injured in August were not considered for this list, so you won't see the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Anibal Sanchez or Hanley Ramirez, among others. This was strictly a look at players who have been shelved since before the trade deadline but could return to make a significant impact.
9. SP/RP Dylan Bundy, Baltimore Orioles
Injury: Recovery from Tommy John surgery (June 27, 2013)
Dylan Bundy may not have actually achieved MLB stardom just yet, but he has all the tools to be a stud atop the Baltimore Orioles rotation for years to come.
The No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft climbed three levels in his pro debut in 2012 before earning a September call-up at the age of 19. Things went south quickly from there, though, as he would miss all of the 2013 season following Tommy John surgery.
He's still on the comeback trail, but his stuff is close to where it was pre-injury, and he has put up solid numbers over nine starts between Low-A and High-A.
Bundy struck out seven over 4.1 scoreless innings his last time out, and while he may not get a call-up until September, he could make a significant impact whether it is at the back of the rotation or as a bullpen arm.
8. SP Henderson Alvarez, Miami Marlins
Injury: Shoulder inflammation (July 30, 2014)
The Miami Marlins are still holding on in their hunt for a playoff spot. They entered play Sunday trailing the Washington Nationals by 6.5 games in the NL East but just 4.5 games back for the second NL wild-card spot.
The Marlins have been without All-Star Henderson Alvarez atop their rotation since the beginning of the month, when he landed on the 15-day DL with shoulder inflammation.
"I’m good. It’s just inflammation,” Alvarez told Manny Navarro of The Miami Herald. “There’s nothing there. I’m just going to do treatment to bring down the inflammation and go from there."
With phenom Jose Fernandez lost for the year, Alvarez had stepped into the role of staff ace for the Marlins and done a fantastic job. If they are going to pull off the unlikely and reach the postseason, they will need Alvarez to pitch at a high level.
He is eligible to be activated from the DL Aug. 15, and all signs point to him jumping right back into the swing of things as soon as that date rolls around.
7. 1B Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals
Injury: Stress fracture in right hand (July 31, 2014)
The Kansas City Royals are one of the hottest teams in baseball right now, going 14-3 in their last 17 games to trim the Detroit Tigers' lead in the AL Central from eight games to just 1.5 games.
Included in that streak is a 7-1 record since first baseman Eric Hosmer landed on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his right hand.
He was hit on the hand by Jon Lester back on July 20, and while he originally avoided a DL trip, he further aggravated the injury on a check swing July 31, and X-rays then revealed the fracture.
Hosmer was expected to miss three to six weeks at the time of the injury, and there have been no changes to that timetable to this point. That would put him back in the KC lineup sometime between Aug. 21 and Sept. 11, depending on how long it takes him to rehab.
The Royals could certainly use Hosmer in a lineup that is incredibly thin on power bats, but it's worth mentioning that Billy Butler is hitting .400/.419/.733 with four doubles and two home runs in eight games since moving from DH to first base to replace Hosmer.
6. SP Michael Pineda, New York Yankees
Injury: Strained back muscle (May 6, 2014)
Despite losing four-fifths of their Opening Day rotation to injury, the New York Yankees have managed to stay competitive. Entering play Sunday, they were just six games back in the AL East and 1.5 games out for the second AL wild-card spot.
Guys like Brandon McCarthy, Chris Capuano, Shane Greene and, most recently, Esmil Rogers have stepped up huge, but it's fair to say the Yankees have been playing with house money, and relying on that group to lead them to the postseason is a risky proposition.
Things got a bit more complicated when David Phelps landed on the DL with elbow tendinitis, but the team may soon have Michael Pineda back to take his rotation spot.
Pineda was 2-2 with a 1.83 ERA in four starts before being suspended for using pine tar and then suffering a back injury prior to returning from said suspension.
He's made two rehab starts for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre so far, striking out seven and allowing one run in 4.1 innings of work his last time out.
Pineda will likely return this coming Wednesday against the division-leading Orioles, according to Roger Rubin of the New York Daily News. If he can return to his pre-injury form for the stretch run, it would certainly increase the Yankees' chances of landing a playoff spot.
5. SP Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
Injury: Lat strain (July 5, 2014)
After missing 22 games in June with shoulder fatigue, Gerrit Cole returned to make one start at the end of the month before immediately returning to the DL with a lat strain.
Many expected Cole to take another step forward this season and perhaps emerge as the ace of the Pirates staff following a terrific rookie season in 2013. Instead, the former No. 1 overall pick was 7-4 with a 3.78 ERA in 14 starts on the year.
Luckily, the Pirates have received unexpected contributions from Vance Worley (9 GS, 5-1, 2.30 ERA) and Jeff Locke (12 GS, 3-3, 3.78 ERA), which has certainly helped ease the loss of Cole at the front end of the rotation.
That said, the team would still no doubt love to have the big right-hander back in the mix.
Cole was shelled in his last rehab outing Aug. 5, allowing 10 hits and five runs in 4.1 innings, so he'll make at least one more outing for Triple-A Indianapolis before the team thinks about activating him.
The NL Central is shaping up to be a dog fight once again, with the Pirates currently trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by 2.5 games and the St. Louis Cardinals just a half-game behind them. Perhaps Cole can be the X-factor that gets the Pirates back to the playoffs.
4. SP Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
Injury: Shoulder discomfort (June 17, 2014)
The Cardinals were as pitching-rich as any team in the league heading into the season, but they were dealt a significant one-two punch when Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha both landed on the DL on the same day back in June.
Those losses, coupled with inconsistency from Shelby Miller, led the team to go out and acquire both Justin Masterson and John Lackey at the trade deadline.
Masterson is 1-1 with an 11.25 ERA in two starts since joining the team, as he was shelled for seven hits and five runs in just two innings Friday.
Lackey is 1-1 with an 8.25 ERA in his two starts, taking a similar thumping from the Orioles Saturday when he allowed 13 hits and nine runs in five innings.
That makes the return of Michael Wacha that much more important to the Cardinals, who will count on him to not only stay healthy, but to pitch like he was pre-injury. The 23-year-old was 5-5 with a 2.79 ERA in 15 starts prior to landing on the DL.
He began a throwing program last Tuesday, according to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (h/t Matt Snyder of CBS Sports), as he had completely shut things down for nearly a month. Chances are the soonest he'll be back is September, and if Lackey and Masterson don't turn it around, the team could be in desperate need of his services by then.
3. 1B Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays
Injury: Quad strain (July 6, 2014)
After a slow start to the season, Edwin Encarnacion put together a ridiculous month of May, posting a 1.132 OPS with 16 home runs and 33 RBI.
He was still going strong roughly a week before the All-Star Game, when he suffered a quad strain trying to leg out a ground ball. He's been sidelined since but still ranks among the AL leaders in home runs (26, third) and OPS (.959, third).
The Toronto Blue Jays have had their share of injuries to the lineup. Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie are currently on the disabled list as well, and getting Encarnacion back in the middle of things will be important as they try to catch the Orioles.
He began a rehab assignment Saturday, going 1-for-3 in his first game for High-A Dunedin, and if all goes according to plan, he could conceivably return sometime this coming week.
According to a tweet from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Blue Jays have the second-toughest remaining schedule among AL contenders, with an opponents' winning percentage of .507. That only makes the return of Encarnacion that much more important.
2. C Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Injury: Torn thumb ligament (July 10, 2014)
Few players contribute as much to their team as Yadier Molina. Not only is he the game's premier defensive catcher and one of the best offensive backstops around, but he is essentially a second manager on the field.
Losing him was a major blow for the Cardinals, especially given their offensive struggles as a team this year, and the team is currently using a platoon of Tony Cruz and A.J. Pierzynski at the position.
Cruz is hitting .205/.271/.273 with three doubles and three RBI in 15 games since the injury, while Pierzynski has hit .286/.342/.400 with four RBI in 10 games since signing with the team July 26.
Molina was originally expected to miss eight to 12 weeks, and while he has not suffered any setbacks, that timetable has also not improved, and he is still not expected to be back until September.
"What we’re hearing is good. There’s not a lot going on. It’s just healing time," manager Mike Matheny told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We’re trying to keep him from going crazy. He wants to be out there so bad."
Getting Molina back could certainly provide a significant spark for a Cardinals team that has fallen well short of expectations this season but is still right in the thick of the NL Central race.
1. SP Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
Injury: Elbow, small tear in UCL (July 9, 2014)
The Yankees were dealt what many thought to be a death blow when it was revealed that rookie phenom Masahiro Tanaka had a partially torn UCL, an injury that more times than not ends in Tommy John surgery.
Tanaka opted for rehab instead of surgery, hoping to return for the stretch run, and he's recently begun throwing with no setbacks to this point.
Bleacher Report's Adam Wells has been keeping track of all the latest news surrounding Tanaka in an oft-updated article, with the latest news coming Thursday that he threw from 60 and 90 feet.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman indicated the team has a plan in place for when Tanaka will return, but he shared only vague details at this point.
"I’m not going to say it,” Cashman told Kevin Manahan of NJ.com. “We’ll take this day-by-day. He’s in one of those situations where every day you hold your breath, hoping it’s a good day. The more of those that come, the better it will be for us."
He did confirm that September is the earliest Tanaka would be back in New York, and if the Yankees can keep it close until then, there may be no currently shelved player who would have a bigger impact on his team's playoff chances.
That includes recently injured players who were not included here like Andrew McCutchen and Anibal Sanchez, as Tanaka gives the Yankees the bona fide ace it takes to succeed in the playoffs.
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