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MLB Predictions: The Top 10 Players Who Must Avoid Injuries in 2011

Lewie PollisSenior Analyst IIIMarch 1, 2011

MLB Predictions: The Top 10 Players Who Must Avoid Injuries in 2011

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Serious injuries are never good things for baseball players, but the extent to which health problems affect someone's career depends a lot on the situation.

    For example, a young player who still has time to recover before he enters his prime is likely to bounce back, and a guy in the middle of a long-term contract doesn't have to worry about finding a new job right away.

    But for talented stars entering free agency or to a lesser extent, their arbitration years, getting seriously hurt could end up costing them several million dollars. And for older players whose ability to maintain their current levels of performance, a bad injury could mean a forced retirement.

    In this slideshow are the 10 MLB players who would have the most to lose if they were struck by serious injuries.

No. 10: Grady Sizemore

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    When you're an MVP-caliber player, you can struggle with injuries for a season and your reputation will remain intact.

    If your first comeback doesn't work and you can't stay healthy for the second year in a row, you're in trouble, but people still think of you as a guy who'd be an easy All-Star if he wasn't hurt.

    But if you can't stay on the field after that? Three strikes, you're out.

    Such is the situation Grady Sizemore will face if he can't maintain consistent production in 2011. Entering what could be a walk year (the shoestring-budget Indians won't exercise their $8 million club option for a guy who can't stay healthy), he'll have trouble finding a lucrative offer if he's sidelined for a substantial part of the season.

No. 9: Miguel Cabrera

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    Miguel Cabrera is admittedly an odd fit for this group because, unlike the other names on the list, he has no economic incentive to stay healthy; he's guaranteed $106 million through 2015 whether he plays or not.

    But while Miggy doesn't have any financial motive to play well in the near future, few players will be under more scrutiny this season than Cabrera.

    Already widely criticized for his conditioning and problems with alcohol, he's under fire now (and rightly so) after a DUI arrest last week.

    If Cabrera doesn't have another MVP-caliber season for any reason, fans and writers will be calling for his head.

No. 8: Carlos Beltran

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    The 2011 season is an inopportunely timed walk year for Carlos Beltran. 

    Injuries have limited Beltran to just 145 games over the last two years, and the almost-34-year-old's status as an elite player has faded along with the health of his knees. If he wants to be paid like a star again next winter, he's got to prove his body can hold up over the course of a full season.

    Beltran would rank higher on this list if not for the fact that his reputation as injury-prone is probably too deeply engrained for him to shake. Even if he stays healthy, he'll be labeled "fragile" in offseason contract talks.

No. 7: Joe Nathan

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    Since joining the Twins in 2004, Joe Nathan has been one of the best relief pitchers in the game.

    Over the last seven years, Nathan has recorded 246 saves. Even more noteworthy, he leads all MLB pitchers with at least 200 innings in ERA (1.87) and FIP (2.40). Among relief pitchers over that span, his 15.1 WAR puts him second, behind only Mariano Rivera.

    That's why there were huge repercussions for Minnesota's bullpen when he lost the entire 2010 season to Tommy John surgery.

    Nathan, a free agent after the season, will be 37 in 2012, so teams will be cautious in handing him a new contract no matter what. But if he proves that he's fully healthy, he could still land a big deal.

No. 6: Francisco Liriano

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    Nathan's teammate, Francisco Liriano, also has experience with Tommy John surgery. His recovery wasn't so smooth—after surgery in 2006, he missed all of 2007 and pitched just 212.2 innings with a 5.12 ERA in 2008-9.

    And yet, the 27-year-old enjoyed his finest season in 2010, regaining the promise he showed as a rookie in 2006. After going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA, a 2.66 FIP, a league-best 3.06 xFIP, he's reportedly seeking a long-term extension.

    But while his troubles seem to be behind him, Liriano's past could be a major obstacle to him getting the paycheck he deserves.

    If he can stay healthy in 2011, people could forget the three years he lost to injuries and ineffectiveness. If not, one of the best young pitchers in baseball may be forever labelled as injury-prone. 

No. 5: CC Sabathia

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    When CC Sabathia signed his seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees two years ago, the idea that he might exercise his opt-out clause after the 2011 season was ridiculous. The idea of him being able to find a better deal than the $23 million annual salary he's entitled to through 2015 seemed absurd.

    Now, it's not so crazy.

    In two years in the Bronx, Sabathia has gone 40-15 with a 3.27 ERA and helped New York win the World Series in 2009.

    In what looks like what will be a thin market for starting pitchers next year, Sabathia might get a better offer on the open market, and rumor has it he plans to find out.

    Unless of course Sabathia gets hurt, in which case he'll have to stick with his guaranteed money and spend the 2012 season with egg on his face.

No. 4: Adrian Gonzalez

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    Adrian Gonzalez' contract expires at the end of the season, but the Red Sox didn't trade away three of their best prospects to let him leave after 2011.

    Since the beginning, Boston's plan has been to lock A-Gone up long term to a contract that would almost certainly be for at least five years and $100 million.

    That means Gonzalez had better stay healthy until he signs on the dotted line.

    In addition to losing the job security Boston would give him, Gonzalez would hit the open market as a question mark—and be paid accordingly—if he misses significant time this season.

No. 3: Prince Fielder

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    Throughout his entire career, Prince Fielder has been derided for his large figure.

    Infamously described in Moneyball as too fat for an Oakland A's team that used a first-round pick on Jeremy Brown, Fielder is listed at 270 pounds—pretty heavy for a guy under six feet tall.

    Set to hit the free agent market after the season, writers are already expressing skepticism about how well his body will hold up as he ages—most agree that a man of his size is likely to experience an early decline.

    Fielder is known to be seeking a blockbuster deal next winter, and in spite of his obesity there's a chance he'll get a nine-digit deal from a team like the Cubs or Blue Jays.

    But what if he gets injured? Would any sane GM hand a monster contract to someone of Fielder's physique if he had another physical problem too?

No. 2: Tim Lincecum

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    Tim Lincecum's got some crazy mechanics. The only reason some pitching coach hasn't made him throw like a normal person along the way is he has so much success as is.

    But when he struggled early in the 2010 season we saw just how thin the ice Lincecum is skating on is. People all over the game blamed his faulty mechanics, suspecting he may be hurting himself with his ridiculous windup.

    Now imagine if Lincecum suffered a real injury. Even if it didn't impair his throwing motion, everyone would proclaim his mechanics to be at fault. No matter how well he pitched, for the rest of his career he'd come with a big red flag.

    Lincecum will make $12 million this season, and he's in line for substantial raises the next two years before he becomes a free agent. If he stays healthy he could sign a record-breaking contract on the open market, but if he gets hurt, the whole league will be scared to make a big commitment.

No. 1: Albert Pujols

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    It's hard to blame Albert Pujols for not signing a contract extension with the Cardinals.

    Depending on which reports you believe, St. Louis' offer was, at best, somewhere around eight years and $200 million. Given the rumors that other teams would be willing to give him in excess of 10 years and $300 million as a free agent next winter, once can his hesitance to sign with the Cards.

    And why wouldn't Prince Albert command an historic contract in the offseason? At the age of 31, he's already smashed 408 homers, racked up 1,230 RBI, and accumulated 80.6 WAR. His career OPS is 1.050.

    On top of that, he's durable. The Machine has appeared in at least 154 games in eight of his 10 MLB seasons, never missing more than 19 contests.

    So what would happen if Pujols suffered a serious injury in 2011?

    There's no telling how the market would value one of the greatest players of all time if his health was in question, but one thing is clear: no one has more to lose from injuries than Pujols.

    For more of Lewie's work, visit WahooBlues.com. Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.

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