MLB Stars Whose Health Will Directly Determine 2015 Playoff Races

Zachary Petersel@@ZPeterselFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2015

MLB Stars Whose Health Will Directly Determine 2015 Playoff Races

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Whether it's an aging star who's breaking down or a superstar who's recovering from an offseason surgery, just about every team in the league already has health concerns.

    The list of big-name stars goes on and on. So to try and make things easier to digest, I broke down some of the biggest injuries by division.

    Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera possibly not being ready for the season opener is the AL's biggest injury news. On the other hand, two of the best young pitchers in baseball, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, are coming off Tommy John surgery, and their recoveries will determine how the NL East shakes out. 

    Over the course of a 162-game season, every team will have to battle through their fair share of injuries. Here is a list of the top players recovering from various injuries that will have a tremendous impact on playoff races this season.

AL East

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Boston Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia

    Dustin Pedroia didn't miss a lot of time last season, playing in 135 games, but it was the worst full season statistically of his nine-year career due to the injuries he played through. 

    Pedroia said he had to deal with a wrist injury the entire season, per ESPNBoston.com, which contributed to a career-low seven home runs and a .376 slugging percentage. Pedroia underwent successful surgery in September and has since been fully cleared to resume baseball activities. 

    "He's doing great," manager John Farrell told MLB Network Radio on Wednesday (via MLB.com's Ian Browne). "Our most recent conversation was yesterday, and he's been cleared from a physical standpoint to resume all baseball activities. Strength has been regained completely from the surgery." 

    After finishing in the bottom half of the league in runs, slugging percentage and home runs in 2014, the Boston Red Sox are in dire need of a healthy Pedroia. Signing both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez will assuredly help, but getting their MVP and clubhouse leader back will provide a bigger boost than any potential free agent out there. John Farrell seems to agree:

    I wouldn't say Dustin is a bounce-back situation, but I feel like the fact he's got some of these hand issues behind him [will help him]. … Dustin is one of our leaders, clearly. And to have him pain-free or without restrictions, we feel like there's going to be a return to the ability to drive the baseball like he's done in the past.

    Pedroia still managed to put up a 2.8 WAR last season, despite the injuries, but it's a far cry from his 6.5 average WAR from 2011-2013, according to Baseball-Reference.com. With the Orioles losing some of their key players such as Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller, the AL East is wide-open. A healthy Pedroia will have a huge impact on who takes the crown. 


    Baltimore Orioles 3B Manny Machado, Matt Wieters

    Manny Machado is one of the most promising young players in all of baseball. As a 20-year-old, he led the MLB with 51 doubles, won a Gold Glove and finished ninth in the MVP voting.

    His season ended early, however, due to a devastating knee injury he suffered innocently rounding first base. He bounced back in 2014, increasing his OPS from .746 to .755, but his season again ended early due to another knee injury, this time to his other leg. 

    Machado recently spoke about his recovery and said "it's been a while since I felt this healthy" and he's "itching" to get back out there. He's confident he'll be ready to start spring training when it starts next month, and that would be a tremendous boost to an Orioles lineup that lost two of its big boppers. Here's hoping that we can watch one of baseball's brightest young stars for a full 162-game season.

    Matt Wieters was limited to 26 games last season and underwent Tommy John surgery this past June; he's expected to be recovered by the start of the season.

    The three-time All-Star averaged 22 home runs from 2011-2013, with two Gold Glove awards. He's coming off his best season (.308 batting average; .500 slugging percentage), so if he comes close to that this season, and Machado can stay healthy, the loss of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis in free agency will be much easier to swallow.

AL Central

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Detroit Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera

    Cabrera underwent foot and ankle surgeries this offseason. The two-time MVP and three-time batting champ (all in the last four seasons) is coming off his worst season in nearly a decade, putting up with multiple nagging injuries.

    Granted, he still hit .313 with 25 home runs, 109 RBI and a league-high 52 doubles, so he's still a perennial MVP candidate, but if he continues to break down, the Tigers may not be the threat they once was. 

    On Thursday, the Tigers cleared Cabrera to wear normal shoes, per MLB.com's Jason Beck, but there's still a ways to go in his recovery:

    Cabrera has not yet been cleared for baseball activities. He can't run yet, and he still has to limit how much weight he puts on the foot in workouts. From a mobility standpoint, however, he can walk around like anybody else.

    Having signed the 36-year-old Victor Martinez to a four-year deal, the Tigers could have their hands full very soon with players who can no longer play in the field.

AL West

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Angels RHP Garrett Richards

    A 2009 first-round pick, Garrett Richards came out of nowhere in 2014. After posting a 4.42 ERA in his first three big-league seasons, per Baseball-Reference.com, Richards went 13-4 with a 2.60 FIP to become the best pitcher on the best team in all of baseball...until a devastating knee injury ended his season in August. 

    At the time of his injury, he was fourth in the AL in wins (13), fifth in WHIP (1.04) and sixth in pitcher's WAR (4.4).

    Earlier this offseason, Mike Digiovanna of the Los Angeles Times said Richards' recovery is going "very well" and Fred Wray, Richards' agent spoke about the rehab process:

    Doctors said Richards would need six to nine months to recover from his surgery. Though the Angels have no desire or plans to rush him, there is a good chance Richards could be ready for the start of the 2015 season.

    “The key to his rehab is not overdoing it for the first three months,” Richard's agent Fred Wray said. “After that, he can slowly work his way back into more activities. From everything I’ve heard, he’s on pace with everything. It’s going very well.”

    In what's become one of baseball's best divisions, the Angels will need a healthy Richards to repeat their 98-win season of 2014. They're a team with title hopes and an already sky-high payroll, so for them, there may be no greater offseason acquisition.

    Texas Rangers 1B Prince Fielder, OF Shin-Soo Choo and INF Jurickson Profar

    Think the Rangers are excited to get the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball and a five-time All-Star back in their lineup?

    After setting a record last season for the most players used in MLB history, there were plenty of options to pick from in Texas, including high-priced acquisition Shin-Shoo Choo. 

    Fielder was limited to just 42 games last season after missing only one over the previous fives seasons due to a neck-fusion surgery he had in May. Profar entered the 2013 season as the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball America, but he didn't play a single game last season after multiple setbacks on his shoulder.

    After his worst season since 2008, Choo underwent surgery on his left elbow and a month after that, he had ankle surgery as well. 

    What can we expect from these guys? Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News believes Fielder's surgery was akin to Peyton Manning's, so if we ignore the last few weeks, he expects the Rangers 1B to return to his All-Star status. Meanwhile Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that both Choo and Profar deemed themselves ready to go, but they have something to prove.

    In discussing his health and his outlook, Profar said: "It’s the best I’ve felt,” said Profar, who turns 22 on Feb. 20. I know I’m going to make it. I feel too good. If I’m healthy and finish the season plus-150 games, I have confidence in myself I can do what I’ve done before.” 

    Getting these players back, among other full seasons from Mitch Moreland, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish will be a huge boost for the Rangers and their chances in the AL West.

NL East

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Washington Nationals OF Jayson Werth

    The Nationals recently announced that Werth underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder and was expected to miss 2-3 months. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported that this was an injury that caused him to miss a week last season in August. 

    The 35-year-old led the team last season with a .394 on-base percentage and tied for second with a .455 slugging percentage, so if he's forced to miss any time, it will be a big blow to their lineup. He has a history riddled with injuries, having missed 114 games during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, so he's not starting 2015 on the right foot. 

    New York Mets RHP Matt Harvey, 3B David Wright

    David Wright is coming off one of his worst seasons, hitting a career-low eight home runs, with a career-worst .374 slugging percentage last season. Wright dealt with a nagging shoulder injury last season but told the New York Post, per Kevin Kernan, he feels "really good" and believes he'll bounce back, as the 32-year-old spoke of the upcoming season:

    For me, personally, last year sucked. When you have a passion for something and you fail at it, I want to make sure that never happens again.

    [...]

    I fully expect us to be in the playoffs. He was 23 the last time the Mets were in the postseason. “It’s not coming out here and boasting, but I think where we stand right now, we’re a much better team than we were last year and in years past.

    What's going to help Wright's claim that the Mets will make the playoffs is the return of ace Matt Harvey from Tommy John surgery. In his first full season in the MLB, Harvey started the All-Star Game, finished fourth in the CY Young race and struck out 191 batters in 178.1 IP with a league-best 2.01 FIP. Harvey's been training all offseason, and in an interview with SNY's Steve Gelbs, he said he wants to face live batters in February.

    What's going to be interesting to watch is how the Mets manage Harvey's innings. According to Newsday's Marc Carig, they talked about a plan, which included extra rest, but once the season starts and the games are important, who knows how much they'll stick with the plan. What we do know, if a healthy Harvey joins reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler atop the rotation, the Mets will be a force to reckon with in the NL East. 

    Miami Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez

    Similar to Harvey, baseball lost one of its most precious young arms to Tommy John last season in Jose Fernandez. After undergoing successful surgery last May, the Marlins could expect to have their ace back around June but manager Mike Redmond said they're not going to rush him, according to MASNsports.com's Mel Antonen. 

    "He's making good progress, but that's the last thing we want is rush him for the sake of a few more starts," Redmond said. "He means so much to the organization."

    The Marlins have made a number of shrewd moves this offseason, adding Mat Latos, Dee Gordon and Dan Haren among other deals. Add a healthy Fernandez to that bunch, and the NL East could suddenly become a three-way competition.

NL Central

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    Christian Petersen/Associated Press

    Milwaukee Brewers OF Ryan Braun

    In case you haven't picked up on the recurring theme in this article, when players get injured, they struggle. It's pretty simple, and while Ryan Braun may have been struggling for other reasons, cough, cough, he battled a thumb injury for much of 2014 before deciding on surgery this past October. 

    Braun spoke about his recovery with Adam McCalvy of MLB.com and remains optimistic, saying the surgery "definitely worked":

    “Right now, I don’t feel any [discomfort], and I haven’t been able to say that for two years. “I think I’ve told you guys, it [bothered him] shaking hands, writing — you know, just everyday activities. Now I don’t feel it at all, so I’m excited.”

    [...]

    “I’m excited, but at the same time, I went into last year and felt really good in Spring Training. For the first four of five weeks, it felt great, I played great, and then kind of re-injured it. But last year we also just rested it. We didn’t do a procedure. So I’m optimistic and excited. I feel like I have to be somewhat cautiously optimistic until we start playing a little bit."

    Again, there is a performance-enhancing drug (PED) history here, but if Braun can get close to the player he was from 2007-2012 and average 34 home runs, 21 steals with a .313 batting average and .568 slugging percentage, the Brewers may have a shot at contending in this division.

    If he remains the post-PED player of the last two years, averaging 14 home runs, eight steals with a .275 batting average and .466 slugging percentage, I'm not sure the Brew Crew will have a chance against the likes of the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and even the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. 

    Cardinals RHPs Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha

    Adam Wainwright finished the 2014 season in dramatic fashion, fighting his way through elbow pain that ultimately required surgery to trim a piece of cartilage from his pitching elbow. 

    2014 looks good from the outside for Wainwright, after all he won 20 games and posted a career-best 2.38 ERA.

    However, the peripherals show a pitcher in decline, which makes sense for the 33-year-old. Wainwright's strikeout-per-nine-innings (7.10) stat was his lowest since his first full season, his ground-ball percentage declined for the third straight season and his xFIP, despite being a very strong 3.34, was his highest since 2008.

    Dealing with these elbow problems, he struggled mightily in the playoffs to the tune of a 5.63 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP. This is a pitcher who already had Tommy John surgery once and has thrown over 1,500 regular-season innings in his career, so there is plenty of reason for concern.

    Michael Wacha has been brilliant in his brief two-year MLB career. That's the problem, however, as he was limited to just 107 innings last season due to a stress reaction in his right shoulder. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak spoke to MLB Network at the winter meetings and reiterated Wacha is going through a "normal" offseason and expects both him and Wainwright to be healthy at spring training.

    There's a reason Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports and others have linked the Cardinals to Cole Hamels, David Price and Max Scherzer in the rumor mill. With Shelby Miller now in Atlanta and question marks surrounding Wainwright and Wacha, St. Louis could be in a lot of trouble.

NL West

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Colorado Rockies SS Troy Tulowitzki, OF Carlos Gonzalez

    Troy Tulowitzki is one of the best players in baseball when he's on the field. The problem is, the four-time All-Star has played more than 100 games only once in the past three seasons and has played more than 150 games only twice in his nine-year career.

    He was off to a career year in 2014, hitting .340 with a 1.035 OPS in 91 games, but his season ended in August to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. 

    In addition to Tulo's injury-prone career, the Rockies have to deal with Carlos Gonzalez and all of his various injuries (finger, knee). Since 2010, he's averaged just 117 games a season, but when he's healthy he has All-Star and MVP potential, finishing third in the NL in 2010. 

    Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported earlier this offseason that both the recoveries were "progressing well" but it remains to be seen just how long these two can stay on the field. The Rockies haven't finished a season over .500 since 2010, but getting Tulowitzki and Gonzalez on the field for 130 games or more would greatly enhance their chances of disrupting the NL West race and snapping that streak.

    San Francisco Giants RHPs Matt Cain and Tim Hudson

    Matt Cain had season-ending elbow surgery in August, and then at the end of September, the Giants announced that he also had ankle surgery that would require two months of recovery.

    The three-time All-Star had his worst professional season last year, pitching to a 4.18 ERA, making a career-low 15 starts. Before 2014, Cain was the king of consistency, averaging 32 starts each year from 2006-2013 so it's likely he'll be able to bounce back.

    Tim Hudson also underwent ankle surgery, but his procedure was done in January, and Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reports his recovery time is expected to be eight weeks. In theory, that should leave the veteran plenty of time to be ready for Opening Day, but a 39-year-old body doesn't recover the same way a 21-year-old body does.

    If the injury lingers, it could mean trouble for the Giants, as they'll need both Cain and Hudson to pick up extra innings to protect Madison Bumgarner's World Series winning arm after his career-high 270 innings pitched.

    Statistics are accurate through the 2014 season and courtesy of MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

    To talk baseball or follow the latest rumors, check in with me on Twitter:@ZPetersel.