MLB Playoff Predictions: Key Injuries Facing Playoff Contenders

John Lund@@lundinbridgeFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2015

MLB Playoff Predictions: Key Injuries Facing Playoff Contenders

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    The injury bug often rears its mighty head at the most inopportune times in Major League Baseball. The optimism of a team can quickly disappear when a key player goes down. And when the injury warrants a lengthy recovering timesometimesthat optimism is crushed completely.

    With the 2015 MLB playoffs right around the corner, postseason contenders will have their fingers crossed that injuries will be avoided from here on out.

    All teams have had to deal with injuries this season—some worse than others. Many of those teams were able to overcome their misfortunes to this point, while others face recent injuries without much time to recover.

    When it comes to playoff successes, the healthier team seems to have the better shot at long-term success. That's not always the case, but a key injury down the stretch can sometimes be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

    The slides ahead will focus on the key injuries that each playoff contender is currently facing this season and whether they can overcome said injuries in postseason competition. That's not to say that every injury will be listed for each team, but key players will be noted as best as possible.

    Teams that are listed would make the playoffs if the season ended as of Friday night.

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Troy Tulowitzki

    The Toronto Blue Jays traded for Troy Tulowitzki at the end of July and haven't lost a game since. Well, that may not be quite accurate, but is sure feels that way, right?

    The Jays have won seven of their last 10 and a victory over the Boston Red Sox on Friday night increased their lead in the AL East over the New York Yankees to 4.5 games. But in a series against the Yanks last weekend, Tulo went down with injury and it's unknown when he'll return.

    The shortstop has had injuries in the past, but this one might have been the flukiest of them all. Tulowitzki collided with center fielder Kevin Pillar on a pop-up, appeared fine, but then fell to the ground seconds later and didn't get up. After a series of tests, the diagnosis was a crack in his left shoulder blade.

    MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm reported that Tulowitzki left the team to go see a specialist on Thursday for the injury that has a timetable for a return of two to three weeks. Three weeks would mean Tulo would be back for the final week of the season, but if Toronto keeps its hold in the AL East, the Blue Jays might be able to afford to make absolutely sure he's healthy before a return.

    In 39 games since joining the Jays, Tulowitzki was hitting .232/.314/.368 with a .682 OPS. Ryan Goins will fill in while Tulowitzki recovers and Cliff Pennington will be the everyday second baseman.

    The Jays will obviously miss Tulowitzki in the lineup, but seem to be doing just fine since he's been out. If he's unable to go in the postseason, he'll still provide more than enough support from the dugout.

Kansas City Royals

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Omar Infante, Jason Vargas

    Remember when Kansas City Royals second baseman Omar Infante almost made the All-Star team? Well, his stats really haven't gotten better, and an injury just made his season worse.

    Infante left Friday night's game after five innings with a left oblique strain, as reported by MLB.com's Jeffrey Flanagan. According to the report, Infante is scheduled to have an MRI on Saturday. The Royals lost to the Detroit Tigers in 12 innings, 5-4.

    Oblique strains usually take three to four weeks of recovery, which means Infante will most likely be out for the remainder of the regular season. Though Infante lost his starting job as a result of a horrendous .220/.234/.318 slash line in 440 at-bats this season, he did go 3-for-4 with a career-high seven RBI in a 8-4 win over the Indians on Thursday.

    He's the type of guy who could provide a spark off the bench come playoff time, however. In last year's postseason, when Infante actually played, the 33-year-old had at least one hit in nine of the last 11 games Kansas City played.

    For Jason Vargas, it was an injury-plagued 2015. He went on the disabled list three times this season, the last of which was for a torn ulnar collateral ligament in July, resulting in Tommy John surgery.

    The lefty went 5-2 with a 3.98 ERA in nine games for the Royals. Kansas City had actually demoted Opening Day starter Yordano Ventura when Vargas came back, but he returned pretty quickly after the injury. Ventura is 12-8 with a 4.40 ERA in 25 games this year.

    Ventura's struggles and the loss of Vargas were most likely factors when the Royals acquired Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline. The righty has had an up-and-down time with Kansas City and is 2-6 with a 5.12 ERA in 10 games with the team. Cueto did pitch seven strong innings in his last start against the Detroit Tigers.

    In the playoffs last year, Vargas wasn't exactly Nolan Ryan but did enough to get by. He gave up two runs in six innings to the Angels in a no-decision that Kansas City would eventually win 3-2 in 11 innings.

    Against the Baltimore Orioles in Game 4 of the ALCS, Vargas gave up just two hits and one run in 5.1 innings before handing things over to the bullpen and earning the 2-1 win. In the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, Vargas had a tougher time, allowing six hits and three runs in four innings but receiving a no-decision in an 11-4 loss.

    Cueto should be able to give the Royals the same output that Vargas would have, and if Infante comes back by the postseason, Kansas City would be no worse for the wear.

Texas Rangers

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Yu Darvish, Josh Hamilton

    When Yu Darish underwent Tommy John surgery in March, many viewed the Texas Rangers' season as a loss.

    The ace of the staff was projected to produce as least four wins above replacement and the loss led to predictions that the Rangers would win just 74 games. Well, the Rangers current mark stands at 79, and a four-game sweep of the Houston Astros has Texas with a 2.5-game lead in the AL West. So much for stats, huh?

    Darvish was a huge loss and replacing his 10-7 record and 3.06 ERA from 2014 wasn't easy, as a slow start to the Rangers' season showed. But, consistency paid off, the bats have become quite hot and the pitching has done enough. Acquiring Cole Hamels at the trade deadline was a fantastic move in filling the void for Darvish.

    Josh Hamilton has seemed to have spent most of the season on the disabled list since being acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Angels in April. His most recent news came on Sept. 11, when the lefty slugger had surgery to repair a slight meniscus tear in his left knee, according to Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News.

    However, the injury doesn't appear to be season-ending, and Hamilton hopes to begin his return by pinch-hitting by the end of the weekend, according to the Associated Press' Stephen Hawkins (h/t the Sacramento Bee).

    With the addition of Hamels and the return of Hamilton, the Rangers should be a feared team if they can hold on to play in the postseason.

New York Yankees

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Mark Teixeira, Nathan Eovaldi

    In August, the New York Yankees appeared to be a lock to make the playoffs. Now they're fighting just to hang on to a wild-card spot.

    For much of the season, the Yankees relied on the bats of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez while the pitching staff tried to find any sort of consistency. Tex had a strong April and avoided injury, helping the Yankees shoot out to a hold of the AL East.

    But the switch-hitter's fantastic season came to a screeching halt on Aug. 17 after fouling a ball off his shin. After a series of tests and optimism, Teixeira's leg wasn't getting better, and the injury was finally revealed to be a fracture on Sept. 11. The first baseman hit .255 with 31 homers and 79 RBIs in 111 games in 2015.

    Fortunately, the Yankees have found some success in Greg Bird, the young 22-year-old slated to one day take over at first base. In 30 games, the lefty is batting .248 in 105 at-bats with seven home runs. The glove might need some work to compare to Teixeira's but the power has been a nice addition to the lineup. The more games, the more Bird should improve.

    As for Eovaldi, who's been out since Sept. 5 with an inflamed right elbow, Wall Street Journal's Daniel Barbarisi reported that the 25-year-old said he might be able to help in the bullpen. That help wouldn't come until the postseason, however. 

    Eovaldi could resume throwing as early as Monday, according to the New York Post's George King III. He was 14-3 with a 4.20 ERA in 27 starts this season and 11-3 with a 3.43 ERA in his last 14.

    The loss of Eovaldi is the biggest injury concern for the Bronx Bombers. It seems like every pitcher on the Yankees starting staff has been injured this season or has been severely injured in the past, sans for rookie Luis Severino. Adam Warren, who went 5-5 with a 3.59 ERA in 14 games early this season, is back in the rotation.

    Aside from Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, the Yankees' bullpen has been in shambles of late. That was on full display on Friday night against the New York Mets. Trailing 2-1, Chasen Shreve gave up a two-run homer to Juan Uribe and now holds an 8.11 ERA in his last seven appearances, including nine hits (three homers) and seven walks.

    If Eovaldi is able to come back, he could potentially help in long-relief situations in the postseason. But even if he's healthy, the question is whether he'll even get to pitch.

Houston Astros

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Carlos Gomez, Scott Feldman

    The Houston Astros rose up the ranks of the AL West quickly this season, but in the past couple of days they seem to have fallen just as hard. Now 2.5 games back of the Texas Rangers and clinging to a one-game lead for the second wild card, the Astros have to find answers—fast.

    Some injuries from this month might hurt with that, however. One of Houston's trade acquisitions, Carlos Gomez, suffered a mild intercostal strain in batting practice on Monday and has yet to return to the lineup. He missed the entire four-game series against Texas and watched from the bench as the team was swept.

    He most likely will be out for the weekend but should work his way back to the field at some point. For now, Jake Marisnick will play center field. Gomez hasn't had a great season but was turning the corner in September with a .306/.381/.611 line through 10 games.

    As for Feldman, the team announced on Sept. 11 that the righty will miss the rest of the season with a sprained shoulder. He was 5-5 with a 3.90 ERA in 18 starts this season and also missed a couple of months after arthroscopic knee surgery.

    Feldman was a solid starter for the middle of the rotation and provided a veteran voice in the clubhouse from his nine years in the big leagues. However, after Houston acquired Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers, it was unlikely that Feldman would have even seen a postseason start anyway.

    If Gomez can come back soon, he could possibly spark the team down the stretch in the last couple of weeks. The Astros are in trouble with or without him, however, and only have a handful of games left to hang on.

New York Mets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Zack Wheeler

    The New York Mets arguably have the best starting rotation in baseball, and that's without one of the pitchers who was supposed to help make that happen.

    Zack Wheeler got hurt before the season even started and needed Tommy John surgery in March. The righty threw 185.1 innings in 2014, winning 11 games with a 3.57 ERA and 187 strikeouts. He also threw a lot of pitches—like 14 starts in which he threw between 110 and 121 pitches. For a team that didn't make the playoffs last season.

    To quote Bryan Adams, he was young and wild and free. Wheeler also had five of those 100 pitches or more starts in which he didn't make it into the sixth inning, and only reached the eighth inning once.

    But hey, Matt Harvey put a stop to those overuse shenanigans (though his season is measured on innings and not pitches) and Wheeler should be back in 2016. The injury was viewed as catastrophic in spring training.

    And yet, with how the Mets have been playing lately, many fans might not even remember Wheeler is still on the team. They should be OK without him.

St. Louis Cardinals

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Adam Wainwright

    The St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball, and have done so without having their best pitcher on the mound for almost the entire season.

    Adam Wainright, who helped to lead the Cards to a World Series championship in 2006, hasn't pitched since tearing his Achilles tendon while running to first base on April 25. In only four starts, he went 2-1 with a 1.44 ERA, but slated to miss the rest of the season.

    However, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Thursday that Wainright will meet with doctors on Monday to discuss resuming baseball activities. He's already been throwing in the bullpen with increased intensity and such, but has yet to work on fielding.

    The injury typically takes 10-12 months to heal, so possibly coming back after five is pretty crazy. Doctors may say the risk outweighs the reward, but there still is a chance Wainright could make it back for a deep run in the postseason.

    The three-time All-Star went 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP last season, which would have been good enough for a Cy Young if Clayton Kershaw wasn't in the National League. If Wainright can return in the postseason, who knows what the Cards could be capable of.

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Yasiel Puig, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have two of the best pitchers in baseball and control the NL West. Problem is, what do they do when those two pitchers aren't on the mound?

    Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder surgery in Mary) and Brandon McCarthy (Tommy John in April) aren't close to the level of Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke, they would have at least added depth. Depth is something the Dodgers need, but lost more of.

    As Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday, the Dodger designated proposed third starter Mat Latos for assignement. In six games, he went 0-3 with a 6.66 ERA and 1.52. He was even demoted to the bullpen and replaced by Mike Bolsinger.

    Yasiel Puig has also spend a good chunk of the season on the disabled list, most recently with a right hamstring strain. He could be stay out until the postseason, but would most likely need to play in some games to get his timing back.

    And yet, the Dogers have won seven of their last 10 and are playing great baseball at a great time. If the pitchers not named Clayton or Zack can win a game here and there in the playoffs, that might be enough for Los Angeles.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Jung Ho Kang

    The Pittsburgh Pirates are slowly getting closer to a one-game playoff with the Chicago Cubs and trying to play good baseball until that point. Unfortunately, one of their more likable players won't be able to join them.

    Infielder Jung Ho Kang was injured on a slide against those same Cubs on Thursday and will miss the remainder of the season, as first reported by Dejan Kovacevic of DKPittsburghSports.com. He will miss up to six to eight months after surgery of a displaced lateral tibia plateau fracture and lateral mensical repair.

    Kang was quietly putting together Rookie of the Year numbers, including a .287/.355/.461 line with 15 dingers and 24 doubles. He also gave the Pirates some versatility and depth, playing both shortstop and third base.

    The injury came at an awful time and doesn't help the Piratess, who face a four-game losing streak and hold home-field advantage in the wild card by just one game over the Cubs.

    Pittsburgh does have a ton of infield depth, however. Jordy Mercer can go back to short and Josh Harrison or Aramis Ramirez can play third. The Pirates can't do as much as they would have liked with Kang in the game and they'll miss his spark in the batting lineup and in the field, but this isn't a huge blow. The Pirates still should be fine to make the postseason. How many games they play is the big question.

Chicago Cubs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Jason Motte

    The Chicago Cubs have had injuries this season, sure, but are doing quite all right when it comes to the injury report. They're doing quite all right when it comes to baseball, too, having won four straight and moving to within a game back of the Pittsburgh Pirates for home field in the Wild Card Game.

    One of the few players currently injured is reliever Jason Motte, who is pitching in his first season with the Cubbies after serving for seven in St. Louis. He went on the disabled list with a right shoulder strain on Aug. 24, but is throwing off flat ground as of Wednesday, as MLB.com's Carrie Muskat reported.

    Flat ground isn't the mound, so it's unclear when Motte can return or if he'll make it back to the postseason. But his 8-1 record with six saves and 3.91 ERA in 57 games wasn't too bad.

    Motte isn't a guy who will make or break the Cubs' season depending on his return, but it would be nice to have some reliability in the back end of the bullpen during the postseason. Especially if it was against Motte's former team.

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