The National League All-Star lineup is starting to look like the NL All-Star M*A*S*H unit. Three of the top vote-getters at their particular positions were just placed on the disabled list: Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Jason Heyward and the Philadelphia Phillies duo of second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Placido Polanco. It's probably too early to start calling this some type of jinx, but is there something we can take away from it?
One surefire takeaway is an appreciation for why managers agonize over the headfirst slide. Both Heyward and Utley suffered injuries as a result of catching their thumbs on a base when diving. Headfirst slides are nothing new and it certainly won't be the last we see of them, but it does make for interesting conversation debating the merits of the technique.
In the meantime, here's what we're hearing about the three latest players to succumb to the injury bug:
Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves: Heyward has not been hitting the ball well of late and the reason for that has become clear. Heyward injured his left thumb May 14 when making a headfirst slide, and it has been bothering him at the plate ever since. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in early June that despite Heyward's refusal to make excuses for his performance, there was no denying the impact of the sore thumb. According to hitting coach Terry Pendleton, "[Heyward] gets to a certain spot in his swing and it's almost like he has to come off it. It just gets him." At that time, Pendleton indicated that Heyward would try to work through the discomfort which he suspected might linger throughout the season.
By late June, the thumb had become problematic enough that Heyward was sent to a hand specialist for further evaluation. Heyward openly acknowledged the problems with the thumb at that time, telling reporters that the injury was forcing him to hold his thumb off the bat, rendering his swing inconsistent. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Heyward was diagnosed with a deep bone bruise in his thumb, which will be immobilized for about a week. Given the mechanism of injury, it is likely that Heyward stressed one of the primary stabilizing ligaments of the thumb where it attaches to the bone. The positive is that there was no indication that the ligament was severely damaged, which could mean surgery, but rather that immobilization will allow the tissue to rest and heal.
Heyward has said he will not play in the All-Star Game if selected (he is second in voting among NL outfielders), as he does not want to jeopardize his chances of returning healthy for the second half of the season, but at this point it sounds as if he may not miss extensive time.
Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies: The note here should read: See Jason Heyward. Utley injured his right thumb Monday the same way Heyward injured his left one, sliding headfirst into second base. The difference -- and this could turn out to be a significant one when it comes to the severity -- is that Utley came out of that game immediately.
It did not take long for the team to place Utley on the DL, but what we have not yet heard is how much time the Phillies expect Utley to miss. The official diagnosis is a sprained thumb and it certainly sounds as if the injury is to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). The UCL is typically torn when the thumb gets stretched away from the index finger, as can happen when it gets caught on a base. Sometimes a piece of bone can get pulled away along with the ligament.
There has to be some concern about the severity of the injury given the sequence of events since Monday. The Philadelphia Daily News reported that Utley was visiting hand specialist Randall Culp in Philadelphia on Tuesday to help determine the best course of treatment. That head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan indicated the biggest question was whether to treat the thumb surgically or non-surgically suggests that the injury is beyond mild. In addition to the degree of ligament damage, the resulting amount of instability at the joint may be a factor.
Apparently, Utley is gathering multiple opinions as to the best course of treatment as he is set to consult with yet another hand specialist. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Utley will visit Dr. Andrew Weiland, also a hand specialist, at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York on Thursday.
The injury is to Utley's throwing hand, which makes the situation even more complex than just struggling with swinging the bat. Because the thumb plays such an integral part in controlling grip on the ball, and Utley is known for his excellent defensive contributions, a significant ligamentous injury would seriously compromise his ability to perform.
If surgical stabilization is indeed required, fantasy owners can expect that Utley would likely be out in the neighborhood of two to three months. Even in the absence of surgery Utley, who, based on the current deliberation over course of treatment, is probably dealing with a more significant sprain, would need to have the thumb immobilized for a period of time to allow the ligament to heal. That would then be followed by range of motion and strengthening and a gradual return to baseball activities. Fantasy owners would still need to plan for a prolonged absence of more than a month.
Placido Polanco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies: Polanco's move to the DL did not come as an enormous surprise as he has been struggling with soreness in his left elbow since being hit by a pitch in late April. Polanco aggravated the elbow Friday and after two months of ups and downs with the pain, the decision was made to transfer him to the DL.
The Philadelphia Daily News reports that Polanco has received two cortisone injections into the elbow but despite showing no structural damage on MRI, he has not responded as the team would have liked. The move to the DL was a natural next step. As general manager Scott Proefrock explained to the Daily News, "There was still some tenderness, and we just felt it was important to make sure we've got the complete understanding of what the issue is and give him the amount of time of rest to hopefully resolve it."
Polanco is scheduled to undergo further evaluation in New York. The Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting that Polanco will consult with New York Mets medical director David Altchek at Hospital for Special Surgery on Thursday. Surgery may be a possibility, given reports that Polanco has a spur in the elbow combined with his failure to respond to conservative treatment thus far. But definitive word will not come down until all of the opinions have been sorted through. In the meantime, fantasy owners should plan on an extended replacement for Polanco.
If you're wondering who to pick up to replace the two Phillies infielders on your fantasy team, check out my colleague Eric Karabell's great suggestions in his blog.
Enough with the bad news. Let's look at who's on their way back:
• Seattle Mariners starter Erik Bedard, coming off shoulder surgery to repair his labrum, has looked strong in his rehab outings. He is scheduled for another rehab outing Thursday in Tacoma. The Mariners have hinted that he could be back as soon as next week.
• Colorado Rockies southpaw Jorge de la Rosa, coming off a torn flexor band in his finger, has been able to throw all his pitches in his rehab appearances and is expected to make his return to the rotation next week.
• The Boston Red Sox, still reeling from the loss of so many players in recent days, can at least get excited about one guy who's closer to coming off the DL. Josh Beckett, sidelined with back spasms since May, is scheduled to face live hitters this week. If that goes well, rehab outings are not far off and he could return by mid-to-late July.