The All-Star break provided a welcome reprieve, a little rest and recuperation for everyone (including yours truly). Even those in their fantasy league basement can still hold out hope for a playoff appearance.
Naturally, there are fewer injuries to report this week after a little time off, right? Wrong! Apparently the disabled list is trying to make up for lost time, adding (or threatening to add) players left and right since play resumed after the All-Star break. League GMs, not to mention fantasy owners, are suffering headaches galore as they try to boost their positions during the second half of the season.
Which injuries should have us really concerned, and which ones can allow us to breathe a little sigh of relief that they weren't more serious? We start on the West Coast.
Manny Ramirez, OF, Dodgers: Just as he began to get his groove on after a 50-game suspension, Ramirez gave everyone a scare on Tuesday when he was hit on his left hand by a Homer Bailey 94 mph fastball. Fortunately, X-rays taken shortly after the injury revealed no fracture to his fifth metacarpal, the bone on the outside of the hand that connects the wrist to the fifth finger, where Ramirez absorbed the brunt of the impact. Given that a fracture could have resulted in another extended absence, the Dodgers have to be breathing a sigh of relief.
Ramirez had some soft tissue swelling, which is to be expected, and as a result, he will sit out Wednesday's game. The Dodgers caught another lucky break in that they'll have a day off Thursday, so Ramirez will have an extra day of rest for the hand without sitting out of the lineup. Assuming the swelling subsides reasonably quickly, look for him to make a return Friday when Los Angeles hosts Florida.
Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros: According to the Houston Chronicle, an MRI confirmed that Berkman has a Grade 2 strain of his left calf. Berkman already has missed several starts since he first injured the leg this past Thursday and plans to miss a few more. At this point, Berkman and the team are suggesting that he will be out of the starting lineup for only a few games, but that sounds optimistic.
Grade 2 (moderate) muscle strains represent a wide range of tissue damage, and it's possible that Berkman's particular injury is on the lighter side of that range. Nonetheless, it is very easy for these injuries to worsen, particularly if a player tries to push off the leg while the tissue is still compromised. The Mets' Jose Reyes tried to come back too quickly from a similar injury and had a setback before later injuring his hamstring. Berkman might not be associated with the explosive speed of a Reyes, but he relies on the calf muscle for both offensive and defensive performance nonetheless.
The Astros may elect to use him in a pinch-hitting role before bringing him back to the field, but even then, he will need to be able to round the bases without fear of reinjury. General manager Ed Wade seems to be well aware of this, telling the Chronicle, "... if the choice is take a couple more days and let him get back to 100 percent, then that would be the appropriate thing to do." Fantasy owners should plan to have a replacement for another week to be on the safe side, but keep an eye on Astros' daily lineups as well.
Tim Wakefield, P, Red Sox: Back problems are no small issue for a pitcher; just ask Randy Johnson. Wakefield, who at age 42 is in Johnson's peer group, was placed on the DL with what the team is calling a lower back strain. The diagnosis suggests that this is a minor incident, and Wakefield seems to agree, telling WEEI.com that he expects to miss only two to three starts.
Wakefield apparently developed back spasms while throwing a side session Saturday, and the pain lingered enough to warrant a trip to the DL. Back spasms, although incredibly painful, are not especially serious in and of themselves. However, the underlying cause of the spasms can be the key to just how disabling the injury will be. Overexertion of muscles resulting in an acute strain (which can be related to something as simple as fatigue or inadequate warm-up, for instance) is a minor issue. A degenerative problem such as a disc injury or a problem with one of the small spinal (facet) joints, something one might see in an athlete in his 40s, can begin to manifest itself initially by a muscular spasm in the area.
Wakefield's time to recover and completeness of his recovery (i.e., no setbacks) will offer more insight as to whether this is something to be concerned about long term. In the meantime, it is worth nothing that spine injuries, even minor ones, can be unpredictable and easily exacerbated. In other words, securing some insurance would not be a bad idea.
Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers: Cruz was scratched from Sunday's lineup because of soreness in the ring finger on his right hand resulting from Saturday night's dive into first base. The injury later proved to be a small fracture. Although the ailment itself is not considered particularly serious, the consequences to Cruz's swing of the bat could be. Cruz has not played since Sunday, although he did take some swings before Tuesday's game and could return to action Wednesday.
A word of caution is warranted here. According to the Rangers' official Web site, Cruz said as recently as Monday that he could not grip a bat well because of swelling in the finger. Cruz's teammate Michael Young faced a similar injury last year, also the result of a headfirst dive into first, and struggled at the plate for the remainder of the season. Young acknowledged that the pain that radiates through the fracture site when the ball and bat make contact can cause an athlete to change his mechanics as a means of compensating. Cruz's toughness definitely will be tested. Fantasy owners may want to see how Cruz fares when he returns before committing to him in their lineup.
On the mend
• Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster is making some progress in his activity as his broken right toe heals. Dempster threw 60 pitches in a bullpen session before Monday's game and reported no ill effects or undue soreness afterward. He followed that up with a solid simulated game outing Wednesday, when he again threw 60 pitches without incident. Dempster, who has been out since July 7, is scheduled to have a repeat X-ray of the toe Thursday, according to the Chicago Tribune. If the bone is healing well, he could return to the rotation as soon as Sunday. The key here is that pitching coach Larry Rothschild says Dempster is not favoring the toe and is able to bring his body weight over his push leg with no trouble at all. Assuming the X-ray shows satisfactory progress, there is no reason to think Dempster can't jump (OK, maybe not jump, since that's how he landed on this list in the first place) right back into the mix.
• Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang is going the wrong way on this list. On the Mend implies that guys are getting better, not worse, but Wang suffered a setback in his strained (right) throwing shoulder, hence the decline in his status. There is no timetable for his return, and quite frankly, he may just want to scrap this season and start fresh next year. After struggling at the outset, a problem later determined to be associated with hip weakness left over from last season's foot injury, Wang appeared to be righting the ship somewhat, only to develop shoulder bursitis and a muscular strain. It's quite possible that in the earlier part of the season, Wang struggled to compensate for his lower extremity weakness, thus leading to the beginnings of the shoulder issue. No matter what the origin, this situation does not appear likely to resolve itself any time soon.
• Across town in New York, is it possible that some good news is on the horizon for the Mets? It sure looks that way, as pitcher John Maine emerged feeling good from a three-inning simulated game in Florida, according to the New York Daily News. Maine, who has been on the DL since mid-June with what was called a "pinched nerve" in his shoulder, has been slowly working his way back to the mound ... again. Maine already had fought his way back after offseason shoulder surgery last year, only to be faced with problems two months into 2009. A few cortisone shots and many rehab exercises later, Maine appears to be on track for a return sometime in August, assuming he can make his rehab starts without incident.
• The Mets could use some good news, considering that they may be faced with the possibility of yet another DL addition. This time, it's Gary Sheffield, who is nursing a right hamstring issue, originally referred to as a "cramp." The persistent presence of the issue certainly suggests something more than a cramp, and the team has indicated that Sheffield may be placed on the DL if he does not show significant improvement by Friday.
At 40 years old, these things tend to be a little slower to recover, so don't be surprised if the team takes the cautious approach. This comes on the heels of pitcher Fernando Nieve's addition to the Mets' ever-growing DL with a right quadriceps injury sustained during an awkward landing on first base. Nieve's MRI showed a muscle tear, which translates to an absence of more than a month. Meanwhile, shortstop Jose Reyes did run the bases in a simulated game in Florida, but as Newsday reports, manager Jerry Manuel acknowledged that it was not even at half speed. Just a reminder as to how problematic these muscle strains can be.
• Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey, on the DL since early July with a strained wrist, had a good bullpen session Monday after suffering a setback just before the All-Star break. The latest outing was encouraging and suggests that he could be nearing a rehab assignment this weekend. If there are no further setbacks, it appears that Slowey could be on track to return in August.
• It might be worth keeping an eye on Blue Jays pitcher Shaun Marcum as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery on his right (throwing) elbow. Marcum has been pitching in rehab games, and although he is still working on returning to form, he has been able to deliver some strikeouts. Perhaps most importantly, he reports that the arm feels good and has had no major setbacks. The Jays hope to have him back in the rotation in August, and he is widely available in ESPN.com fantasy leagues. Although it often takes a pitcher until his second year postsurgery to return his full command, it does not preclude him from having good outings before then.
And finally ...
For those willing to take a chance on someone, why not try the Dodgers' Jason Schmidt? Although one decent outing does not a successful return make, consider that many thought Schmidt might never pitch again. After two consecutive shoulder surgeries to address a torn labrum, and then to resect the acromioclavicular joint, Schmidt's two-year path back to the majors has been marred by disappointment and setbacks. He and the Dodgers had to be encouraged by the fact that he was able to last five innings in his comeback performance Monday. Schmidt's velocity is not what it was -- and it may never be again -- but the key will be whether he can reinvent himself as more of a finesse pitcher to add years to his career. The jury is still out, but he's widely available in ESPN.com leagues and may be worth picking up, as he certainly has a firepower offense behind him that may help secure him some wins -- assuming, of course, that he stays healthy.