Rankings are meant to be a jumping-off point for debate and discussion. This list should be no different. Everyone has his or her own interpretation for how injuries will affect a team. Other than the prorated dollar amount of salary to lost time plus the cost of replacement players, impact is very difficult to quantify. When I was asked for the top five teams whose seasons would be impacted by injury, I had a very instinctive initial reaction. No science, no rationale, just a gut feeling. Then I decided I should perhaps invest some more thought into my selection.
Here are a few musings.
Opening Day status: Some rosters do not look anything like a manager expected on Opening Day. Starters on the disabled are a big reason. Not only is there the obvious loss of the starters, there is the psychological blow to a team that doesn’t feel as though they’re fielding their top players. The more the injuries pile on, the more the team psyche is bruised. It’s hard to perform optimally under these conditions, and a string of early losses can make it difficult to recover, even once those injured players return to the lineup.
Uncertainty factor: Most injuries have a fluid recovery timetable but some are more predictable than others. For instance, while losing a player to Tommy John surgery is devastating, there is at least some comfort in knowing how to adjust for the remainder of the season. But when players are on vague timetables, particularly with a less common type of injury or one with a wide range of healing times, the uncertainty can weigh on the team.
Injury details (or lack thereof): While all teams will provide some information with regards to their injured players, it is still limited. It would help this ranking concept if there were more details about the imaging tests, clinical exams and rehab programs. Of course, even then the timelines wouldn’t be assured (which is why teams issue projections such as 4-6 weeks, 2-3 months, or "no specific timetable"). So we work with what we have.
Funny thing is, at the end the list looked virtually identical to the one generated from instinct. While I can’t be sure what that implies, I hereby humbly submit to you my top five teams who, as of the first week of the season, are potentially the most impacted by injury concerns.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll revisit this topic late in the season and see if we’re talking about five entirely different teams. Those who appear below would certainly enjoy proving this list wrong.
There weren’t major injury alarm bells sounding prior to spring training. Sure, there were a few issues. One member of their starting rotation was lost for at least half the season. Their everyday third baseman might not be able to play everyday anymore. But they didn’t feel like a team in trouble until they moved deeper into spring training. Every few days seemed to bring more bad news. Both pitchers and position players were affected. And the biggest concern? The uncertainty quotient, including not knowing how three of their starting five pitchers will perform in the majors.
Yu Darvish: His 2013 season ended with low back pain and nerve irritation. Injections were involved. By November, the team felt comfortable the issue was behind him. Unfortunately, it is hard to know whether the issue is truly in the rearview mirror until the athlete returns to his prior level of function. Darvish developed neck stiffness fairly early this spring and when it didn’t disappear as quickly as everyone had hoped, he was sent to a spine specialist. The good news? No structural damage. That, however, does not necessarily equate to pain-free resolution. Darvish opened the season on the DL but has resumed a throwing program and the team hopes he can return within a week. So why worry?
1. Spine problems tend to be recurrent. Until he demonstrates over multiple weeks that this is behind him, it will be hard to feel confident. Even then, there is still no guarantee it doesn’t crop up again at some point.
2. The neck and the shoulder are closely related. Something as simple as neck stiffness can translate to problems in the shoulder, even fatigue, which could present an issue for a typically high volume thrower such as Darvish.
3. The proximity time-wise of neck and back issues for Darvish -- even if they are unrelated episodes -- is disconcerting.
Matt Harrison: Two starts last year were followed by a back problem which required not one, but two surgeries. Months later he required thoracic outlet surgery on his right (non-throwing) side; he had previously undergone a similar surgery on his throwing side a few years prior. He finally appeared ready for spring until stiffness in his neck got everyone nervous. While it seems to have settled and he is now progressing through minor league outings, the soonest he will likely join the team is late April.
Derek Holland, SP: Holland underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee after he tumbled down some stairs at home (apparently tripped by his dog). Healing parameters following this procedure dictate a graduated recovery. His placement on the 60-day DL indicates the team does not expect him until at least June. After all the downtime, it’s hard to know what to expect.
Jurickson Profar, 2B: Profar came into spring training with some shoulder soreness that was dubbed tendinitis. But one hard throw while attempting to turn a double play in late March resulted in a tear of his teres major. The team projected him to miss 10 to 12 weeks out of the gate, an indication of the severity. Soft tissue injuries are hard to gauge until the player tests the aggravating activity, which in Profar’s case means hard throwing. He likely won’t be a regular contributor until the second half of the season and that presumes no setbacks.
Geovany Soto, C: Soto tore his lateral meniscus in his right knee (followed by arthroscopic surgery March 26). His projected absence is three months, but the demands the position places on the knee make the recovery more challenging for a catcher.
Not on the DL, but worthy of a mention
Adrian Beltre, 3B: Recurrent calf and hamstring injuries are a concern for Beltre, especially at age 34. While he hasn’t missed much time in the past two seasons, there are already plans to use him in a DH role more often to preserve his health. Oh, and he already had an episode of quad tightness this spring.
Colby Lewis, SP: He’s coming off a hip resurfacing procedure and there are no other active pitchers who have undergone a similar surgery, making him a test case. Early results are encouraging but it remains to be seen how he will produce and, more important, how he will hold up across a season.
It’s possible to sum up the Braves’ injury problems in one word: pitching. It was almost too much to believe when they lost not one, but two pitchers to their second torn ulnar collateral ligament. What might be crazier is that the Braves are counting on getting production from two pitchers who are still working their way back from Tommy John surgery. The magnitude of their losses across their pitching staff puts them second on this list.
Brandon Beachy: Beachy had a bumpy road back from his first Tommy John surgery, then managed only five starts before getting shut down with elbow inflammation. An offseason scope didn’t do the trick and when he felt pain in his elbow this spring, the fears of a re-tear were confirmed. He underwent his second surgery in March and will miss the entire 2014 season.
Kris Medlen: Medlen at least had a few years between surgeries but he too has undergone his second Tommy John surgery and will miss all of 2014.
Mike Minor: Minor opens the season on the DL, largely as a result of being behind in his throwing program following a urinary tract procedure in December. The good news with Minor is that his situation relates more to him catching up with his arm strength as opposed to an undiagnosed injury. The Braves hope to have him in late April.
Gavin Floyd: Floyd had a flexor tendon repair concurrently with his Tommy John surgery last May. He is expected to make his first minor league start this week and could return to the majors within the month.
Jonny Venters: Working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Venters is hopeful of rejoining the team in late May or early June. The plus? Relief pitchers tend to fare better the second time around.
They look so good on paper. But in order to be that good, they need to play. At the start of spring training, other than Matt Kemp's status, there were no obvious flags. But Australia seemed to be associated with injuries -- either the kind that kept some from traveling (such as Zack Greinke's calf) or the ones that cropped up afterward (Clayton Kershaw's upper back) -- and no explanation. The latest addition is relief pitcher Brian Wilson. If the Dodgers keep adding more names to the list or more time off to those who are already there, then they move up in this ranking.
Clayton Kershaw: Kershaw’s upper back injury does not appear serious, but the Dodgers are taking no chances. Inflammation in the teres major muscle (located in the upper back region but a contributor to shoulder motion) could be a precursor to a bigger injury if not allowed to fully heal. Consequently, Kershaw is on the DL after earning a win in the opener in Australia and will be on a submaximal throwing program for 2-3 weeks before being re-evaluated. There is no official timetable for his return, but May is looking more likely. Consider this a proactive measure by a team looking at the length of the season and expecting to be competitive down the stretch.
Josh Beckett: The question entering spring training was how Beckett would bounce back from thoracic outlet surgery (removal of a rib to alleviate pressure on nerves and blood vessels which supply the arm). His recovery was good (no more finger numbness) but then he hurt his thumb in March, banging it against a door. He’s improving and should be back in early April.
Chad Billingsley: His progress recovering from Tommy John surgery has been solid, but even if he returns in May or June, his innings may be controlled. Not to mention, most pitchers have some ups and downs in performance in their first few months back.
Brian Wilson: Wilson did not have a good outing Sunday and he was placed on the DL Tuesday with nerve irritation in his elbow. Wilson has had two Tommy John surgeries, the most recent in 2012, making this a little more worrisome.
Matt Kemp, OF: It seemed to be gloom and doom for Kemp when he was not able to run on land as spring training opened. Once he got clearance however, his progress has been steady and he appears on the verge of being activated. Considering he enters this season stronger as a result of being able to work his upper body more in the offseason, as long as the hamstrings hold up, he could have a bounce-back year.
The Reds could have been much worse. Aroldis Chapman was lucky. Mat Latos is improving. Johnny Cueto seems to be OK. But if one or two players take a turn for the worse, the Reds move up in the rankings.
Mat Latos: The concern when Latos came into spring training was about about easing his arm back into action after offseason surgery to remove bone chips. Concern shifted to his knee when he slipped on the mound, sustaining a medial meniscus tear that required surgery. Latos has been pitching in minor league games and is expected to join the team in the first couple weeks of the season.
Aroldis Chapman: His might be one of the scariest injuries on record: Chapman taking a liner to his face, just above his left eye in a spring game. Remarkably, the damage was relatively limited (facial fractures, concussion). Following insertion of a plate to stabilize his facial fractures, Chapman has done some very light activity but he could be cleared to throw any day, possibly pitching in game conditions by late April. Physically the road appears straightforward; the challenge could come when he has to face live batters again.
Devin Mesoraco, C: Mesoraco strained his left oblique in late March the way position players often do, swinging a bat. The typical recovery is several weeks and taking the proper time to heal is key to avoiding a setback. Mesoraco starts the season on the DL (retroactive to March 21) but is currently taking batting practice and could be ready to rejoin the team fairly early in April.
Skip Schumaker, 2B: Schumaker dislocated his left shoulder while diving for a ball in a late spring game. He hopes to return in a month.
Jack Hannahan, 3B: Hannahan had right shoulder surgery in the offseason and is still recovering. The team placed him on the 60-day DL so he will not even be an option until June.
Not on the DL but worthy of a mention
Homer Bailey, SP: Bailey is on track to make his start this week but he suffered the injury to his groin just two weeks ago. The hope is that he is not compensating in some way that could affect his mechanics and, ultimately, his throwing arm.
Johnny Cueto, SP: Last year Cueto went on the DL three times with a lat injury and it ultimately ended his season. He started on Opening Day and says he’s healthy. But he did have a little scare with scapular (shoulderblade) irritation this spring, so is this problem truly behind him?
How did they get here? It seems as though this team has often been the recipient of bad news late in spring training, including the loss of their ace. The Oakland Athletics are on their heels, but the Diamondbacks edge them out.
Patrick Corbin: Corbin tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John reconstruction shortly afterward. He will miss the 2014 season.
David Hernandez: Like his teammate Corbin, Hernandez underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the 2014 season.
Daniel Hudson: Hudson is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery and is not likely to return before the All-Star break.
Cody Ross, OF: Ross dislocated his hip last year and it has been a slow recovery process, complicated recently by back stiffness. He could rejoin the team by mid-April, but can he stay healthy?