One of the 2009 season's biggest challenges for this column has been what to do with the several long-term injuries that have shaped the starting pitching storylines. For instance, where do you rank Brandon Webb once he goes on the DL? Where do you rank him as his stay on the DL grows longer and longer?
This is, I'm sure you'll be unsurprised to know, as much art as it is science. We have to try to guess how long a guy will be on the shelf, how long it'll take him to get back into shape, and how motivated his team will be to push him. The truth is we can't know these things for sure. When Webb went on the DL after his only start of '09, the Diamondbacks didn't seem particularly concerned. Just a touch of bursitis. Nothing to be freaked out about. A little rest will clear it right up. Now here we are on June 16, and Webb isn't even throwing off a mound yet. His return will certainly have to wait until after the All-Star break, and even then the picture is fuzzy.
But in the meantime, you've got a fantasy pennant to win. You've got DL spots or at least bench spots, sure, but when a good starting pitcher goes down for an indefinite amount of time, it can really force you to alter your approach. You were counting on a mess of strikeouts from Webb, and a ton of low-ERA, low-WHIP innings. Those don't grow on trees. But now you've got to decide: Do I sacrifice presumed excesses I have in other categories to go get some decent innings in a trade? Do I start floundering around, adding every flash-in-the-pan starting pitcher from the waiver wire, trying to cobble together a decent staff? It's the uncertainty that kills you. Once a guy's done for the year, well, it stinks, but at least you've got your parameters.
I don't have answers. I'm as constrained by the disinformation disseminated by big league clubs as you are. I read Stephania Bell's injury column, try to make my best guess, and rank a guy accordingly, from this point until the end of the year. It'd be easy to leave Brandon Webb off my list of top 80 starters completely. Out of sight, out of mind. But I don't think that's accurate. I think Webb will be back at some point in the second half, and presuming he's right (a big presumption, I suppose), he'll have some excellent innings to contribute. Of course, the D-backs probably will be out of the NL West race, so how hard will they push their ace? It's tough to compute it all.
This week, I read The Arizona Republic archives and really tried to process how long this will all take for Webb. He's throwing off flat ground and reportedly "cranked it up a little" last week, but as of this past weekend he was still only playing catch. The Diamondbacks are really making him take it easy with an injury that probably isn't simple shoulder bursitis, but is rather a badly strained teres major muscle. He hasn't had pain when he's been throwing, which is good. But on reflection, I decided I still had him too high last week. Accordingly, I dropped him 10 spots, to No. 43, on my list. Am I right? We won't know until he comes back.
Let's take a look at some other hard-to-rank injured fantasy horses with uncertain timelines:
• Jake Peavy has a scary-sounding injury: longitudinal tearing in the posterior tibialis tendon in his right ankle. Stephania Bell broke it down for us, and the bottom line is that talk about Peavy being back in just a month is pretty ludicrous. Stephania sounds way more convinced that an 8- to 12-week timeline is the likeliest scenario, and even if you're on the short end of that estimate, Peavy obviously will also need to build his arm strength back up. To me, that sounds like a September return. As a result, I removed Peavy -- who was at No. 11 last week -- entirely from the top 80. That doesn't mean I'd automatically drop him, but if roster space is super-tight in your league, you might consider it. I'd rather hang onto him, with the idea that he could provide a burst of late-season stats. Of course, maybe we're all wrong, and he'll be back in a month. It's just very tough to say.
• Edinson Volquez is in the middle of his second consecutive DL stint, and thus has ridden a pogo stick in the rankings over the past month. First, his back was giving him trouble; lately, it's been elbow tendinitis. The good news is that Volquez is long-tossing, so it sounds like he's not having much pain in the elbow. But of course, setbacks are always a possibility. The Reds haven't really given a likely timetable for his return, but considering he's thrown one big league inning since May 16, a rehab stint seems likely. So he, too, seems to be a candidate for a post-break return. That's pretty much the news I'd already baked into my No. 54 ranking of Volquez, so he roughly stays put this week.
• Scott Kazmir is set to begin a minor league rehab stint at Double-A Charlotte on Wednesday night, as he recovers from what was supposedly an injured quad. I say "supposedly" because just as the Rays have followed the Red Sox's lead in many on-field ways, I suspect they might have also dreamed up this injury to give Kazmir a break from what was a terrible beginning to '09. Of course, I could absolutely be wrong. Either way, Kazmir will have to build up his arm again, but probably won't need more than a couple weeks to do so. It sounds like he'll see the bigs again before the end of June, which is why he bumped up a couple of spots in my ranks, from No. 51 to No. 49.
• John Maine has been going through what he calls a "dead-arm" period, which is a melodramatic way of saying his pitching shoulder hurts, but tests don't really show anything wrong with it. Maine is on the DL retroactive to June 7, but reportedly threw in the outfield this weekend. Everyone around this situation, including New York's manager (Jerry Manuel) and pitching coach (Dan Warthen) and Maine himself, seems to be going out of his way to emphasize the short-term nature of the problem. In other words, they're not preparing fans for an extended absence, and aren't readying an excuse for Maine to miss more time. In modern-day baseball, that's a tell. I think Maine will be back at the beginning of next week. That's why he's holding steady about where I had him last week: He moved from No. 60 to No. 58.
• Kyle Lohse dropped off the list last week because of his injured forearm that finally pushed him to the disabled list. The Cardinals told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that they expected Lohse to miss four weeks right when he went on the DL, which is the opposite of Maine's situation: They want everyone to know the injury is severe, and if Lohse happens to beat this timetable, well, we can all just chalk it up to his toughness. All Lohse has done to this point is play catch, and while he reports no pain, it's a long way between there and pitching in the majors. I don't expect to see him on the St. Louis mound until well into July, at which time I'll consider ranking him again.
• Justin Duchscherer isn't having problems with his pitching elbow, on which he had surgery this spring, but rather his back, which has caused him to shut down his rehabilitation. When The Duke tried to long-toss last week, he had to stop because the pain bugged him so badly, and there's no way the A's are going to let him throw for real until his lower back is better. Accordingly, Duchscherer fell off my list last week, too. There's no earthly way he'll be back until after the break, and my bet says he'll need to work out in the minors until at least late July or early August. Add to this the fact that Oakland has talked about using Duchscherer out of the bullpen when he comes back, and you can understand why he no longer interests me in standard mixed leagues.
• Tim Lincecum, Giants (1). It's not as though Tiny Tim rose that much in the ranks; he was No. 3 last week. But when a new No. 1 appears, it's worth noting. Johan Santana has been mediocre for three straight starts and got absolutely bombed Sunday against the Yankees (three innings, nine runs), and the Mets are worried that a blister might have messed with Santana's mechanics, or that his surgically repaired knee is hurting his velocity. Meanwhile, Roy Halladay had to leave his most recent start with a groin problem, and while the Jays give Doc a chance to pitch this weekend, you never know. That leaves me with Lincecum, who has 103 strikeouts in 88 innings and, contrary to my preseason concerns, has shown absolutely no sign that last year's innings jump is bothering him. Dude is awesome.
• Matt Cain, Giants (18). Primary among Lincecum's backup singers is Matt Cain, about whom Jason Grey wrote a compelling case on Monday. I numbered Cain among my "sell-high" candidates about a month ago, and if you listened to me, well, oops. Cain has continued his hot streak, having whiffed nine in a complete-game win over the A's on Sunday. There are still some scary indicators: Cain's strand rate is still 88.2 percent, which probably isn't sustainable (that's literally the highest mark among qualifiers in the major leagues). But Cain's batting average against on balls in play has gone from a lucky .250 to a more reasonable .272 over the past month or so without Cain struggling as a result. That would make me feel better were I a Cain owner. The fact is that even if Cain does regress a bit, he'll still be valuable in fantasy leagues. I don't mind the idea of trading him away if you can get the moon for him right now. But if you can't, hang on and enjoy it.
• Joe Saunders, Angels (55). It's time to stop doubting Saunders. Last year (17-7, 3.41 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) looked like a complete fluke, right up to the point where he started to do it again in '09. The man hasn't wavered. His underlying numbers look hauntingly similar to last year's, with nothing particularly lucky-seeming about them. Saunders' one fly in the fantasy ointment will always be a lack of strikeouts: He has just 47 in 86 innings this season, and had 103 in 198 last year. But that lack of dominance doesn't slow him down. He's a consistent low-WHIP, low-ERA pitcher throwing for a good team who'll give him a nice share of wins. And he's still only owned in two-thirds of ESPN.com leagues. He should be grabbed in all leagues.
• Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (34). This is really just about correcting some hyperventilating I've been doing over the young lefty over the past few weeks. As recently as a month ago, I had Kershaw rated right around 36th, but then each week he'd strike out a bunch of guys, pitchers ranked near him would falter, and he'd climb a few spots. So I wound up with him at 29th last week. That's probably just a bit too high, as Kershaw himself reminded us when he walked four and allowed five hits in just 2 2/3 innings against the Padres late last week. Hey, I love this kid's career prospects. But he's made it past six innings pitched exactly twice in 12 starts. Until his efficiency improves, he'll continue to be a tease, and earn fewer wins on a very good team than you'd hope. (But 62 strikeouts in 64 innings still are pretty nice.)
• Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox (57). Speaking of inefficient pitchers, here's their patron saint. The Red Sox are at a loss for what to do with Dice-K, especially considering Brad Penny is throwing hard again and John Smoltz is as ready as he'll ever be to return to the bigs. Matsuzaka just looked lost Saturday night, even after his teammates staked him to a big lead in Philadelphia. He wound up allowing seven hits, two of which were homers, and getting removed from the game after needing 91 pitches to get through four-plus innings. Hey, sometimes I whiff on guys. But you have to admit: I called Dice-K's downfall from the start this year. One more terrible outing and I won't be surprised to see the Sox send him to the minors to figure things out.
• Manny Parra, Brewers (NR). Speaking of guys I've whiffed on. Back on April 21, I tried to name five starting pitchers who were candidates to come from "out of nowhere" and produce unexpectedly massive fantasy seasons. Parra was on that list. (To be fair, so were Wandy Rodriguez and Rick Porcello.) Yeah, that was a bad call. The Brewers finally sent Parra to the minors after the young lefty posted a 7.92 ERA and 1.92 WHIP. (Hey, Dice-K would kill for those numbers!) Parra probably will be back this season, though probably not if Milwaukee stays in first place in the NL Central. But he doesn't need to be owned in fantasy leagues right now.
Comings and goings
• Erik Bedard still hasn't given up more than three earned runs in an outing this season, but he missed his rotation turn Saturday with shoulder inflammation, according to The Seattle Times. Brandon Morrow (see below) took Bedard's spot. The Mariners claim not to consider this a long-term problem, but we all know Bedard's history. We'll have to see how he looks next time out.
• The Cubs activated Rich Harden from the DL last Saturday, and he allowed two runs in six innings while striking out nine. I remain skeptical that he can stay healthy, but he's most certainly at least a top-40 starting pitcher the rest of the way, even with those injury concerns.
• Well that didn't take long. The Angels announced this weekend that Kelvim Escobar will no longer be a part of their rotation, because the strain on his surgically repaired shoulder is too great. Instead, they'll use Escobar out of the bullpen once he's able (he's currently throwing on the side trying to rid the offending shoulder soreness). The Angels put Escobar on the DL retroactive to June 6, but say they expect to have Escobar available out of the pen next week. Matt Palmer will stay in the Los Angeles rotation for the foreseeable future.
• The Angels also announced that Ervin Santana won't be able to make his next start because of forearm soreness. The Los Angeles Times reports that this injury is supposedly unrelated to the elbow troubles that knocked Santana out for the season's first two months. Sean O'Sullivan will be called up from Triple-A to pitch Tuesday night in Santana's place.
• The Mariners are evidently going to let Brandon Morrow decide his own career path. After the former first-rounder told Seattle management he'd fill in as the team's closer this spring, he's apparently changed his mind, and has gone back into the rotation as a starter. Morrow lasted only three innings against the Rockies on Saturday, but is scheduled to start for the Mariners on Thursday at Petco versus the Padres. My opinion on Morrow has always been that he has greater upside as a starter in the majors, and can always head back to the bullpen if he fails. But with all this yanking around, one wonders whether Morrow has cost himself the necessary confidence to become a really good starting pitcher.
• The Orioles activated Koji Uehara from the 15-day DL late last week, and Uehara was shaky Thursday against the Mariners, allowing four runs and seven hits in five innings. Baltimore sent down rookie David Hernandez to make room in the rotation.
• The Boston Globe pointed out something I didn't realize: Even if the Red Sox had wanted to deal Brad Penny before now, they wouldn't have been allowed. Penny signed a free-agent deal over the winter, and as such was ineligible to be traded before June 15. If such options as John Smoltz and Clay Buchholz wind up working out in the majors later this year, Penny could very well be the man who's traded, presumably for a prospect.
• Glen Perkins will return to the Twins' rotation Tuesday night against the Pirates. Anthony Swarzak was sent to the minors to make room for Perkins coming off the DL, despite Swarzak dominating the Cubs over the weekend. Obliquely, this is good news for Francisco Liriano's owners, who apparently don't need to worry about the big lefty getting sent to the minors.
• I'm sorry, I just can't get excited about Jose Contreras. I guess if you want to ride the incendiary hand, you can add him; after all, since returning from a minor league stint a week ago Monday he's allowed zero runs in 16 innings. But I've seen this act before. Just when you start trusting Contreras, he does you in with nine runs allowed in 1 1/3 innings. Nevertheless, he's available in virtually all leagues, so if you want to take a flyer on someone, he might be the guy.
• Speaking of Yankee has-beens, the Rangers signed Orlando Hernandez to a minor league contract last week and assigned him to Triple-A Oklahoma City. El Duque is expected to pitch in the minors to build up his arm strength, but The Dallas Morning News quotes Ron Washington as saying he expects to see Hernandez in the majors at some point this summer.
• Paul Byrd told a Boston radio station that he hopes to return from his quasi-retirement and pitch in the majors again this summer or fall. Byrd was constrained by the possibility of the Red Sox getting a compensatory pick in the '09 draft if he signed with someone before the draft, but now that the draft has happened, he's free to sign anywhere.
• The Mariners haven't decided yet whether they'll activate Ryan Rowland-Smith from his minor league stint, despite an outing for Triple-A Tacoma last Friday which included two runs, five hits and one walk allowed as he used 91 pitches to get through six innings. Seattle is evidently still concerned about the Aussie lefty's command. Garrett Olson might stick in the M's rotation for the time being.
• After lots of hoopla about his return to the majors, Jeremy Bonderman lasted exactly one outing before needing to go right back on the DL because of problems with his surgically repaired shoulder. Bonderman's velocity wasn't just a little down, as had been previously reported, but was in fact way down from the mid-90s stuff of his better seasons. The Tigers might get Bonderman back in September, but next season seems likelier.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.