Key injuries to monitor this season in Major League Baseball

How Adam Wainwright recovers from offseason surgery will go a long way in determining how the National League Central will play out this season.
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

By Derek Harvey

Baseball isn’t an impact sport but there is never a shortage of injuries. We’ve already seen top pitchers Yu Darvish and Zack Wheeler go down for the season. Injuries, and recovery from them, is just part of the game. This give-and-take is going to change the dynamic for more than a few teams. What might close the door on one team opens a door for another. Let’s take a look at some current injuries (or potential injuries) and what that might mean for that player’s team and their rivals.

Cardinals – Adam Wainwright

The NL Central may very well be the most competitive division in baseball. The Cardinals always seem to find a way to stay atop the division, and 2015 doesn’t figure to be any different. There might be one concern, however.

In the offseason staff ace Adam Wainwright underwent a procedure on his already surgically repaired elbow. The procedure seemed to have gone well but anytime you have to do more work on an elbow that’s already undergone Tommy John surgery it’s concerning.

More recently Wainwright suffered an abdominal strain which was thought might push back his first start of the season, but no longer seems an issue. The two injuries aren’t related, but Wainwright (33) isn’t a young man anymore. Last season he had his lowest K% (19.9) and First Pitch Strike Percentage (60.7%) since 2008. His average fastball velocity lost a mile from 2013, though was still near his career average. There isn’t anything I’d call a red flag, but we might be seeing a pitcher in the early stages of age-related decline. I don’t expect a sharp decline, but it’s something I’ll be monitoring throughout the season.

The Cardinals traded a couple of pitchers away last year and chose to fill the rotation from within. They still have some good options but aren’t quite as deep as they once were. Wainwright is going to be vital to this team. With the Pirates not far behind them and the Brewers, Cubs, and Reds with a punchers chance it might not take much to dethrone the incumbent division champs.

Brewers – Ryan Braun

Once highly regarded and thought of as one of the best position players in baseball, Ryan Braun’s star has darkened considerably. Last year, he had the worst professional season of his career due to a nerve issue in his thumb. He hit 266/324/453 with 19 home runs and 11 stolen bases. All were career lows.

The previous year he was suspended for using PEDs. It seems easy and convenient to tie the two together, however many people either forgot or didn’t know that Braun first experience the nerve issue in his hand about a month before his suspension in 2013.

The first two months of that season Braun hit 286/381/583 and 324/391/500. That’s peak Ryan Braun. He finished that season going 288/333/321 and 182/182/273. Clearly something went wrong.

Fast forward to 2014 and he started out the season hot again. In April he hit 318/361/591 and in May he hit 323/354/548. Once again we see peak Ryan Braun … until the thumb started acting up. In the second half he hit 226/295/374. PEDs alone don’t explain that.

In the offseason Braun underwent an experimental cyrotherapy procedure to deaden the nerve that was causing him pain. It’s been done before on other types of athletes but never a baseball player. Therefore, it’s hard to know how effective it will be. If it has worked, though, there is a chance we could see near peak Ryan Braun once again. That will go a long way towards legitimizing the Brewers' potentially potent offense and perhaps propel them into contention.

Dodgers – Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenley Jansen

The Dodgers were inspiring to watch over the winter. Wheeling and dealing such as they did is almost exclusively seen in fantasy baseball leagues. They traded Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon and Dan Haren, and also acquired some talent … only to trade it seemingly minutes later. They made some savvy signings like Brandon McCarthy and Brandon Beachy. They even flexed their payroll muscle with the Hector Olivera signing. I think that’s why it’s so surprising to see how mediocre their bullpen is. That in turn only accentuates the impact of losing Kenley Jansen to foot surgery.

Kenley Jansen is a beast. The dude hasn’t had an ERA above 3.00 since ever. In fact, the worst season by ERA was 2011 when he producing a whopping 2.78. In 65.1 IP last year he had 44 with a 2.76 ERA, 1.91 FIP, 1.93 xFIP, and a freaking 37.7 K%!

The next in line for the closer role while Jansen is out (until at least mid-May) is 39-year-old Joel Peralta. Last year with the Rays, he produced a 4.41 ERA in 63.1 IP. That seems pretty bad but his 3.40 FIP and 3.11 xFIP suggest he actually performed a good deal better. He did have a 27.9 K% which is good. He, like most relievers in baseball, just pales in comparison to Jansen.

The Tigers have shown us in the past what a poor bullpen can do to a good team. I wouldn’t expect the absence of Jansen alone to knock the NL West favorites from their lofty position, but it will make things a bit rocky with the Padres and Giants happy to take advantage of any weakness. Then you factor in the absence of Hyun-Jin Ryu and things get even more interesting.

Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are the guys that most come to mind when you’re talking about the Dodgers’ rotation but Hyun-Jin Ryu has been excellent as well. In 344 career innings he has a sparkling 3.17 ERA. There are more than a few clubs that would boast Ryu as their staff ace.

Ryu missed time last year with a shoulder issue and has been sidelined this spring with a similar problem. The good news is that a recent medical exam showed no structural damage in Ryu’s injured shoulder. The bad news is that there is still no timetable for his return though it seems likely he’ll miss all of April.

The Dodgers made a few rotation depth pick-ups in the offseason including Juan Nicasio, Joe Wieland, and Brandon Beachy (also on the DL to start the season). They have options but neither Nicasio nor Wieland can come close to producing at the level of Ryu.

The Dodgers are so good it’s hard to see them not winning the NL West division. Still, the combined impact of losing Jansen and Ryu, perhaps for a month+ each, is not insignificant. Things are only exacerbated by the mediocre, or even bad, rest of the bullpen. If you really try, you might be able to see a way for the Padres or Giants to sneak into first place.

Giants – Hunter Pence

The Giants are the defending World Series champions, so naturally one would suspect they’re a pretty good team. That’s not always the case — as Red Sox fans can attest — and I personally don’t see it with the Giants in 2015.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they’re bad. But I look at that rotation and see a lot of mediocrity. A lineup that includes Casey McGehee, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Nori Aoki doesn’t scream offensive juggernaut either. That’s why losing Hunter Pence to a broken arm for even a short while feels like such a blow to their chances.

The top-3 offensive players (among the starters) by weighted on-base average last year for the Giants were Buster Posey (.371), Michael Morse (.355), and Hunter Pence (.341). Also in the top five was Pablo Sandoval with a .323 wOBA. With Morse and Sandoval gone, Pence is projected to be the second best offensive player after Buster Posey.

While Pence is out, the Giants will likely use a platoon of Justin Maxwell and Gregor Blanco. Even if that platoon works to the fullest, Blanco only has a career 99 wRC+ vs RHP and Maxwell a 105 vs LHP. As much as I have a soft spot for Aoki and McGehee, their offense is average at best.

Pence could be back by the end of April but early May is just as likely. They won the World Series last year but if Pence doesn’t return quickly it becomes increasingly likely this year the Giants don’t make the playoffs at all.

Marlins – Jose Fernandez

The Marlins don’t stink this year. I think they’re honest to goodness Wild Card contenders. With the Nationals suffering some pretty significant losses on the offensive side, there might even be a window for the Marlins to contend for a division title. But for that to happen, they’ll need the young phenom Jose Fernandez to return as soon as he’s able to and be effective. Both are uncertain following Tommy John surgery.

He spent two years in the minors before logging his first season in the majors where he dominated. People always talk about Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as once in a lifetime talents. Fernandez is their pitching equivalent. At least he was up until he required elbow surgery last May.

These days TJ recovery time is down to 9-12 months but it wouldn’t be a shock if Fernandez doesn’t return until June or even July. When he does return it might still take time to shake of the rust. But it’s not impossible that he’ll be top-notch right out of the gates. If so, he could be like a big mid-season acquisition that propels the Marlins to the playoffs. Let’s hope that’s the case. Those poor Marlins fans deserve a break. All 12 of them.

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