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Injuries already a factor for some in NL
What we knew before spring training: The American League, fortified by the arrivals of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, is superior to the National League.
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What we didn’t know before spring training: The National League would limp to Opening Day on a bad knee with its arm in a sling.
Maybe the NL should rename the West, Central and East divisions. ACL, MCL and UCL seem more appropriate.
Consider the events of the past week:
• Chase Utley, the Phillies’ five-time All-Star second baseman, acknowledged to reporters Sunday that he will start the season on the disabled list because of chronic knee issues. Already, first baseman Ryan Howard is expected to miss much of the first half while recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last October.
• The defending champion Cardinals announced ace Chris Carpenter has weakness in his right shoulder associated with nerve irritation. He has yet to pitch in a game this spring, and there is no timetable for his return.
• The Marlins’ starting corner outfielders — Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison — have been limited to intrasquad scrimmages lately because of knee issues. It’s not certain that either will be at full strength by Opening Day.
• The Braves, who have played poorly this spring, are without soon-to-retire third baseman Chipper Jones. He will undergo surgery on Monday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and is expected to miss about three weeks. (Jones will turn 40 next month.)
• The spring optimism surrounding the Nationals has been tempered with uncertain news about key contributors. Closer Drew Storen (right elbow inflammation) and slugger Mike Morse (strained right lat) may not be ready for Opening Day.
As the noted baseball scribe William Shakespeare once wrote: Beware the Ouch of March.
This transcends the ordinary "nervous news" of spring training.
These are potentially catastrophic absences for key contributors. If I were the GM of an NL club, I would seriously consider taping a notice to the clubhouse door: Gentlemen, guard your ligaments.
Here are the implications for each NL division, with 10 days left in spring training — or spring triage, as we should call it.
At the risk of jinxing our friends in the Pacific Time Zone, the NL West has been the least affected by the epidemic.
The Rockies are quite healthy overall, fueling the belief that they could be a surprise team this year. The same is true for the Dodgers, although lefty Ted Lilly (neck stiffness) and infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. (right shoulder inflammation) have become recent concerns.
Arizona shortstop Stephen Drew won’t be ready for the regular season, but the team was prepared for that possibility given the severity of his right ankle injury. The Diamondbacks were without Drew when they eclipsed the Giants in the second half of last season. They should be able to survive without him again.
The Giants have avoided major injuries this spring and should be ecstatic that Buster Posey is back in the lineup and swinging well. Still, second baseman Freddy Sanchez and right-hander Ryan Vogelsong have been behind schedule, raising doubts about how ready each will be come Opening Day.
Frontrunner (for now): Arizona
Some have drawn parallels between Carpenter’s nerve condition and the season-ending elbow surgery co-ace Adam Wainwright underwent last spring. But there are two major differences: 1) Wainwright, one year post-op, is unlikely to match the reliable 273 1/3 innings Carpenter threw between the regular season and postseason; and 2) Dave Duncan, one of the most prepared and thorough teachers in baseball history, is no longer the St. Louis pitching coach.
The Cardinals have two other significant injury concerns: World Series hero Allen Craig has been limited after undergoing knee surgery, and Skip Schumaker will miss the start of the season with a torn oblique. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to declare the Cardinals heavy favorites to repeat as world champions.
And yet the defending division champions are in an even more precarious position: Milwaukee lost Prince Fielder during the offseason, and franchise cornerstone Ryan Braun is batting .095 to date this spring while battling a groin injury as well as the fallout from his appeal of a positive PED test. By the way, right fielder Corey Hart will miss the start of the season after undergoing right knee surgery.
So maybe the loss of Madson won’t harm the Reds’ chances as badly as we thought. Sean Marshall could prove a capable replacement anyway.
My pick (for now): Cincinnati
This might be the most difficult division to predict … except when it comes to the Mets. Everyone seems certain about where they will end up.
As I wrote earlier this spring, the Phillies aren’t invincible anymore. Philly supporters will argue that the Nationals, Mets and Marlins all finished more than 20 games back last year. I agree that’s a substantial amount of ground to make up. But we can’t discount the loss of Howard’s presence, as much as his production — the same is true for Utley. Pitchers won’t be as intimidated by the lineup. That will have a huge impact on the Phillies — and their opponents.
The Braves, though, aren’t necessarily poised to take advantage. Starter Tim Hudson will begin the season on the disabled list, as team officials had anticipated for months. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens have thrown well lately, which is crucial; they will need to be magnificent in Hudson’s absence, judging by the erratic springs for Brandon Beachy and Randall Delgado.
The Nationals and Marlins upgraded their rotations enough that challenging the Phillies doesn’t seem so unrealistic. I, for one, would feel more bullish about Washington’s chances if it weren’t for Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit and Chien-Ming Wang’s hamstring injury.
My pick (for now): Philadelphia, but not by much.
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