BASEBALL 2010: Big-name pitchers aim for comebacks
Jake Peavy is pitching again with a clear head.
At last, the 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner is at the point where he doesn't think about his tender ankle or worry about what might happen next to derail his young tenure with the Chicago White Sox.
``I think I've just now come out of that,'' Peavy said. ``Last year I really pushed the envelope trying to get out there because I thought I owed it to my teammates, the fans.''
He is thrilled to be on the comeback trail and at the end of an ordeal many top pitchers know so well - and he's not the only one eager to get going in 2010.
New York Mets ace Johan Santana is healthy again after the two-time Cy Young winner had surgery on his left elbow late last season. Then there's Ben Sheets, Justin Duchscherer and Joey Devine on the Oakland Athletics alone. They didn't throw one pitch between them in 2009.
Others aren't quite ready but are working hard to return: Red Sox star Daisuke Matsuzaka, Arizona ace Brandon Webb and Chien-Ming Wang of the Washington Nationals.
Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan needed season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery and was set to begin the emotionally and physically demanding process that comes with a major injury and working back through countless hours of rehabilitation.
For managers, pitchers especially present a fine line, a balance in pushing these players to regain their former form while also protecting them from further problems.
``Especially being the main guy on their ballclub, I have a sense that these guys will try to go out there and maybe accelerate something they can't accelerate,'' Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. ``I don't think it's going to be physical problems long-term for them, but I think they're going to probably find they're going to have to be a little more patient. I read where Webb started off really good and then they backed off a little bit. Pitching is pretty unique in what you do, especially the guys who have all this responsibility I think they're going to feel it. Jake Peavy's one, too.''
Peavy missed three months last season for San Diego after injuring a tendon in his right ankle. He returned for all of three starts with his new team after Chicago dealt for him just before the trading deadline. He didn't pitch again until September. All of that after he was shut down for a time in 2008 with an inflamed elbow.
``It's not that people were impatient but I just felt like I owed it to them after the trade,'' Peavy said. ``When you trade four players for a guy, to kind of be absent wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to end the season just how we ended it, on a positive note saying, 'Hey, this guy can help us win a championship next year.' It was a positive note but I still wasn't 100 percent healthy.''
The right-hander is among a long list of big-name pitchers hoping for successful, healthy seasons in 2010.
Like Dice-K and Webb, Seattle lefty Erik Bedard probably will begin the season on the disabled list. He is returning from shoulder surgery, while new No. 1 starter and 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee is coming off an operation on his foot and has been nursing an abdominal strain that could delay his Mariners debut.
Tim Hudson can't wait for a fresh start with the Atlanta Braves, who rewarded the right-hander with a $28 million, three-year contract in November. They're counting on him staying in the rotation.
Hudson, a former 20-game winner in Oakland, was the Braves' ace until injuring his elbow during the 2008 season. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed an entire year.
Hudson returned late in '09 to go 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA in his seven starts, showing manager Bobby Cox and the Braves that he may be his old self again.
Webb is still working his way back from August shoulder surgery.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said monitoring these pitchers' progress and health often comes down to experience: Do you trust those veteran guys to know how to best handle their own bodies, or do they still require constant attention?
Scioscia insists he's always in favor of a pitcher doing less work in the spring to make sure he is healthy over the long haul of a 162-game season.
``You're a little more concerned with young pitchers trying to impress you,'' Scioscia said. ``With veterans they will usually have some kind of a baseline that says, 'I know where I need to be.' If a veteran is going into a new situation, 'Yeah, I'm trying to impress my club but I'm balancing that with heck with impressing them here and I leave my stuff in spring training and I'm not going to be able to contribute what I think I can during the season.' It comes in all forms.''
One example: Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo didn't play his guitar at Peavy's ``Woodjock 2010'' charity concert March 11 in Scottsdale because of recurring carpal tunnel syndrome that even makes holding a pen excruciatingly painful.
So, Arroyo just sang at the event instead - trying to avoid the problem that flared up last spring. He led the Reds with 15 wins and a 3.84 ERA last season, pitching a team-high 220 1-3 innings despite the problem.
Matsuzaka is dealing with continued shoulder trouble, more bad news in Beantown considering the Red Sox paid $103 million to acquire the right-hander before the 2007 season.
Dice-K, an 18-game winner in 2008, was limited to 12 starts last season because of a lengthy stint on the DL with a strained shoulder.
Wang, a two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees before joining Washington this winter, went 1-6 with a 9.54 ERA for New York last season before a shoulder injury ended his year in late July. He then had surgery.
Yet slow starts or early DL stints don't always make for a lost season, according to Scioscia.
``Sometimes a spring pitcher when you see him in March and you see him in June it's two different animals,'' Scioscia said. ``Usually right now most pitchers in the spring aren't a finished product.''
Sheets has taken his share of lumps this spring - like his March 15 outing against the Reds in which he was clobbered for 10 runs without retiring a batter.
``You're going to have bad days,'' he said.
The A's signed Sheets in January for $10 million to be their new ace after he missed all of 2009 recovering from elbow surgery.
``Is there a risk? Yeah,'' general manager Billy Beane said at the time of signing the four-time All-Star. ``That's life on the edge a little bit.''
Sheets joins two-time All-Star Duchscherer, who missed all of 2009 because of an elbow injury and was later treated for clinical depression. Devine, a top reliever on the club, also didn't pitch last season following Tommy John surgery. He is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and could be back on the mound sometime in April.
Devine has been slowed by tendinitis this spring, a minor setback.
``It took me a little while at the beginning to understand I was going to miss a whole year,'' Devine said. ``You start wondering, 'Am I ever going to be the same?' You've got to eliminate all those thoughts, because the brain can do crazy things.''
The baseball world will be closely watching everybody in this bunch.
``You've got upper-echelon pitchers who get skipped a year because they're hurt,'' said San Francisco Giants' $126 million man Barry Zito, the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner with the A's. ``The whole league is curious how they're going to do. We're rooting for these guys to come back healthy, even though they're our competitors. You just want people to be able to compete.''
The Mariners are counting on Lee to give them a top-notch 1-2 punch with Felix Hernandez at the front of their rotation. Repeating his Cy Young Award? Time will tell.
``You don't win the Cy Young just because,'' White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. ``When he won the Cy Young he was in a pretty good hitting division. I think he'll be fine. This guy is going to do what they got him to do, and he's healthy. He showed in the World Series when he faced New York twice. He dominated.''