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September 14, 2009

Under The Knife

Western Woes

by Will Carroll

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Justin Morneau (9/15)
The Twins are juggling their roster to try and cover for their slugging first baseman. It's probably a long-gone memory for most, but Morneau's big worry coming to the big leagues was his durability. He'd had a run of odd injuries and illnesses, even after shifting from behind the plate, but Morneau has only had minor problems since establishing himself, something that should get a bit better next season moving off of the turf and out from under the dome. Then again, there are the future concerns that come with playing in cold weather, though that's just anecdotal data. Morneau's batting average and OBP have come down over the last few weeks, which some are pointing to in order to say this might be chronic, but if so, it's very chronic. He's slid from a peak just after the All-Star Game to the point he's at now; his average and OBP are sliding in near lockstep, so he's not trying to walk more to save swings. It's more likely that the inner ear infection is the culprit, as sources say the back problem is minor and that he should be back at first base early this week.

Josh Hamilton (9/18)
Michael Young (9/18)

The Rangers are looking at a big week of baseball. Sure, it's all big when it's mid-September and there's a shot at the playoffs at stake, but just look at the schedule. If they can get one or both of Hamilton and Young back, they may not be that much better (especially if those players are limited), but there's an intangible, psychological value. With reports last week indicating that Hamilton might be done for the year, it's hard to say that "walking upright" is really that much of a positive, but sources tell me that Hamilton is walking more freely, and that he's determined to be back in place for the Angels series. It's that same series that Young has been targeting, and with his work on field and in the cage, it's not just possible, it might be earlier than that. The Rangers will be watching both closely, but this is a huge, huge series that will define the season for the Rangers. They can think about how to keep them healthy or shutting them down at this time next week.

Randy Wolf (9/15)
With Chad Billingsley off and Clayton Kershaw just back on a mound over the weekend, they need Wolf to be healthy. I'm not sure if it's good or bad that Wolf has become the most reliable starter this season, let alone their second-half ace. Wolf tested his sore elbow with a pen session at full velocity, and came through that test well. Assuming nothing comes up funky post-session, Wolf will get the start tomorrow. The Dodgers aren't just looking for innings at this point, but trying to hold onto their division lead. It's relatively insignificant, even from a seeding standpoint, as the Playoff Odds report has their total chance at over 99 percent. In the grand scheme, Wolf's health is one thing that simply moves them forward under their own power, rather than their just limping into the playoffs.

Tim Lincecum (9/14)
Lincecum is back... or is he? There's some confusion about exactly when he'll be back on the mound. Lincecum is saying he wants to be back on the mound Monday, but the Giants want to make sure that their ace doesn't get out there, change his mechanics, and ruin their best asset-his arm. Lincecum's back is "normal" according to Bruce Bochy, and a bullpen session looked normal, but word is that the Giants are willing to hold him back if everyone's not 100 percent on board. A final decision will be made early today, but all indications are that Lincecum will go tonight. Watch to see that he has his normal flexibility in his back and that he hasn't slowed his hip rotation. Even if you're not a Giants fan, you have to root for Lincecum's health-we don't get to see many players this good.

Aaron Cook (10/4)
Huston Street (9/14)

It seems the entire NL West is having pitching problems, but the Rockies might have the worst of it. Does Jason Marquis/Jason Hammel/Ubaldo Jimenez sound like a playoff rotation? With Aaron Cook done for the season-including the playoffs-that's what they're facing, though it's also much of what got them to this point. Shutting Cook down is surprising given the "perfect" MRI that Jim Tracy talked about before; there's obviously something wrong here, but there are also no specifics (yet). Surgery isn't likely, since the team is talking about keeping Cook's arm live for instructional league action. That tells us that there's likely an inflammation or small tear that even relief work might exacerbate, and potentially cost him significant time. Cook's going to have to look good in his instructional assignment to avoid heading into 2010 with significant questions about his health risk. At least the team got some better news with Street, as he did well enough in bullpen work that he'll rejoin the team today. It's not clear if he'll go right back into the closer role, and observers say he's not 100 percent yet. The Rockies haven't tipped their hand on this, but look for them to try to sneak Street into at least one low-leverage situation if possible.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (9/15)
The Red Sox have their first, second, and third starters set for the playoffs, but they'll have to use them to get there. With Wakefield looking iffy, John Smoltz and Brad Penny trying to take other teams into the playoffs, and Paul Byrd looking like Paul Byrd, Boston's depth at this point of the season begins and ends with the return of Dice-K. Junichi Tazawa is already way over his innings threshhold, and Clay Buchholz is going to slip past it with his next outing. If Matsuzaka can come back and just be an average pitcher and put up quality starts, that's a win for the club. If he can get back to his role as the third starter on this team, even better. Matsuzaka's rehab starts don't give a whole lot of hope, but at this stage I'll be surprised if the Sox get too cute with his shoulder program. As always, the key for Matsuzaka is going to be pitching without giving in, while not getting too inefficient and nibbly.

John Smoltz (9/20)
When Smoltz came to the Cardinals, I said that the first couple of starts didn't matter, good or bad. The question was if he had the stamina to recover in between his turns. For a bit, it looked like he did, but now, not so much. It's not a bad thing with a long bench and some creative pen usage, because skipping Smoltz just gives him exactly what he needs-more time to rest. If he comes back on the 20th to make his next scheduled start, he should be good, but if they can push it back more, even better. I don't think that Smoltz will succeed in the bullpen unless he's an extreme matchup guy, throwing just a few pitches, and even then there are questions about his warming up and down. One intriguing scenario I talked about with a front-office type was using Smoltz in Game Four of a playoff series, regardless of everything else. The risk would only be a short start, but essentially, he'd have the extra rest to recover. At worst, the Cardinals will have bought themselves a couple of starts and another note on Dave Duncan's long CV.

Jarrod Washburn (9/16)
The Tigers have a bit of leeway at the top of the AL Central, but at the same time, they're trying to protect some young arms and set themselves up for the playoffs. Losing starters isn't going to help as they try to keep the workload off of Justin Verlander and, to a greater extent, Rick Porcello. Washburn's knee problem is being described most clearly as chronic swelling after starting, which points to a minor but annoying problem. It looks as if the team will have Washburn back out there early this week, but they'll be working both before and after the game to control the swelling, though his effectiveness on the mound is going to be as big an issue.

Quick Cuts: Pedro Martinez is down for 130 pitches? I guess they don't think he'll be in the playoff rotation. ... J.A. Happ will throw a pen session today. If all goes well, he could be back later this week, but the team seems cautious. ... Joe Crede is back at DH; he'll get a couple of token starts at third base, especially if Justin Morneau is out longer than expected. ... Sounds like the tired shoulder is going to shut down Brian Bannister. There's no truth to the rumor that Jose Lima is being brought back. (That was just a weak attempt at killing Rany Jazayerli.) ... Kevin Slowey had screws inserted in his wrist, a much more serious surgery. We'll have to see how he looks next spring, which now involves a lot of uncertainty. ... Randy Johnson will throw in the pen for the Giants, but will only be activated if they surge in the standings. ... Mike Hampton will have surgery to fix his torn rotator cuff. Yes, he intends to come back next year. His new nickname is "Jason." ... Really thought-provoking stuff from Sunday's New York Times. ... Chipper Jones is out until at least Tuesday with a groin strain. ... Jake Peavy had a "great" pen session this weekend and could get a start next week. Don't expect much. It's just a "show-me" session for both parties. ... Chad Billingsley only went 70 pitches and looked very fatigued. ... The Phillies think J.C. Romero could be back with the next week. They need to see at least a couple of weeks of him pitching for them before they head into the playoffs. ... Can someone explain to me why Buster Posey is getting only token at-bats as the Giants slide out of contention? ... Jon Lester didn't seem bothered at all coming back the day after his rain-aborted start. ... Several of you asked this weekend if MLB should adopt some variation on the NFL's "Probable/Questionable/Out" designations. Put simply, my answer is 'no.' Heck, even those simple definitions are being confused by "experts," but the fact is that they wouldn't work in baseball. I'd just like to see more transparency.

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