The game within a game is what always intrigues me. Whether it’s something like the A’s use of their pitchers or teams trying to figure out how best to get at Daisuke Matsuzaka, the battle plan is almost as much fun as the actual battle. An early focus on holding runners has given some teams and their advance scouts their glimpse at the Achilles heel (figurative, not literal) of a pitcher that appears as complete as any that’s shown up. Sure, he’s not as good from the stretch, a lesson they could have learned from Hideo Nomo or almost any pitcher with a big windup. I mean, how was Satchel Paige from the stretch? Then I get to try and figure out what teams are figuring out, just as you also ‘play along at home.’ Second-guessing is just as fun as first-guessing. Is he going to throw him a slider here, or does he try to paint the outside corner? Pitch to him or put him on? Things like defensive positioning are more interesting in person, but I’m still hoping for that multicast option everyone keeps touting. (I’d like my jetpack while you’re at it, too.) Anyone who says baseball is boring probably thinks chess is boring too, but there are no boring baseball games. Just a lot more games than most people notice.

Powered by our thoughts and prayers which go out today to Josh Hancock‘s family and friends. It doesn’t seem long ago that Darryl Kile passed away, just a day after I made my first entry into Wrigley Field as a member of the press. Giddy joy was quickly tempered by the reminder that life is fleeting, even for our heroes. While fleeting, it also still counts, so on to the injuries:

  • With Jose Reyes running wild, it looks like the only thing that can stop the Mets is themselves. The easiest way for a team to beat itself is to allow injuries to overcome them. The Mets don’t have great replacements for Orlando Hernandez and Jose Valentin, but they do have players that have a chance to compete. Chan Ho Park is years past being a candidate for a pennant-winning rotation, but for a couple starts, he could be effective. Damion Easley is a nice utility bat for most of the season, but if you need a couple weeks from him at second base, he’s as good as most. It gives the Mets a a chance to let Hernandez get over the chronic neck pain that is affecting his shoulder, while with Valentin, the hope is that even if the knee problem he’s experiencing requires surgery, it will just be a ‘scope. Good teams can get past minor injuries. Great teams have plans. While you can turn your nose up at Park and Easley, the Mets knew exactly who they were turning to when they had situations. The Mets also said this weekend that Pedro Martinez won’t begin throwing from a mound until June. That throws a little water on some of the more aggressive return projections for him, including his own.
  • Give the Twins some credit here. Luis Castillo missed his ninth game, but should be back for their next game on Tuesday. By playing short for those nine games, they saved themselves four games of having Castillo in the lineup. (Why just four? Off days.) Assuming Castillo returns to hitting at his normal levels (current MLVr of -0.119; predicted MLVr of -0.006) and given the poor play of Alexi Casilla at second, the Twins still come out ahead here. Four extra games of Casilla’s sub-replacement offense and league-average defense would have cost the Twins roughly 8/10 of a run. Small difference, yes, but in a division where it figures to be exceptionally close all season long, who’s to say that buying that run might not be the difference? Castillo should still be limited after his return from the quad strain, both on defense and in the running game, so give him a couple games to see whether or not he’s a better option than what you have at second base now.
  • The Angels have a solid squad, and depth across the diamond, but there’s as many apparent flaws in this team as there are reasons to believe. Jered Weaver was complaining he had a dead arm last week, while many were whispering that there was more than just tendonitis in his right shoulder. He showed good velocity over the weekend however, so I’m inclined to believe my team sources who think Weaver will be the team’s No. 2 by the All-Star break. The Angels are a bit more worried about Garret Anderson, who’s been described this way to me by an observer: “He’s got less range than David Hasselhoff.” Anderson may be dealing with residual back problems, leg problems, and an acute hip flexor strain, but as I told that observer, Anderson’s in the big leagues, Hasselhoff is starring in “The Producers” in Vegas, and he’s eating Top Ramen on a regular basis. (Note to the youth of America–baseball teams pay their players well, not their mid-level staffers.) The Angels should get Chone Figgins back early this week, but watch his throwing. More than anything else, it appears that throwing accuracy might be the lingering issue from his finger injury.
  • Ben Sheets made it through his throw day without significant problems from his strained groin. That puts him on track to make his Tuesday start. Sheets hasn’t been dominating since his Opening Day start, and on the heels of a groin problem, his next start against the Cardinals doesn’t look to be the breakout game for him. Instead, Sheets is going to need to do what his rotation mates are doing–staying within themselves and letting the offense do its thing. Sometimes it seems as if Sheets is pitching for the 2004 Brewers rather than the 2007 version. While Sheets is the clear ace of the staff, the Brewers are a good enough team that Sheets now doesn’t have to throw a no-hitter every time out for them to win. Then again, 2004 was really that last time he was healthy for a full season.
  • When I’m in Tampa Bay on Thursday, it looks as if I’ll get a chance to see Rocco Baldelli play, something I haven’t done in person yet. Baldelli missed the weekend after Marc Topkin (who I’m told may be in attendance at the Tampa Bay event as well) described his knee as “… horrible. It is so swollen–as if there were “a small water balloon” implanted, he said–and with a softball-sized area of discoloration he termed ‘indigo.'” The Rays might be changing colors, but let’s hope indigo is not one of them. Baldelli injured himself when he slid for a ball at the wall and hit his knee on an unpadded section of the Big A’s concrete. (I looked through my notes but couldn’t find anything, though I remember someone else doing this at Anaheim. Anyone?) Baldelli is expected back on Tuesday, but remember that the Rays’ outfield depth is going to give Joe Maddon the chance to rest people more than other teams.
  • It’s no secret that the Nationals pitching staff is a mess. We knew going into the season that Manny Acta was going to need to have more tricks than Criss Angel to make this even merely bad. One of the few good things about losing pitchers like Ray King and Jerome Williams is that there’s little fall-off to the replacement. King returns to his LOOGY role, but could you tell me that there was a situation where he really would have helped his team? He’s a shell of what he once was, although he’s a size XXL shell. Williams is a bigger problem, as he heads to the DL with a sprained ankle. He’s been terrible as a starter, giving up more walks than strikeouts, and racking up four losses. The problem is that he’s been consistently in the fifth and sixth innings, something none of the other starters are doing. John Patterson, the supposed ace of this staff has only made it into the sixth in three of his five starts, while Matt Chico has only been there twice. The Nats will see what Jason Simontacchi can do for a couple starts, but more than anything they need innings from him. The Nats are also hopeful that Cristian Guzman will return soon. He’s playing in extended spring training, and could be back by the weekend. Desperation is knowing that Cristian Guzman will improve your team.

Quick Cuts: Correction–I noted that Mike Mussina made a rehab start in Sunday’s column. My source indicated that he threw, so I assumed that he’d thrown in a game. Instead, he’d done it in a simultated game. I didn’t ask, so blame me … Odalis Perez has added a sinker, Bob Dutton says in his Sunday notes column. It gave me the chance to look back at Perez’s last couple starts on the always-awesome condensed games. Perez is definitely someone to consider if you need a starter, at least until the league catches up to this new wrinkle … Nick Swisher is said to be returning on Tuesday, but as with most things involving the A’s and injuries, I’ll believe it when I see it … Conor Jackson needed two stitches in his right hand after getting cut sliding headfirst into home. He’s not expected to miss much time, if any … Woody Williams went to 0-4 after another poor performance Sunday. The cortisone shot got him through the start, but it doesn’t appear to have put any velocity or movement on his pitches … Jeremy Hermida is headed for a minor league rehab stint by mid-week. The knee is healed finally, so this is more about getting in some swings than testing the injury … Micah Owings had a nice five innings in Triple-A and should be ready for his next start in Phoenix, scheduled for Thursday. He showed no signs of problem with his hamstring.

I’ll be chatting at 1pm here, then at 3pm over at ESPN. I don’t think Rob Neyer’s record is any jeopardy, but I’d like a little Bo Jackson double-duty credit. Speaking of Bo, I spent much of my weekend watching the NFL draft and writing essays for the 2007 edition of Pro Football Prospectus, so I think I deserve that my double-duty credit be doubled! Hope to see you at either chat, or both. There should be plenty of chances to get to questions.