(Playing the part of Tom Hanks: Will Carroll. This column was written between midnight and three AM while stranded in LaGuardia Airport.)

Sure, I’ll admit my biases. Like Michael Moore and Fox News, you know where I stand: Injuries are often the difference maker. Look back to last year, when Oakland would have been a different team with Mark Mulder. Or think of St. Louis a few years ago, when when Scott Rolen‘s freak accident killed the Redbirds’ attack. There are a million other examples of games lost because of players lost. After talent, health is the most important asset a team possesses.

Instead of doing full breakdowns on each team–something time and carpal tunnel precludes–I’ll focus on the team’s overall health, as well as key injuries that help determine who holds the health advantage heading down the stretch. I’ll use a grade system, rather than my typical traffic light. The rankings are just my impressions and are purely subjective, based on past and current health, the likelihood of problematic future injuries, and the whimsical nature of my late-night muse. Teams are listed in the order they stood in their divisions at the All-Star Break.

Remember that traumatic injuries are near-random. But teams that are properly constructed can survive even the worst of injuries, and a top-notch medical staff and some pain tolerance can get players back on the field faster.

AL East

  • New York Yankees: Does the Yankees payroll buy their way out of injury problems? No, but it does buy depth. The health of the pitching staff is the paramount concern in the Bronx. Kevin Brown‘s breakdown was expected, but Mike Mussina‘s is more problematic. While they can turn to stopgaps like Brad Halsey or Orlando Hernandez, even a seven-game cushion doesn’t feel quite as safe without Brown and Mussina. The rest of the lineup has enough mix-and-match capability to deal with almost any injury, so the Yanks remain the team to beat, both in this division and in baseball. B-
  • Boston Red Sox: After getting Trot Nixon and Nomar Garciaparraback on the field, the Red Sox are back to full strength. Pedro Martinez will likely pick up his load as the season progresses like he did last year. The major question is Curt Schilling. Bone spurs in his ankle will be taken care of in the off-season; it’s up to Jim Rowe and his staff to keep Schilling out there. B+
  • Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The surprise team of the AL has made it through the season without a significant health problem. Rocco Baldelli has a slow-healing quad strain, but when that’s the worst I have to talk about on a team, things are going pretty well. Some of the pitchers have been under a heavy workload, but it looks like the Rays’ commitment to health, led by Ken Crenshaw, is paying off. A
  • Toronto Blue Jays: Everything else has gone wrong for the Jays, so why not health? The key injury was the calf/Achilles injury suffered by Vernon Wells, but with the Jays out of any race, Wells can be eased back into the lineup. Carlos Delgado returned from an oblique strain and is showcasing himself in the event he chooses to waive his no-trade. The pitching is very healthy, but this is clearly a team focused on 2005. B

  • Baltimore Orioles: How can a team this healthy be this bad? That’s right–no pitching. It might have helped the O’s to have a couple pitchers go down, forcing them to shake things up. Instead, they’ll focus on trying to escape the basement while keeping their new players from becoming disgruntled. Baltimore seems to be where young pitchers go to fall apart, but Ray Miller is back with his magic. No, Sidney Ponson is not hurt, no matter how much you might think he is. B+

AL Central

  • Chicago White Sox: With Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas going down serially, the White Sox haven’t been able to keep their best lineup on the field. The trade for Freddy Garcia was bold, but Garcia’s had numerous on- and off-field issues, injuries among them. Keeping the pitching staff healthy was a concern with Ozzie Guillen’s early “complete your game” speech, but he’s also factored in efficiency. The jury’s still out on Little Scarface, but so far, he’s been darn good manager for health. B
  • Minnesota Twins: I didn’t see Terry Ryan give a good explanation about Justin Morneau. That seems more important to me than health. The turf at the Metrodome, new but unprepped, was the big story in the first half, costing the Twins time from Joe Mauer, Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter, and others. Corey Koskie remains fragile, but as long as the pitching staff stays healthy, this team has enough firepower to last into September. D
  • Detroit Tigers: Isn’t it interesting how a team that doesn’t struggle with injuries usually doesn’t struggle, period? The Tigers are significantly healthier this season than last. There’s no real change, so it could just be a few breaks going their way as much as anything else. Without a major injury, the Tigers have been able to put out a lineup that’s credible, taking advantage of teams that aren’t as fresh or well-conditioned. No one–even us–expected a turnaround this fast. Staying healthy may be a force multiplier. A
  • Cleveland Indians: While I’m still convinced C.C. Sabathia might not break down as much as break into two Jamie Moyers, his elbow problems threaten the Indians’ emergence. The team is still two years away, even in this division, but the pieces are falling into place. With Lonnie Soloff working in Cleveland now, the health piece is in place as well. A

  • Kansas City Royals: Jeremy Affeldt may not have blisters, but his injury symbolizes the hopes many Royals fans had, dashed against the rocky shore of injuries. When it’s not one thing, it’s another. The Royals have gotten nothing from their cheap gamble on Juan Gonzalez, and Mike Sweeney is hobbled again. F

AL West

  • Texas Rangers: Buck Showalter recently commented that the Rangers couldn’t fit all their injured players onto the team plane with them. Despite losing their entire opening day outfield at various times, the Rangers have been just healthy enough lead in the West. Kenny Rogers seems to be disintegrating slightly, so he’ll need to ease off on the throttle to stay effective. The bullpen took a hit when Jay Powell could not return. Keeping Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira healthy is the biggest priority, and so far, so good. C-
  • Oakland A’s: The A’s have survived some major injuries to Tim Hudson and Eric Chavez by keeping Mark Mulder and Jermaine Dye from reliving past injury woes. The prehab program continues to help prevent arm injuries, but obliques and backs remain in play. Larry Davis and his crew may not say much, but they let their actions speak for them. C
  • Anaheim Angels: Let’s check this list. Vladimir Guerrero hurts his knee. Garret Anderson has a mysterious illness that took nearly a month to diagnose. Raul Mondesi is signed, only to tear his quad. David Eckstein is breaking down before our eyes. Tim Salmon continues his decline. Bartolo Colon loses velocity. Troy Percival misses a month. Brendan Donnelly misses two months after almost losing his head. Yet the Angels are still one of the top contenders in the AL? That’s good managing, good team construction, and some good luck. D

  • Seattle Mariners: Derek Zumsteg has been driven to drink by this team. OK, driven to drink more. The team is aging, creaking and cracking all the way to last place. Age doesn’t necessarily mean more injuries, it just means that the ones they have tend to heal more slowly. Injuries are the least of the problems in the Emerald City, but expect some early exits when there’s nothing left to fight for. C-

NL East

  • Philadelphia Phillies: Do you ever wonder if someone’s head really could explode, like in that movie Scanners? Every time Larry Bowa comes charging out on the field, I’m compelled to watch, just in case it happens. I don’t want to be the only one who has to catch it on SportsCenter the next day. Granted, such an explosion might help the Phillies. A year and a half of underachievement has little to do with injury. I do have questions about Kevin Millwood‘s health, Randy Wolf‘s future, and Vicente Padilla is beginning to remind me of Teddy Higuera. The Phillies, like the Giants, have to keep their stars, Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu on the field. The rest are just placeholders. C-
  • Atlanta Braves: Is Marcus Giles cursed or prone? Is Andruw Jones injured or jaking it? Is Chipper Jones more or less likely to keep his hammys intact after moving to third? Will John Smoltz‘s elbow hold through October? Is Jaret Wright Leo Mazzone’s finest moment? Did Julio Franco really play in the Negro Leagues with Josh Gibson? Can J.D. Drew stay healthy? Will this team ever die in the face of year after year of crepe-hanging by analysts like me? The Braves are a jumble of questions, but they always seem to come up with the right answers. C+
  • Florida Marlins: Josh Beckett has blisters like John Henry drove steel. They’re not just an injury, they’re a part of the legend. Of course, Beckett’s legend is much bigger than his results. He’s never been the best pitcher on his own team, apart from a couple weeks last October. The rest of the team is holding together pretty well. A.J. Burnett will continue to have inconsistent results, but his stuff is filthy even on his bad days. I worry about Carl Pavano. His breakout season might push his IP well past last year’s career-high. Just keep Miguel Cabrera healthy and I’ll be happy. B
  • New York Mets: Jose Reyes. No player personifies UTK like Reyes, frustrating experts with his slow recovery from muscular problems. It’s still an open question how long he can stay healthy, but his potential has been so marred by injury concerns that Nick Johnson looks like a sure thing in comparison. Rick Peterson is working his magic as expected, but Al Leiter is gutting his way through a shredded shoulder to put up the best damaged season since Koufax’s last. Admire it. B

  • Montreal Expos: I’m tempted to say “Tastes Like Chicken”, but the Expos have been shepherded through the season with a minimum of problems. The turf at the Big O and Hiram Bithorn doesn’t help bad backs and knees. The pitchers tend towards overwork, but none are irreplaceable. Health has been more of a focus for players who might be dealt, like Tony Armas and Orlando Cabrera. Their sole major injury was Nick Johnson’s early-season struggle, but it’s hard to blame the Expos for that. Ron McClain and Frank Robinson are half a season from beatification. B

NL Central

  • St. Louis Cardinals: The Cards have all but run away with the NL Central, leading by seven games at the break. Everyone knew this team could mash, but I don’t think anyone expected Chris Carpenter to come back to this level. Carpenter’s comeback looks a lot like Gil Meche in 2003. Watch to see if there’s a performance drop in the second half. The Cards also lack depth, meaning any injury, especially to a key player, will cause a drop-off that could give hope to one of their pursuers. Matt Morris is not only hurting, he’s in his walk year. The Cards will need him–or what he brings in trade–to carry them to October. A-
  • Chicago Cubs: Mutual fund companies will tell you that past performance guarantees nothing about future performance. Some think that a team that has a spate of injuries in the first half will get a streak of luck in the second. It simply doesn’t hold true. There’s no regression to the mean in injuries. The Cubs should be healthier with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood back in the rotation, but Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement have taken a heavier-than-normal load. The Cubs will need to find someone to take Todd Hollandsworth‘s role spelling Moises Alou, as well as finding someone lefthanded whose arm isn’t held together by duct tape. B
  • Cincinnati Reds: With Ken Griffey Jr. succumbing to another leg injury, the Reds are going with a patchwork that’s a big drop off from the “Great American Outfield” of Griffey, Adam Dunn, and Austin Kearns. The pitching staff has been reasonably healthy, and their efficiency has been a big part of that. The Reds shouldn’t have much different health going forward than they did in the first half. C
  • Milwaukee Brewers: What’s different here? Besides all the wins, I mean. The Brewers have struggled with injuries–Geoff Jenkins and Alex Sanchez come to mind from recent years–but in 2004, Roger Caplinger’s staff appears to have things together, while Mike Maddux is getting kudos for his work with Ben Sheets and Danny Kolb. The Brewers figure to get younger and deeper as the season goes on, so the team becomes like an underdog boxer: the longer they hang around the fight, the more they’ll believe they can knock out the guy with the crown. A
  • Houston Astros: Firing the manager won’t help the real problems with this team, just as bringing in Carlos Beltran was like wallpapering a termite-damaged wall. The pitching staff, outside of the old guy, is a sinkhole. Andy Pettitte is showing why the Yankees let him walk away, Roy Oswalt is struggling with his mechanics, and Wade Miller is a wreck. Like the Cubs, a streak of good health could lead to a streak of wins, but given the pitchers and their history, don’t count on it. I’m sure Cal Eldred enjoyed seeing Phil Garner again–maybe that five-inch screw in his elbow waved hello to Scrap Iron. D

  • Pittsburgh Pirates: Every time I see the Pirates play, I think back to Lloyd McClendon’s classic rant, when he walked off with first base. That was a couple years back and the Pirates have done nothing memorable since. Sure, they’re healthy, but keeping a replacement level player healthy just leaves you with a replacement level player. C+

NL West

  • Los Angeles Dodgers: Shawn Green is my best call of the year. As early as last November, I was warning that his shoulder surgery was Green’s “jump the shark” moment. The Dodgers vaunted staff is also failing. Odalis Perez is fragile, Hideo Nomo is falling apart, and Darren Dreifort is still Darren Dreifort. The player that must be kept healthy is Adrian Beltre. Like Schilling, Beltre is playing through a painful ankle condition. Unlike Schilling, Beltre plays roughly every day. If he finishes September, the Dodgers have a chance at seeing October. B-
  • San Francisco Giants: The Giants haven’t actually issued a new jersey to Jason Schmidt with the number “144” on the back. It just seems like it sometimes. Schmidt’s high-count one-hitter was the topic that boiled pitch counts over into the mainstream, as the holdouts try to prove a rule with the exception. For the Giants, all that matters is that Barry Bonds and Schmidt stay healthy. That alone could win this division, but another bat or arm could tip the scales if the rest of the lineup can just be league average. Dustan Mohr‘s bicep is the clubhouse leader for the 2004 UTK Hall of Lame Weird Injury Award. B
  • San Diego Padres: The Padres, for some reason, look like to the Angels to me. They’ve had more than their share of injuries, including two of their three “sluggers” and their ace. David Wells had his typical episode and survived. Healthy, this team really doesn’t have any weaknesses, but they also have few standouts. It’s an object lesson in spread value versus the Giants’ singular value. Watch Trevor Hoffman‘s velocity closely. B
  • Colorado Rockies: Hope and faith? Baseball’s science experiment struggles along, searching for the formula to win at altitude. My solution is much less researched than the several that have been posited on this site by much better analysts than I, but mine would be more fun. I’d sign a bunch of mashers, a pitching staff full of Leonard Shelby clones, and move the fences in. Games would take forever, but my Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Rockies might have a better chance than this team. Their health? Todd Helton‘s back is OK for now, Preston Wilson‘s knee is OK for now, and Larry Walker is a living lost opportunity. F

  • Arizona Diamondbacks: Ladies and gentleman, your 2001 South Bend Silverhawks! When my BPR co-host was the announcer for that team, even his wide-eyed, gin-soaked optimism couldn’t lead him to imagine that so many of those Single-A kids would be in the majors just three years later. Guess what–neither could the D-Backs. Injury after injury, and failure after failure pushed this team younger and younger. Luis Gonzalez is likely to shut things down soon to have Tommy John, but the rest of the team will keep going, keeping me in material. F
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