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It’s only about a week until we get back to baseball, when I can get back into the rhythm of UTK and watch the baseball season unfold through my unique lens. The more I look at the teams, the more I realize just how important that injuries are to their prospects. Almost every team can be described with “they should be good if they can stay healthy,” and even the teams that shouldn’t be contenders might be if they can keep their best nine on the field all season. It’s a long season ahead and everyone’s getting into shape, myself included.

Let’s see where we are by saying those magic words: powered by cough medicine and codeine, on to the injuries …

  • Barry Bonds threw a pity party Tuesday, and it was much easier for the media to take him at his word than to do the research to figure it out. There are a couple factors in play here. First, Bonds really does seem mentally worn down. When one considers that he was able to go through things like his father’s death without breaking down, it might just be that he is finally tired. This rehab period might be the best thing for him, especially if the media will take its focus off him just a bit. It will also distance his passing of Babe Ruth on the home-run list from the steroid hysteria just a bit, making that moment better for both Bonds and baseball.

    As far as his knee is concerned, Bonds is back at square one, meaning he has about six weeks of rehab before being game-ready. Bonds, knowing how much of the Giants’ chances rest on his bat, had been pushing it to be ready for Opening Day. Tom Gorman did a great job breaking down what Bonds has going on in his knees, but I also get the sense that we don’t yet have the whole story. I’d expect Bonds to be back in the lineup somewhere around May 15; that’s slightly behind the normal schedule, but includes some time for Bonds to go slow, as he’ll do now that Stan Conte is in charge of the rehab, and to get some swings in the minors. Bonds is going to pass Hank Aaron, just not until next year.

  • The Cubs bullpen is an interesting mix right now. Heading into spring training, there was a battle expected among Joe Borowski, Ryan Dempster and LaTroy Hawkins for the closer tag. Instead, Dempster has been pushed to the rotation in place of Glendon Rusch, despite Dempster’s poor spring and Rusch’s fine 2004. Borowski had sealed up the closer slot until a comebacker broke his forearm, specifically the ulna. He should be back in six weeks, depending on how quickly he can regain his command. Instead of Hawkins slotting in, the Cubs appear enamored of Chad Fox. He’s healthy for now and throwing well. To sum up, it’s a mess and only getting worse.
  • The rotation isn’t much better. Kerry Wood is doing well with his shoulder bursitis, ignoring more chatter about moving to the pen, and getting ready to toss in the home opener. Mark Prior is also making progress, likely staying off the DL. He’s expected to be ready for a start on April 12, the first time the Cubs need a fifth starter. Wood and Prior have been pushed hard by the coaching staff, called out in the press, and both have seemed to be distancing themselves from the problem. Watch the language surrounding both closely for more clues as to what’s happening behind closed doors. Sammy Sosa was a problem in the clubhouse, but I’m not sure he was THE problem.
  • I’m sure Mark Buehrle is a tough guy. There’s a fine line between tough and stupid when it comes to injuries, though. Buehrle has a small fracture of his fourth metatarsal that occurred at some unknown point. Instead of four to six weeks, Buehrle is telling the Sox he’ll be back on the mound and ready for Opening Day. Ignoring that Brandon McCarthy is having a great spring and would be a solid stopgap, Buehrle is risking a much greater injury by rushing back. Sources tell me that the team is going to try and get him to back off, if they can only keep Ozzie Guillen from encouraging this type of behavior.
  • One of the great things about this job is being able to pick up the phone and talk to people that can actually answer my questions. After talking with Joe Sheehan about Lance Berkman on Wednesday, I called some of my best Houston sources to get the scoop on Berkman’s knee. Joe had compared Berkman to Chili Davis, while I thought Berkman was more like Brian Giles. According to two team officials, they think it’s somewhere in between. The $85 million they committed to him makes it less likely he’ll play center field–“there shouldn’t be that need with Willy Taveras coming,” one said–while neither thought he would be pushed to first base at any point. Jeff Bagwell won’t play forever (it just seems like it) and moving Berkman there does have its merits. I still fail to see how this deal is significantly better than the roundly pounded Magglio Ordonez deal. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Astros look closely at some young first-base prospects by midseason.
  • The Dodgers pitching staff has problems at both ends, but appears to have the depth to cover for it. Most worrying is the way that Eric Gagne is dealing with his knee injury. It’s one thing to go at a reduced rate–Gagne said he pitched at around 75% at his most recent outing, though it should be noted that pitchers are very inaccurate when self-analyzing their effort–but entirely another to consciously alter mechanics. Sources are telling me that Gagne is completely out of whack, even tipping his vaunted “vulcan change.” He’ll need to get it together quickly or the pressure will increase on Yhency Brazoban.

    The rotation is having its own problems, despite progress from Brad Penny. Penny will likely be ready, though no one’s really sure that his shoulder problems won’t recur. Odalis Perez and Wilson Alvarez are both dealing with tendonitis, forcing Jim Tracy to consider opening the season with Rule 5 pick D.J. Houlton in the rotation.

  • Joel Pineiro will start the season on the DL after his shoulder took the brunt of some mechanical changes. It’s not really a setback, just a way of getting him sharp in some rehab assignments before the first time that the M’s need a fifth starter. Pineiro reported that he felt great after his Monday outing, so things are looking positive.
  • The Reds asked for what in return for Ken Griffey Jr.? Four prospects? No team is going to give up anything approaching that unless the Reds toss in a time machine and a bionic leg. Griffey’s had some success this spring, testing his surgically re-attached hamstring in center field and keeping Wily Mo Pena in play. This won’t be the last Griffey trade rumor of the year, with several teams watching his health closely.
  • The Cardinals are relying on Jason Isringhausen to come off hip surgery and do what he did last season. It’s hard to imagine that being repaired can actually make things worse for a pitcher, but consider how things happen. Most injuries are progressive for pitchers, getting worse over time and allowing for small, sometimes unnoticeable adjustments. After surgery, even if healthy, it’s a sudden process that can alter the mechanics that a pitcher has had. It’s especially difficult for someone like Isringhausen who has always had a complex delivery. He’s out of sync now and will need all the wisdom and work of Dave Duncan to get things back in time for the start of the season. Don’t be surprised if he starts poorly before getting things back in line. By the way, if you really want to see how valuable Duncan is, pick up a copy of “Three Nights in August” by Buzz Bissinger.
  • Frank Thomas got lost during the recent Congressional hearings, most likely something he didn’t mind. He’s probably a bit less happy that he’s gotten lost along the way back from foot and ankle problems. Thomas’ rehab has had numerous setbacks, and there have started to be rumors of retirement. That’s unlikely, but not out of the question, according to team sources. Thomas is expected back mid-May and will be strictly limited to DH duties to protect the foot.

  • Quick Cuts: I always say that my readers are some of my best sources. It proved true again. I mentioned in a THR that they don’t do shoulder replacements. Oops, they do. Thanks to Cam McPhail for the lesson … Wade Miller is still slightly ahead of schedule, meaning June instead of July. He’ll head to Boston with the team to be watched by rehab guru Chris Correnti … Jerome Williams is behind schedule, due to a family illness, but is still on track to be ready for the start of the season … Jason Bay is still not at a point with his injured hand that he can do more than take soft toss. That’s a bad sign and raises questions about his Opening Day status for the second season in a row … David Bell‘s back has opened the door for Placido Polanco to impress Charlie Manuel. There are rumblings that if Bell can get into games within a week that Manuel might be told which one to play … Ray Durham is getting his annual groin strain out of the way early … First Roberto Alomar, now Juan Gonzalez. Alomar exited under his own power, while Gonzalez is going to be cut by the Indians.

Back next week with another preseason UTK and then, wow, let’s play ball. It seems like the winter will never end. I stood outside today for a minute, watching my breath cloud up and realized that I’d probably need to bundle up for Opening Day. Baseball is the only reason I’d ever sit outside in the cold.

Thank you for reading

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