It’s not Opening Day officially, so forgive me if I’m excited a bit early. In my own version of ESPN’s “Opening Night,” UTK is returning for its fifth season today, becoming your daily dose of injuries, news, and the occasional nugget of knowledge I pick up while talking to the people around baseball. With all thirty Team Health Reports now complete, I’m ready to get into the rhythm of the baseball season. Heck, I’m just ready for baseball season. Was it the early taste I got at the World Baseball Classic, or the wide-open nature of the upcoming campaign? I know that the days and nights of the next seven months will involve a bunch of Whenever minutes, pots of coffee, carpal tunnel pain, miles for the RSX, and great, glorious baseball.

Powered by the best readers I could ever imagine, on to the injuries:

  • A few years ago, Rich Aurilia came back from elbow surgery in the minimum 15 days required by the DL. Jason LaRue is now trying to beat that record. LaRue had knee surgery just days ago and thinks he may not need to go on the DL at all. The normal recovery time is 10 days, but all signs point to LaRue being ahead of the curve by a few days. “Normal recovery” doesn’t usually include squatting for a couple hours, so the jury is still out on this one. Expect LaRue to be back quickly–if not on Opening Day–but to lose some playing time to Javier Valentin. The Reds will keep their options open by not playing LaRue yet, which will allow them to place him on the DL retroactively if needed.
  • The Cubs are ahead of schedule. Yes, I typed that correctly. Both Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are ahead of most estimates for their return. While both remain risky red lights, they’re both making progress. My Cubs source says both are working hard on their individual programs, actually needing the Cubs staff to consistently hold them back a bit. Overdoing it isn’t the best way to get healthy or stay healthy, but the spirit has to be considered a positive. Wood is a bit ahead of his late April return, while Prior is “well ahead” of the mid-May estimates some writers are giving as his target. The DL moves on Tuesday were simply procedural and say nothing about their timetables. Don’t discount the depth of the bullpen in the future health of the Cubs starters. Speaking of the pen: the Cubs are also encouraged by the progress made in the past few days by Scott Williamson. Williamson had back spasms after landing awkwardly on the mound, and is now expected to be ready for the season.
  • When is a broken hand not broken? Apparently, it’s when Jeremy Reed had a fracture near his current injury about a decade ago. Radiology isn’t a perfect science and a second imaging showed that Reed thankfully only had a deep bone bruise. This should allow Reed to come back as early as next week, though that will be guided by his grip strength and pain tolerance. If you’d pushed him down your draft list because of the injury, it’s time to kick him back up to where you had him. This type of thing is educational–medical science is still not perfect and while you can call this a mistake, it’s simply one of the things that keep us on our toes in reporting and analyzing injuries.
  • It was a bad day for speedy outfielders. Rocco Baldelli may start the year on the DL, more as a precaution and a statement about the depth of the Devil Rays than any kind of setback for his knee and elbow. Baldelli will be back early in the season, but there’s no reason at all to rush him. Scott Podsednik pulled up a bit lame, his groin aching. Stop your Lisa Dergan jokes; Podsednik had hernia surgery this offseason so the team is being very conservative with him. Expect his steal totals to go down a little; if this type of thing happens with any frequency, his totals will decrease even more. Torii Hunter isn’t all the way back from his ugly ankle injury last season. It’s no big deal that he has had a minor problem sliding. What that shows is that he may be a bit reluctant to slide, to go diving in the outfield, and that he’s likely to change his game in slight ways that may have larger consequences. Positive or negative? I’ll let you know by the end of the season.
  • Two other big name pitchers have had some injury problems this spring apart from Wood and Prior. Both A.J. Burnett and Ben Sheets have dealt with arm problems (okay, Sheets’ is actually in the upper back) and could start the season on the DL, but neither has a serious problem. Burnett’s elbow has felt fine since his scary snapping of scar tissue, while Sheets has adjusted to his forever-changed muscularity, looking good in simulated games. Both will have wins early in April and seem to be sliding further down draft boards then their injuries indicate.
  • Barry Bonds. Ah, how many times will I get to write that this season. Thank you, autotext. Bonds left Arizona with what was being called a strained elbow, recalling his problematic arm from 1999. (Yes, it’s the elbow injury that was addressed in Game of Shadows.) Bonds’ elbow swelled, then went back down and he’s had no further problems. Given that his spring OPS is over 2000, I think he’s ready to go. The Giants are a bit more worried about Ray Durham. The oft-injured 2B is dealing with some heel problems that may be a recurrence of the plantar fasciitis that was so problematic for him a few years back. It’s something to watch.
  • Every year, at least a couple times, the flu rips through a clubhouse. The Tigers are getting theirs out of the way early, with several players missing some of the last days of Lakeland with the infamous “flu-like symptoms.” Ivan Rodriguez had the worst case, needing treatment for dehydration. Carlos Guillen has avoided the flu bug for now and his back problems seem to be clearing up. Some Alfonso Soriano rumors have been flying lately, but a healthy Guillen is a key part to any Detroit hopes this year.
  • The Pirates have had terrible luck keeping their minor league pitchers healthy. Most of their Triple-A roster this year will be made up of rehabbers that were passed by the Zach DukeIan SnellPaul Maholm trio. The hope was that Oliver Perez would be able to hold down the top spot, but his recent velocity seems to indicate a shoulder problem. Watch closely to see if Perez is simply thrown off by his participation in the WBC or if he’s missing five miles an hour consistently.
  • Every time I see Dontrelle Willis on highlights (or even in person a couple weeks ago in Anaheim), all I can think is “Oh my lord, what happened?” His mechanics are completely broken, reminding me of Oliver Perez at the start of last season. I’ve compared Felix Hernandez to Dwight Gooden a couple times this spring, though Willis might be the better comp. Both had early success, a heavy workload when young, and all the promise in the world. I hope I’m wrong on both.
  • Quick Cuts: David Bell is opening the door for one of the best spring training stories around. With Bell’s back a lingering problem, the Phillies are going to break camp with 33-year-old rookie Chris Coste, who can play third and short. The author of two books, Coste is a Disney movie waiting to happen … Jose Guillen says he’s healthy, but not ready to start the season. The Nats could use a bit more drama these days … Sweet new page design over at MLB.comEric Gagne is pitching five to seven mph under his normal velocity. Watch to see if he’s using the slider to compensate … Rick Ankiel is still dealing with knee problems, a convenient thing to have happening while the Cards try to sneak him through waivers and send him to the minors … Tim Salmon is doing well in spring training and could make the team. Some have suggested that he’ll be allowed to play a couple games and retire on his own terms … My Sidekick II is rapidly dying as the battery fades. I’m hoping the Sidekick III debuts soon. Anyone have a suggestion for a backup plan? … If Matt Thornton ends up closing games for the White Sox this year, Don Cooper will be anointed the next Leo Mazzone. Why wait? Cooper and Mike Maddux are among the best around … The Jeff Bagwell saga looks all but over. The insurance claim will be appealed, Bagwell’s headed for Birmingham, but in the end, would it be all bad if the next time we saw Bagwell is in Cooperstown?

I could put this at the end of every column this year, but I’ll make sure to do it at least once. This column isn’t possible without a lot of help. Whether it’s Mike Groopman, Tom Gorman and Bill Burke with some behind-the-scenes assistance, or the guys at Rotowire who do the best job keeping up with all the news and injuries, this is hardly a solo column. Thanks to the team of experts at BP, to my sources and watchers, and to my readers, for this and every column.

Thank you for reading

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