Welcome to the seventh season of UTK here at Baseball Prospectus. How time flies, huh? Not much is going to change this year: we’ve eliminated the “UTK Wrap” to allow me more freedom to chase stories and to use my BBWAA card to go work games, and we’ll use Injury Cost now and then, as well as work on more studies, and help to inform, educate, and challenge conventional wisdom. A full season of comments in place will make this more of an interactive experience, and though try as I might, I already know I won’t be able to answer every question.

I began writing UTK to help bring a better understanding of injuries to the public, to highlight the hard work of medical staffs that often goes unnoticed, and to show how significant the cost of the disabled list is to the game. Along the way, we’ve had quite the journey. It’s a shared education, whether we’re delving into pitching mechanics, new surgical techniques, the latest in steroids, or just some cool new thing we can use to power up. Thanks to those who have been here from the start, to those that have joined us somewhere along the way, and to those who are new this year. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be intimidated by the lingo, and realize that while there’s much more to do, the way that the game is covered has changed because you’ve all showed that injuries are something worth our attention.

Thousands of columns, three additional sports, millions of miles, a billion vats of coffee, and a case of carpal tunnel that would fell an elephant have all brought me to this, so, powered by the best readers in the world, on to the injuries:

Jeff Francis, Rockies

It always stinks to write about these-Francis is done for the season after being told that he’ll need surgery to repair a torn labrum. He injured it late in the ’08 season and tried to rehab over the winter. While it was definitely worth a shot, things didn’t work out, and as he hit his deadline, the decision was made. Francis won’t be back until next year, and the record for coming back from tears is spotty at best. The Rockies will know more after the procedure when they find out how significant it is and where the tear is located. Yes, he was a red on the chart, but let’s all wish Francis the best of luck with his rehab and recovery. The Rockies have several options behind him, so spring training suddenly becomes a little more competitive.

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers

For the record, I have nothing against Billingsley. I know that there are people that think I do, because when I talk about him, I seldom have anything positive to say. I don’t like his build, his motion, or his workload… but his results? Those are pretty good. Billingsley has never really been hurt, so his freakish broken leg will be something of a test. He has healed up right on schedule, and while he still has to get over the mental hurdle, the leg is sound enough that he’s ready to pitch. Sources tell me that he’s only slightly behind a normal off-season throwing program, and that he should be caught up by the time games start in Arizona. Even after their retread signings, the Dodgers lack depth in the rotation, and they must be thrilled to have at least one pitcher they can count on. He’s still risky, but I can’t argue with the production.

Chase Utley, Phillies
Mike Lowell, Red Sox

Two of the injuries that I’m watching closely involve hips. Both Utley and Lowell had surgery to repair their acetabular (hip) labrums this offseason, but the differences in timing and severity make it difficult to draw comparisons between the two. Lowell is expected to have more problems due to his age, but Utley is the player who relies more on lateral mobility. Both seem on schedule to be ready around Opening Day. Utley is running well early in camp, though he hasn’t done any full-go activities. He’s been taking grounders and hitting off of a tee this week, and all signs are positive from Clearwater. Contrary to some reports, the stability of his hip is not in question. The real problem has been one of pain management, and with that now corrected, it’s easy to see why many are expecting an uptick in his production. Remember, this would have been Utley’s last arbitration-eligible year, so he remains a bargain, even in a tough market. Lowell has also begun taking ground balls, but he was seen after the session with a large quantity of ice on the area. Sources insist that it’s just precautionary, but we’ll have to see how soon he can get back out there again. Lowell’s ability to play third base as well as play day-after-night games will go a long way in determining how the Sox will line up.

Vladimir Guerrero, Angels

I don’t mean this as an insult, but Guerrero is one of those players that looks older than he is, and as he has filled out and had to deal with back and leg problems he has begun to appear as if he’s in pain whenever he’s running; even in normal situations it seems like his next step might be the one that breaks him down. All of that wear and tear, some of which can still be blamed on the Montreal turf, has transformed him from the great player that he was into the merely good one that he is now. The Angels have always done a good job of keeping him available, and now, without Garret Anderson around, there will be more flexibility for them as far as using Guerrero in the DH slot. That should be good for him, but once a player begins this kind of physical decline, even something as minor as a knee ‘scoping can exacerbate his overall condition, and his deterioration could accelerate over the medium term.

Eric Chavez, Athletics
Mark Ellis, Athletics

The A’s are saying that Chavez and Ellis haven’t had setbacks. OK, I guess that’s possible, but the fact that Chavez won’t be available when games start and that Ellis may not be ready to play in the field until Opening Day certainly aren’t positives. Both players are key to the A’s hopes this season, especially since the drop-off in production from their backups is quite drastic, and they’re both exceptionally risky, as are several others on this sink-or-swim A’s roster. I’ll have more on this next week when the A’s THR comes out.

Justin Masterson, Red Sox
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs

While everyone is debating what role Joba Chamberlain should fill (answer: starter), there are several teams utilising different methods to get their pitchers ready for the upcoming season. While Masterson and Samardzija are expected to be relievers and possibly even set-up men for their teams this year, both will prep as starters through the first part of spring training. I like this plan; it’s easier to shift to the bullpen having already built up extra stamina than it is to try and build it up in-season. While the Yankees showed some organizational spine with their Joba-shift, it’s still a very difficult leap to expect of many teams, but the Red Sox and Cubs both have some depth and risk issues in their rotations, and having these kinds of “modern swingmen” available is a huge plus, and represents a roster expander of sorts.

Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
Troy Glaus, Cardinals

The Cardinals are dealing with several player injuries this spring, but things have gone very well for the two most important players among the team’s walking wounded. Carpenter has made it through a handful of bullpen sessions and is well ahead of where he was expected to be. He has a long way to go and his role remains uncertain, but a positive is a positive. The Cards are covered by some very solid beat writers, and there’s not much for me to add since they’re doing such a fine job. There is still some question as to when Glaus will be ready to go, but sources tell me that he’s on schedule; assuming that everything goes well, he’ll just end up missing most of April.

Quick Cuts:
I love that “the best shape of my life” has become such a cliché that Tim Dierkes is collecting examples. I hope someone will make a list of all of the new pitches that people claim to have this spring. … Hideki Matsui‘s knees are so bad that he won’t play the outfield except in emergencies. Given the concerns about Jorge Posada‘s shoulder, Matsui may become nothing more than a bench player going forward. … A source that saw Chad Cordero throw said “he’s not close, but he’s better than I thought. Someone will sign him and hope he’s ready midseason.” … Chris Duncan has a new piece of titanium bling. Well, it’s in his neck, so is a disc-replacement bling? Whatever you think, it’s working so far. He remains very, very risky, but early returns are good. … Is it just me or is the WBC becoming the Arizona Fall League with pro hitters? … Did you ever wonder if MRI companies become happy around this time of year?