Many happy returns from injury?
With the All-Star Game a month away, there’s still plenty of time to sort out buyers from sellers and develop the most intriguing questions ( Will Cole-Hamels really stay put? Where will Johnny Cueto end up?) leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But there’s a surprising number of contending teams who are likely to gain significant players without giving up anything in return — some starting as soon as this weekend. A look at the players returning from injury most likely to impact pennant races:
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Verlander hadn’t pitched since suffering a triceps strain in spring training, and given his accomplishments and Detroit’s standing as four-time defending American League Central champs, there may be more intrigue around this return than any other. Verlander, who allowed two runs in five innings Saturday against the Cleveland Indians, won the Cy Young award and MVP in 2011 and was an all-star six times in seven years. But he paid the price in workload. From 2009 to 2013, no pitcher in baseball threw more than Verlander’s 1,172 innings — an average of more than 234 per season. Some scouts believe that directly impacted his 2014, when he had his highest ERA (4.54) and walks-and-hits-per-inning pitched (1.398) since 2008. The question for the Tigers, who enter the weekend trailing both Kansas City and Minnesota, is will the old Verlander surface now, at 32, with 1,983 big league innings in that right arm?
Matt Cain, Giants
Remember, San Francisco won its third World Series in five years without Cain, the hero of the 2012 champions. Remember, too, that his replacement in this year’s rotation is Chris Heston, who threw a no-hitter against the Mets on Tuesday in what was his 13th major league start. Cain, who has a perfect game of his own, last pitched July 9, 2014, which preceded surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. He threw for Class AA Richmond on Tuesday, hitting 94 mph, and is due to start Monday for Class AAA Sacramento. As with Verlander, there will be some question as to which version of Cain the Giants will get upon his return — the three-time all-star who went 55-35 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.096 WHIP from 2009 to 2012, or the banged-up, 10-17 pitcher from the past two seasons who posted a 4.06 ERA and a 1.187 WHIP? Either way, an opportunity is there for the Giants, who have hung with the vulnerable Dodgers.
David Wright, Mets
This one’s complicated. Wright has a narrowing in his spinal cord that is causing significant back discomfort, and while he has said he plans to play again this season, no one can say when that might be. The Mets, of course, are contending because of their rotation, but a healthy Wright would be their best hitter, which matters for a team that entered the weekend ranked 13th in the National League in runs scored. Wright’s return also could have an impact on the trade market. If he doesn’t recover, will the Mets have to make a move for another bat? Martin Prado and Aramis Ramirez are third basemen who could be available by trade.
Victor Martinez, Tigers
Here’s the thing about Martinez: If the left knee inflammation that has the designated hitter sidelined now was causing his struggles — a .216 average and .308 on-base percentage in his first 34 games of the year — then Detroit is getting one of the best offensive players in the league back. But if the .335 hitter with a .409 OBP is gone forever because Martinez is 36, then the Tigers have a problem on their hands given they signed him to a fouryear, $68 million deal in the offseason. (And even without Martinez, the Tigers have the best OBP in the AL.)
Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Hold off on those “best rotation ever” assessments. Entering Saturday, Washington’s starters had a 4.19 ERA — 19th in all of baseball. That’s in large part due to two things: Strasburg and Fister have combined to start just 17 games, and their combined ERA is 5.51. Fister appears closer to returning; he threw six scoreless innings Friday for Class AA Harrisburg in his second rehab start since he strained his right forearm. Strasburg hasn’t been right physically since he sprained his ankle in spring training, and the Nationals need him to overcome the neck problem that ultimately put him on the disabled list. Should he do that, it’s highly unlikely he will repeat the horrific numbers — a .325 batting average against and 6.55 ERA — from his first two months.