Around the Horn: Starting pitchers
Many top hurlers vying to come back strong from injuries
If just half of the starting pitchers attempting to come back from injury-shortened 2006 campaigns return to form, the field for Comeback Player of the Year is going to be awfully crowded.
From New York to San Diego, there are numerous teams with at least one starting pitcher looking to make it back to the mound in good health. In the Bronx, where Carl Pavano is trying to bounce back with the Yankees after missing all of last season, to Atlanta, where left-hander Mike Hampton's possible return for the first time since 2005 will have a bearing on the Braves' fortunes, comeback candidates are just about everywhere.
Pavano and Hampton did not pitch last season, but there are others who appeared in less than 20 games because of injury who will be trying to make it back in 2007, including Bartolo Colon of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (only 10 games last season), Mark Prior of the Chicago Cubs (9), Wade Miller of the Cubs (5), Ben Sheets of Milwaukee (17), David Wells of San Diego (13), John Patterson of the Nationals, Adam Eaton of the Phillies (13) and Randy Wolf of the Dodgers (12).
Others won't make it back until midseason or later, like Mark Mulder of St. Louis, and a few not at all in 2007, such as Francisco Liriano of Minnesota and Brandon Backe of Houston.
The Angels' likely starting rotation will be the same as the one that finished the 2006 season, with four right-handers and one left-hander. Veterans John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar will head the list, with young right-handers Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver joining the group. Joe Saunders is projected as the lone lefty starter.
Colon, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2005, has been hampered by shoulder problems since then. Colon posted a 1-5 record and a 5.11 ERA over 10 starts while making two trips to the disabled list last year.
The 33-year-old is in the first stages of his throwing program, progressing from short toss to long toss. While he has improved, Angels GM Bill Stoneman said Colon will not be at the same point physically as the other pitchers when the team begins workouts on Feb. 15.
"He'll be ready when he's ready; it is absolutely foolish to put a timetable on it," Stoneman said. "You don't rush biology. People mend at different rates."
The Dodgers upgraded their rotation with the addition of Jason Schmidt joining holdovers Derek Lowe and Brad Penny. But if Wolf, who hasn't won in double figures since 2003, can make it all the way back following Tommy John elbow surgery, the Dodgers will have an even deeper rotation. Wolf went 4-0 in 12 starts with a 5.56 ERA last season, his first since undergoing surgery.
A healthy Pavano would be welcomed by the Yankees, who will have at least two new starters in their rotation. Pavano, who has not pitched in a Major League game since June 27, 2005, missed all of last season with various injuries -- including a pair of broken ribs suffered in an August automobile accident.
The Yankees have been clear in their motives, penciling him into their rotation after Pavano spent the winter working out in Phoenix. GM Brian Cashman said recently that Pavano will not enter Spring Training as a rehab player, noting that the righty is "going into the mix ready to go."
"There are going to be questions in our rotation," Cashman said. "What's Pavano going to do for us? How is Andy Pettitte going to transition from the National League to the American League? Mike Mussina is a year older. Kei Igawa, who had a great deal of success in Japan, will that translate to the States?
"All the talking I'd try to do toward that would just be noise anyway. They're fair questions and they're unknown. That's why we're trying to cultivate as much on the farm as we possibly can, to support the adjustments that are always necessary as you transition your pitching staff."
When Wells agreed to a one-year contract to become the fifth wheel in new San Diego manager Bud Black's rotation, GM Kevin Towers couldn't conceal his optimism.
"I think we're as good as anybody in our division, anybody in our league," Towers said of his five starters. "I don't think we've had this type of rotation since 1998. With [Greg] Maddux, you've got an advance scout in uniform. I think everyone will benefit from having him around. And Boomer [Wells], when he's healthy, is one of the greatest big-game pitchers the game has ever seen."
Wells, coming back from knee surgery in April, made only 13 starts last year with the Red Sox and Padres, going 3-5 with a 4.42 ERA. Towers is convinced Wells, who needs to make 27 starts to reach $3 million in contract incentives, is fully recovered and ready to rebound.
"Not only does he look like he's in good shape -- he looks pretty focused," Towers said. "He wants to go out differently than losing a playoff game. He wants to go out a winner."
The Phillies figure to be winners this season behind a rotation that includes Brett Myers, Freddy Garcia, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer and Eaton, who signed a free agent contract for $24.5 million over three years.
Eaton was limited to 65 innings last year because of a torn tendon in his finger, but he will be an asset if healthy.
"One thing about being hurt is that my shoulder and elbow haven't been taxed at all, hardly," the right-hander said.
Hampton returns after missing all of last year while recovering from the elbow ligament transplant surgery. Before he got injured in May 2005, he was once again proving to be one of the game's top left-handers.
AL starting rotations, ranked by ERA
|7. Blue Jays||61-62||.496||6||65||4.60|
|8. White Sox||72-52||.581||5||81||4.65|
|10. Devil Rays||36-70||.340||3||65||4.96|
|11. Red Sox||61-56||.521||3||70||5.00|
NL starting rotations, ranked by ERA
During a 22-start stretch, from July 4, 2004-May 14, 2005, Hampton went 15-2 with a 2.61 ERA. But just when it looked like he'd overcome the demons that haunted him in Colorado, he found his elbow incapable of allowing him to pitch.
All indications are that Hampton will be ready to go at the start of Spring Training. While pitching in an Instructional League game in October, he popped some of the scar tissue. Although it brought immediate discomfort, it was something that all players encounter after coming back from the Tommy John surgical procedure.
"He got that sort of out of his system and now he's ahead of the ballgame," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "It is like getting a new guy. He really hasn't pitched in two years. He hurt it early two years ago, so he should be fresh."
Last year the Brewers lost two-fifths of the starting rotation -- Sheets and Tomo Ohka -- to shoulder injuries within the span of days in early May. Both pitchers would go on to spend more than two months on the disabled list. The team struggled to recover, going 6-17 in games started by a laundry list of replacements. The trouble bled into the bullpen, and by the time a disappointing 75-87 season came to a close, the Brewers had used 27 different pitchers, a franchise record.
Sheets went 5-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 13 starts after returning from the DL, and he is expected to report to Spring Training at full strength.
Last year, he was returning from a torn upper back muscle suffered in August 2005, a major injury that club officials believe caused his shoulder problems in '06.
New Cubs manager Lou Piniella heads into Spring Training with seven or eight candidates for the five spots in the rotation, although the only one guaranteed is Carlos Zambrano. It's strange to not have Prior guaranteed a spot, but that's what happens after an injury-filled season in which he made nine starts, totaled 43 2/3 innings.
"It's not a lot of fun not playing," Prior said. "It's been a rough couple of years. I'm looking forward to this year. I'm trying not to think about what's happened. You try to learn from your mistakes. I'm not going to dwell on it. You can't change it. You can't change the reality of what it's been the last three years. I've had some unfortunate things. I'm not making excuses. It hasn't been good. That's what I'm working toward is to have a good '07."
In 2003, Prior was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, made 30 starts and topped 200 innings. He'd like to get back to that form. This offseason, he spent six days a week rehabbing his right shoulder. He started playing catch the first week in November, threw on flat ground after Christmas, and was throwing off a mound in early January.
"So far, everything's been great," he said. "I haven't had any complaints. It's been nice to just go out and throw and not worry about things. I know what the reality is. Everybody wants to see me on the field. Nobody wants to be on the field more than I do."
Miller is probably thinking the same thing. The right-hander was limited to five brief September starts as he rehabbed from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September 2005. If he could return to form, the Cubs could have one of the best rotations in the National League.
The Nationals used 12 starters during the 2006 season, and those pitchers went a combined 45-64 with a 5.37 ERA. During Spring Training, the Nationals are expecting to have at least that many vying for the final four spots in the rotation.
For now, the only guarantee in the rotation is right-hander John Patterson, who missed most of 2006 because of a right forearm injury. Now he is 100 percent healthy and ready to rejoin the rotation.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.