Photo Credit:Gary A. Vasquez \ USA TODAY Sports Image
Mark Mulder’s comeback was always a long-shot. Once one of baseball’s best pitch pitchers, Mulder suffered through rotator cuff surgery, was bought out by the St. Louis Cardinals following the 2008 season, remained unsigned and officially retired in June 2010. He decided to attempt a comeback last year, auditioning for teams in November 2013, eventually signing a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on New Year’s. Unfortunately, the Baseball Gods being a fickle bunch, Mulder’s short-lived comeback ended when he tore his Achilles’ tendon on Feb. 15. Even had he escaped Spring Training unscathed and earned a spot on the Angels, Mulder likely would not have played a very significant role on a team built to win sooner rather than later.
Unlike Mulder, however, there is a slew of top-tier players rehabbing injuries that curtailed their 2013 season. These are stars who, when/if healthy, figure to play leading roles in whatever success their respective teams experience in 2014. A couple of teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees – have invested tens of millions of dollars in multiple veterans who match that description. On the other end of the monetary spectrum, the San Diego Padres and, more significantly, the Baltimore Orioles each have a high-ceiling youngster attempting to come back from injury and buttress a potential postseason run. Regardless of age and experience, more than a few teams are keeping their proverbial fingers crossed on rehabbing players.
Here’s a look at nine players coming off injury-plagued campaigns whose successful rehabs could make the difference in whether their teams play into October:
9 T8. Yasmani Grandal, San Diego Padres, 2014 Salary: $500,000
Not only is Yasmani Grandal recovering from knee surgery, he also is rehabbing his reputation. Grandal started last season serving a 50-game PED suspension, played in 28 games after he returned, and then was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury in July. He underwent ACL surgery on Aug. 6, and could begin the regular season on the disabled list, which might not be a bad thing for a 25-year-old switch-hitting backstop rehabbing a major injury. If San Diego hopes to contend in the highly competitive National League West, the Padres likely will need Grandal to play often and produce the way he did when he made his first appearance in The Show. As a rookie in 2012, Grandal played 60 games, posting a .863 OPS with four homer and seven doubles.
8 T8. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles, 2014 Salary: $500,000
As a 20-year-old everyday third baseman for the Orioles last season, the preternaturally gifted Manny Machado – part of MLB’s Young Superstar Trinity that includes Mike Trout and Bryce Harper – had connected for 14 homers and 51 doubles, and knocked in 71 runs. Then, a gruesome knee injury in late September ended his 2013 campaign. Machado underwent knee surgery the following month and recent indications are that he’s on track to be ready for Opening Day. Considering his age and potential, the Orioles are likely to take a conservative track with his return; however, Baltimore didn’t sign Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez because it plans on being a second-division team. So, even if the Orioles bring Machado along slowly at first, it’s likely it won’t take him long to become an everyday presence in the team’s lineup.
7 Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds, 2014 Salary: $10,000,000
The Cincinnati Reds were one of the National League’s best teams last season, winning 90 games and making the postseason. That they accomplished what they did with ace Johnny Cueto giving them only 60.2 innings would seem to indicate a healthy Cueto could be the difference between the team falling short, again, and advancing deeper into October. Cueto’s issue was a right-lat strain that bothered him throughout 2013. When Cueto was able to pitch, he was one of the better right-handers in the league. Making 11 starts, he went 5-2, and posted a 2.82 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. In 33 starts in 2012, Cueto finished fourth in Cy Young voting after authoring a 19-9 season, to go along with a 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and a 3.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
6 Tim Hudson, San Francisco Giants, 2014 Salary: $11,000,000
The Giants have Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain anchoring the front-end of their rotation. In free agent acquisition Tim Hudson, the team could have an ace-type hurler facing the opponent’s No. 3 or No. 4 starter every fifth day, which would give the Giants a big advantage over most others and, perhaps, allow them to keep pace with Los Angeles and Arizona. There’s a big “If” to those plans, however. The 38-year-old Hudson is coming off surgery to repair a fractured ankle. Before suffering his injury, Hudson was his typical in-control self for Atlanta, posting a 2.73 ERA with 19 walks allowed in 69.1 innings. In his career, Hudson has hurled 2,813.2 innings and walked only 846 batters.
5 T4. Chad Billingsley, L.A. Dodgers, 2014 Salary: $12,000,000
If any team can afford to wait on a pitcher, the Los Angeles Dodgers would be a safe bet. Clayton Kershaw followed by Zach Greinke followed by Hyun-Jin Ryu followed by … Get the picture? The team’s rotation is stacked. Having Billingsley in the back-end of their five would be an embarrassment of riches in line with, well, the Dodgers’ outfield and their lineup and … Get the picture? Billingsley underwent Tommy John surgery on April 25, and likely won’t be available until mid-season. At this point, the 29-year-old probably is the finished product. And that’s not too shabby. His 162-game average produces a 13-10 mark with a 3.65 ERA and 172 Ks.
4 T 4. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees, 2014 Salary: $12,000,000
3 Curtis Granderson, New York Mets, 2014 Salary: $13,000,000
The Mets are probably a season or two away from competing for anything. That doesn’t mean, however, that they shouldn’t start putting the right pieces in place. They got off to a good start, signing lefty-hitting Curtis Granderson, late of the cross-town rival Yankees, to give All-Star third baseman David Wright some company in what has been an anemic lineup. Granderson was the victim of freakishly bad luck last season. In his first at-bat of spring training, Granderson was hit by a pitch that broke his forearm. Then, in May, an inside pitch broke his pinky. Granderson was limited to 67 games in his walk year. In his previous two seasons, however, Granderson clubbed 84 home runs. Spacious Citi Field is not as friendly to hitters as Yankee Stadium. Granderson, though, is a guy who led the Majors with 23 triples in 2007 while plating his home games in Detroit’s cavernous Comerica Park.
2 Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2014 Salary: $21,250,000
A Dodgers outfield of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig is going to be really good. A Dodgers outfield with two of the aforementioned and Matt Kemp is going to be REALLY good. Not yet 30, a healthy Kemp is one of the elite players in the game; however, he has been a shell of himself since the second half of the 2012 season, suffering through a variety of injuries. Kemp is returning not from one, but two surgeries: one to his ankle and the other to his shoulder. Last season, he appeared in 73 games and hit six home runs. In his last full season, 2011, Kemp finished second in the MVP voting, playing in 161 games while pacing the league in homers (39) and RBI (126) and stealing 40 bases.
1 Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees, 2014 Salary: $23,125,000
Not that long ago, the Yankees fielded arguably the best infield in baseball. Now, they have a brittle middle with Derek Jeter at short and Brian Roberts at second, and, at-best, a platoon situation at third. Boy, do they need Mark Teixeira to be back to form! The Gold Glove-caliber power-hitting first baseman was limited to 15 games last season after breaking his wrist while playing in the World Baseball Classic and undergoing surgery in July. The switch-hitting 33-year-old probably is no longer the player who led the league in home runs (39) and RBI (122) in 2009, his first season with the Yankees. But the Yankees gladly would take Texeira’s average offensive production since they signed him -- 28 homers and 87 RBI – and his flashy leather at first over a fill season.