It’s all about health for several contenders

The meniscus is a finicky little piece of cartilage, eminently susceptible to tears that lead more to a nag than a deep, shooting pain. If the New York Yankees were in a race for something more than home-field advantage in the first round, Alex Rodriguez(notes) almost surely would have played through his busted meniscus.

Instead, he spent the last six weeks recovering after getting his right knee fixed by an arthroscope, taking the time to heal his 36-year-old body and preparing more for October than September or the rest of August, during which he hopes to recapture his swing after returning Sunday.

A-Rod hit cleanup for the Yankees. He went 0-for-5. The hits will come. So will the production. Rodriguez may be older, may be without the assistance of steroids, may be hobbled by his back and badgered by his knee. But he is still A-Rod, whose skill supersedes age and performance enhancers and injuries, and the Yankees are a far more dangerous team with him in the lineup than they are without him.

Alex Rodriguez took the field Sunday in Minnesota for the first time in 38 games.
(US Presswire)

Rodriguez’s return is the first of many over the next five weeks, when the majority of playoff contenders will spend more time fighting injuries than foes. The 2011 season is like the “Star Wars” saga: started great, went to crap. What looked at the All-Star break to be a compelling second half has turned into one interesting race (National League West) with a couple others possibly materializing (American League Central and West).

Otherwise, it’s about guys getting healthy. And the Yankees having …

1. Alex Rodriguez means they get to trot out a lineup with Curtis Granderson(notes) and Robinson Cano(notes), a pair of MVP candidates; Mark Teixeira(notes), third in the AL in home runs; Nick Swisher(notes), third in the AL in walks; Brett Gardner(notes), a nuisance on the bases; and, sure, Derek Jeter(notes), whose .403/.449/.486 line in August may be aided by a .446 (!) average on balls in play, but, hey, he is still hitting .403 this month.

More than that, A-Rod in the lineup means Eduardo Nunez(notes) and Eric Chavez(notes) aren’t. Nunez’s versatility is nice to have in a utilityman. How the myth continues to perpetuate that he’s anything more is a product of the Pinstripe Factor: everyone seems better in a Yankees uniform.

A-Rod’s steadiness throughout the first half ran out toward the end, when he went 22 consecutive games without a home run before hitting the DL. His teammates picked up the slack, as they are wont to do, and it’s amazing to think the Yankees are actually the highest-scoring team in baseball when …

2. Kevin Youkilis(notes) and the Boston Red Sox trot out five of the top 16 OPSs in the AL this season. Only two were in the lineup Sunday: Adrian Gonzalez(notes) (ranked sixth) and Dustin Pedroia(notes) (13th). Out with injuries were David Ortiz(notes) (fifth, bum foot), Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) (eighth, bad back) and Youkilis (16th, also a bum back).

No team right now is as paralyzed by injuries as the Red Sox, which could be construed two ways: It’s a good thing they’re getting them out of the way now, or they’re cutting it awfully close to the postseason to get guys healthy.

None of the recent injuries seems particularly bad. Ortiz and Ellsbury are day-to-day. J.D. Drew(notes) should return within the next few weeks. Same with Bobby Jenks(notes). Even Clay Buchholz(notes) hasn’t been ruled out yet, though any return would come in a relief role.

He has a balky back, too, and it shows how maddening such injuries can be. The Red Sox hope Youkilis’ will heal within 15 days. They don’t really know. The prospect of entering the postseason with a Jed Lowrie(notes)-Marco Scutaro left side of the infield certainly isn’t appealing, not when …

Adrian Beltre

3. Adrian Beltre(notes) was patrolling the hot corner last year. Beltre moved on to Texas this offseason, where he was playing his usual superlative defense and taking advantage of Rangers Ballpark (home-vs.-road stats: .295/.350/.623 with 16 homers, compared to .259/.289/.400 with four homers).

Then Beltre tweaked a hamstring. If back issues are maddening, hamstrings and obliques are pests, disappearing just long enough to lull a player into a false sense of security before he pulls it again. Beltre fell victim already, and he’ll try running the bases again Monday in hopes the muscle doesn’t catch once more and sentence him to an even longer DL stint.

The Angels keep hanging around the Rangers, whose lead shrunk to four games Sunday. Put Beltre into a lineup with Josh Hamilton(notes), Nelson Cruz(notes), Michael Young(notes), Ian Kinsler(notes) and Mike Napoli(notes), and they’re almost as dangerous as New York and Boston. Beltre to the Rangers is like …

4. Rickie Weeks(notes) to the Milwaukee Brewers. Not a superstar. Not a complementary player, either. A piece of the foundation whose absence hasn’t derailed them short-term but would severely harm them over the long run.

The injury to Weeks’ left ankle three weeks ago looked gruesome. When doctors diagnosed a severe sprain, there was relief. He’s back on a treadmill and traveled last week with the Brewers, who are hopeful for his return in September.

Weeks, remember, isn’t Prince Fielder(notes) or Ryan Braun(notes). Few are. He is their third-best hitter, an undisputed fact, and his return gives the Brewers every bit as much jolt in their lineup as Philadelphia, Atlanta and Arizona. It’s actually scary how close those lineups are in runs scored: The Brewers have 566, the Phillies 556, the Braves 531 and the Diamondbacks 565.

Milwaukee is 20-3 since Weeks’ injury July 28. The Brewers have the biggest division lead in baseball at 8½ games. They miss their second baseman. Just not as much as …

Jason Kipnis

5. Jason Kipnis(notes) is yearned for in Cleveland. Same with Travis Hafner(notes). And Grady Sizemore(notes). Hell, anyone who can jump start a team that had a chance to take the division lead over the weekend and instead found itself swept and back on the precipice of .500.

The hamstring injury to Kipnis came two days after he went 5-for-5 and hit his sixth home run in 42 at-bats. Hafner’s aching right foot became too much to bear Sunday, and he’s headed for the groans of an MRI tube Monday. Sizemore should return from hernia surgery in September, though by then it could be too late.

The White Sox are far closer to Cleveland (a half-game back) than the Indians are to first-place Detroit (four games behind). The Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) trade isn’t going quite as GM Chris Antonetti envisioned – his ERA in four Indians starts after Sunday’s eight-run implosion: 7.29 – and they’ve got an 11-game homestand against Seattle, Oakland and Kansas City to get right or risk being out of the race before September begins. The stakes aren’t so dire for …

6. Brian Wilson(notes) and the San Francisco Giants, though they do give the Red Sox their money for most injured, plus they’re actually embroiled in a pennant race. Wilson, the Giants’ closer, joined setup man Sergio Romo(notes) on the DL Sunday with elbow inflammation. Awaiting him at the poker table were Carlos Beltran(notes) (hand) and Jonathan Sanchez(notes) (ankle), both of whom should return, and Buster Posey(notes) and Freddy Sanchez(notes), neither of whom will.

The injury gods have put a pox on the Sox, and they’re not being compliant with any Giant. Beltran arrived, stunk, then got hurt. Wilson’s numbers haven’t been nearly as nice as his beard; his 31 walks in 53 2/3 innings against 52 strikeouts didn’t jive with his career numbers. Already Wilson has walked more players this year than any previous season.

The Giants need him healthy. They need everyone they can get. Because their main foe, Arizona, is fully loaded. Yes, shortstop Stephen Drew(notes) is out for the season. So is the starter they acquired at the deadline, Jason Marquis(notes). But there are no annoying, little, lingering injuries, the sort that destroy teams with such tenuous leads. Detroit, too, feels comfort in that only …

Al Alburquerque

7. Al Alburquerque(notes) is missing from its main cogs. And even before he went down, it wasn’t like Alburquerque was Mariano Rivera(notes).

Or was he? If Mo has the cutter, Alburquerque, a 25-year-old journeyman who had bounced from the Cubs’ system to the Rockies to the Tigers before debuting in the bullpen this season, has the slider. According to the rankings of pitch effectiveness at FanGraphs, Alburquerque’s slider is the seventh most valuable in the major leagues this season, and considering it’s behind six pitchers with at least three times the number of innings as him, it’s impressive.

Even more so are the names that Alburquerque will try to pass if he can return in a week or so from a concussion sustained when a ball hit him in the head in the outfield during batting practice: Clayton Kershaw(notes), Ervin Santana(notes), Bud Norris(notes), CC Sabathia(notes), Jhoulys Chacin(notes) and …

8. Tommy Hanson(notes), whose slider is on the shelf right now with tendinitis in his right shoulder. It’s not too worrisome. Hanson has a rehab outing scheduled, and anyway, the Braves are so deep in starting pitching, they could watch two more of their starters go down with injuries and find perfectly acceptable replacements from Triple-A.

In his last start against the Giants, left-hander Mike Minor(notes) threw six shutout innings and struck out nine. Randall Delgado(notes) showed up this week from the minors and limited San Francisco to one hit over six innings. And 20-year-old Julio Teheran(notes) is biding his time at Triple-A with a 13-2 record and 2.14 ERA.

Atlanta might be deep. The team they trail, Philadelphia, tries to make up for that with a quality-over-quantity philosophy, one that wouldn’t come with nearly the impact were …

Cole Hamels

9. Cole Hamels(notes) to miss any extended period of time. An MRI on Hamels’ left shoulder showed inflammation. He threw a bullpen session Saturday and declared himself fit for his scheduled start Friday against Florida.

It’s not like letting Hamels rest for a few weeks would hurt. The Phillies own baseball’s best record. Atlanta isn’t catching them for the NL East title and home field advantage. Roy Oswalt(notes) is back from the disabled list. Vance Worley(notes) and Kyle Kendrick(notes) are perfectly suitable fill-ins. And shoulder injuries are not things with which any player should trifle.

Doesn’t matter to the Phillies. Hamels has no reason to fib about his health, not when another World Series appearance seems likelier than ever. Philadelphia trotting out a rotation of Roy Halladay(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Oswalt and Hamels is even more staggering today, with the breadth of their performances, than it was when they appeared together on a dais in spring training and talked about possibilities.

Perhaps it’ll be a repeat of 2009, when the Phillies squared off against the Yankees and …

10. Alex Rodriguez won a championship. It wasn’t the greatest year of A-Rod’s career, certainly not one of those 1.000-plus-OPS monster seasons. He hit the DL that year, too, with the hip injury that changed his outlook.

No longer would A-Rod be the perennial MVP candidate, nor the guy who actually puts up $30 million worth of numbers to match his salary. He had to settle for being someone who could survive the regular season and thrive in the playoffs, and he did that in ’09 before reverting to punchless A-Rod in 2010.

Which one will the Yankees get this year? They hope the rest of August and September can at least give them an idea. The meniscus is intact. The power should return. The possibilities remain big. Even if he’s not the A-Rod of old, he’s still A-Rod. And unlike so many of the other contenders, the Yankees can brag.

At least their biggest question mark is back.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 22, 2011