Posted May 17, 2013

Jason Heyward leads latest wave of key players returning to contenders after injury

Atlanta Braves, Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward, Braves

The Braves will be glad to get Jason Heyward’s bat back in their lineup, and not because of his bunting. (Icon SMI)

Jason Heyward will become the latest big-name player to return from the disabled list — joining Curtis Granderson, Zack Greinke and Coco Crisp — when he returns to the Braves lineup on Friday. Several more key players will follow in the next few days, including Reds ace Johnny Cueto and Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey, and still others should be back by the end of next week.

The first one back, and the one who could have the biggest impact, is Heyward, who missed nearly four weeks in the wake of an an April 22 appendectomy. Though he was off to an awful start in April (.121/.261/.259), his return could be key to reversing the Braves’ sagging fortunes. Despite catcher Brian McCann’s productive return earlier this month, Atlanta has gone just 9-14 in Heyward’s absence, largely due to a slumping lineup. The Braves scored 4.9 runs per game while opening the season with a 13-2 record, but since then have gone just 9-16 (.360) and scored a mere 3.8 runs per game. If Heyward can pick up where he left off last year rather than last month, his return could come just in time to help Atlanta hold off the charging Nationals, who pulled to within a half-game of first place with their win over the Padres on Thursday night.

Unlike Heyward, Cueto, the Reds ace who returns on Monday and has been out since mid-April due to latissimus dorsi and oblique strains, was off to a strong start. He posted a 2.60 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and a career-high strikeout rate prior to pulling up lame in his third appearance of the season. Also unlike Heyward, Cueto is not returning to a team desperate for him. The Reds have gotten good work out of rookie lefty Tony Cingrani (2-0, 2.89 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 5.29 K/BB, 0.96 WHIP) in five starts in Cueto’s stead. However, Cingrani left  his last start early due to a sore pitching shoulder, which means Cueto’s return couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Getting Cueto back allows Cincinnati to be careful with the arm of its talented young 23-year-old, be it by skipping him once or shutting him down completely via a DL stay of his own.

With Cueto and Cingrani healthy, however, Mike Leake would likely be Mike bumped to the bullpen. It tells you something about how good the Reds’ rotation is when a 25-year-old, former first-round pick who has been roughly league average in his major league career and has a 2.72 ERA in his last six starts is their sixth-best major league starter. That’s without even bringing Aroldis Champman into the conversation.

Another key Monday return will be that of Bailey. He hit the DL at the end of April with a biceps strain, after which the Sox gave Joel Hanrahan a second shot at the closer’s role only to see him hurt his elbow in his second save opportunity, resulting in both a blown save and what my batterymate Jay Jaffe termed the “deluxe elbow platter“: surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament (Tommy John), flexor tendon, and to remove bone spurs. Junichi Tazawa was named the next interim closer, but he hasn’t had a proper save opportunity yet, though he did save his own win with a two-inning outing in the Red Sox’ comeback win against the Rays on Thursday night. Bailey will return to the ninth inning, thereby giving the Boston bullpen some much-needed depth as the Red Sox continue to battle the Yankees and Orioles atop the AL East.

Speaking of depth, Friday night should also see the return of A’s outfielder Chris Young and Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano, while next week could bring the returns of Nationals rightfielder Jayson Werth, Yankees set-up man Joba Chamberlain, Cubs starter and instant trade bait Matt Garza (who had a strong six-inning rehab start in Triple-A on Thursday), Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis and starter Ted Lilly (the latter taking the place of the newly-injured Josh Beckett in the Dodgers’s injury-plagued rotation), Rockies jack-of-all-trades Michael Cuddyer, and, quite possibly, the White Sox lefty Jon Danks, whose last major league appearance will have been one year ago on Sunday. Here’s hoping the number of key players activated between now and then exceeds the number who get hurt.

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