You'll notice that the subject matter on our player news page is slowly transitioning from rumors, trades and player signings to injury updates and a handful of players proclaiming that they are in the "best shape of their life." It's a welcome sign that pitchers and catchers are mere days away from reporting to their respective spring training sites in Arizona and Florida.
On a related note, below you'll find a list of prominent players who are making their way back from injury and/or surgery. I didn't tackle all of the big names here, so be sure to track our player news page for the all the latest updates.
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Tim Hudson (SP, Braves)
Braves general manager Frank Wren and pitching coach Roger McDowell have both indicated in recent weeks that Tim Hudson could begin the season on the disabled list following surgery in November to repair a herniated disk in his back. In fact, David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suspects that the 36-year-old right-hander might not be ready until mid-April or the first week of May. While this will almost certainly have an impact on his ADP (Average Draft Position) in the coming weeks, this situation shouldn't necessarily scare fantasy owners away from investing a mid-to-late round pick in mixed formats, as Hudson can be stashed on the disabled list in the great majority of leagues. It never hurts to give yourself some roster flexibility coming out of a draft.
Carl Crawford (OF, Red Sox)
Crawford's hope for a rebound in his second season in Boston isn't exactly off to a promising start. The 30-year-old underwent surgery on his left wrist in January after encountering some discomfort during early offseason workouts and is now in danger of missing Opening Day. The good news is that it wasn't considered a major procedure and he should be back pretty early on in the year, but one wonders whether the surgery will have an impact on his ability to drive the ball with authority in the short-term. Of course, Crawford generates a lot of his fantasy value with his legs, so this is less of a concern with him than it would be with a traditional power hitter. Be sure to track his progress during spring training, but with his ADP sinking following his disappointing 2011 campaign and January's surgery, he could be a nice value if he falls far enough.
Kendrys Morales (1B, Angels)
The common phrase the Angels are using with Morales these days? Cautious optimism. The 28-year-old hasn't played a professional game since infamously shattering his lower left leg while jumping onto home plate following a game-winning grand slam on May 29, 2010, but the reports from his early workouts at the Angels' spring training complex in Tempe, Arizona are promising. If he's finally healthy (and I can't put much more emphasis on the caveat), he has a chance to be a nice sleeper potentially splitting at-bats with Bobby Abreu out of the DH spot. This scenario would make Mark Trumbo (foot) the odd-man out, but as our own Matthew Pouliot suggested on HardballTalk on Wednesday night, he might be better off making his transition to third base in the minors for a few weeks before being thrown into the fire at the big league level. There are obviously a lot of variables at play with the Angels, including possible trades involving Abreu or Trumbo, so everything I just wrote could be rendered meaningless in a matter of weeks.
Nick Markakis (OF, Orioles)
Markakis was originally diagnosed with a deep bone bruise in his abdomen last September, but it turned out that he needed "significant" surgery about a month ago to repair an abductor muscle and his rectus abdominis. While the 28-year-old will likely be limited for the first few weeks of spring training, the expectation is that he won't need many at-bats to get ready for the start of the season. Markakis is coming off a career-low .756 OPS and hasn't cracked 20 homers since his age-24 season in 2008, so setting the abdominal surgery aside, I'm skeptical about his chances of being a top-20 outfielder in mixed formats this season.
Stephen Drew (SS, Diamondbacks)
We know Drew is on the comeback trail from surgery to repair a fractured right ankle and sports hernia surgery, but details about his progress are hard to come by. In fact, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic wrote last week that the rehabbing shortstop has declined multiple interview requests this offseason. The most recent information we have is from Arizona's GM Kevin Towers, who said during a web chat with fans last week that Drew is swinging the bat and participating in baseball-specific agility drills. It's difficult to give a specific timeline until Drew tests the surgically-repaired ankle in game action, but Towers still thinks "there's a chance that he could be ready by Opening Day." This is a very important year for the 28-year-old, who has the ability to test free agency next offseason, so don't be surprised if he takes his time before getting back on the field.
Adam Wainwright (SP, Cardinals)
So far, so good for Wainwright, who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 30-year-old right-hander is already facing hitters at the Cardinals' spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida and estimates that he's throwing his fastball with 90 percent effort. We'll know a lot more once he actually starts pitching in live games, but the current expectation is that he'll be ready for the start of the season. Keep in mind that command is often the last thing to return after Tommy John surgery, so don't panic if Wainwright gets off to a slow start. He's more likely to look like his normal ace-like self as the season moves along.
Ryan Howard (1B, Phillies)
The Phillies continue to say that Howard is ahead of schedule in his recovery from surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles, but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. recently said that it would be a "reach" to expect him to be ready for Opening Day and that "if he's back by sometime in May, I'll be happy." The 32-year-old is still a couple of weeks away from baseball activities, so we should have a better idea of his timeline when spring training begins. As of now, the $125 million man looks like a mid-round option in mixed league drafts. Ty Wigginton is expected to fill at first base until Howard returns, but it's tough to get excited about him in real or fantasy baseball terms.
Johan Santana (SP, Mets)
Talk about a wild card. Santana hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since undergoing surgery for a torn capsule muscle in his left shoulder in September of 2010. And there's no telling when (or if) he'll get an opportunity to throw another one. While the 32-year-old left-hander has been throwing on flat ground since last month and hopes to be ready for the start of the Mets' Grapefruit League schedule, it's simply impossible to predict how his shoulder will respond as he ramps up his workload. There's obviously some fantasy potential here if he can give the Mets anything close to a full season, but he's nothing more than late-round flier material in deeper mixed leagues at the moment.
Ike Davis (1B, Mets)
Unlike most of the guys profiled in this column, Davis isn't working his way back from surgery. However, he was limited to just 149 plate appearances last season due to a mysterious ankle injury. The 24-year-old was originally diagnosed with a strained left calf, but it turned out that he had a bone bruise and ligament damage in the ankle. Davis came very close to undergoing microfracture surgery toward the end of last season, but plans changed after he was finally able to run without discomfort. He hasn't experienced any setbacks over the winter, so it looks like he'll be good to go for spring training. If healthy, he has the power potential to be a top-10 first baseman in mixed formats.
Hanley Ramirez (SS, Marlins)
So much has been made of the controversy surrounding Ramirez's pending move to the hot corner that it's easy to forget that he's currently working his way back from season-ending surgery on his left shoulder last September. Fortunately everything appears to be going just fine, as he recently began taking batting practice in his native Dominican Republic and is expected to be fully healed when he arrives to spring training later this month. I wouldn't be shocked if there was a minor drop in his power output following the surgery, at least in the short-term, but Ramirez's ability to fill up the box score should still make him a second-round pick in most standard mixed leagues.
Buster Posey (C, Giants)
Posey was a popular topic of conversation at media day prior to the Giants' annual FanFest last weekend, during which he told reporters that he's not yet 100 percent following a fractured left leg and surgery to repair three torn ankle ligaments. While he feels good catching from the crouch position, he also confessed that he feels some stiffness in his ankle when he wakes up in the morning. It's way too soon to panic here, but it will be interesting to see how the ankle responds once he starts catching again on a daily basis. With that in mind, the Giants are already planning on playing him at first base at least once a week in order to keep his bat in the lineup and lessen his workload behind the plate. If Posey can meet his goal of being ready for Opening Day and stay on the field, elite fantasy production should follow.
Justin Morneau (1B, Twins)
Where to begin? Not only do Morneau's post-concussion symptoms from the past two seasons make him a question mark entering spring training, he also underwent neck, foot and wrist surgeries in 2011. Oh, and don't forget that he's still experiencing numbness in his left index finger as a result of the neck procedure which may take up to two years to go away. Phew. Morneau will almost certainly slip to the late rounds of mixed league drafts this spring, so he might actually make for a pretty decent gamble, but we're all just keeping our fingers crossed for now.
Josh Johnson (SP, Marlins)
Johnson had a microscopic 1.64 ERA and 56/20 K/BB ratio across 60 1/3 innings over his first nine starts last season before going on the disabled list in mid-May with a shoulder injury. Though no structural damage was found, he didn't make another appearance for the rest of the year. Things are looking up at the moment, as the 28-year-old right-hander returned to the mound last month and is currently throwing a couple of times a week, but he'll still enter spring training with some pretty big question marks. Please remind me of this column if he posts an ERA under 3.00 and averages close to 9.0 K/9 again, but he'd have to drop on draft day in order for me to take the plunge. At least right now, anyway. What can I say, pitchers with shoulder issues scare the heck out of me.
Other notable players coming back from injury and/or surgery include (in alphabetical order):
Brett Anderson, Jake Arrieta, Scott Baker, Daric Barton, Nick Blackburn, Brennan Boesch, Dallas Braden, Michael Brantley, Jonathan Broxton, Clay Buchholz, Joba Chamberlain, Shin-Soo Choo, Jose Contreras, Zack Cozart, Allen Craig, Johnny Cueto, Jorge De La Rosa, Andre Ethier, Johnny Giavotella, Carlos Gonzalez, Franklin Gutierrez, Travis Hafner, Cole Hamels, Josh Hamilton, Tommy Hanson, Brad Hawpe, Jason Heyward, Jair Jurrjens, Ryan Kalish, Adam LaRoche, Brett Lawrie, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Joe Mauer, Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, Charlie Morton, Daniel Murphy, Mike Napoli, Juan Nicasio, Magglio Ordonez, Hunter Pence, Placido Polanco, Josh Reddick, Clayton Richard, Brian Roberts, Scott Rolen, Freddy Sanchez, Jonathan Sanchez, Luke Scott, Grady Sizemore, Denard Span, Mark Trumbo, Juan Uribe, Rickie Weeks, Brian Wilson, Kevin Youkilis, Joel Zumaya