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Recovering vets could jump-start teams

Recovering vets could jump-start teams

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As Major League clubs in the Arizona desert and across the Florida panhandle work diligently toward breaking camps at the end of the month and dispersing with ther best rosters, they all know one thing: There's no chance that the 25 at the start of the season make it through the campaign.

Heck, there's little chance they'll make it through April.

Injuries, deep slumps and widening holes will have to be addressed. Some teams will keep the motor running on their Minor League shuttle, while others, most notably those in contending positions, will carefully canvas the help available on the market prior to July 31.

But never mind the trading deadline. How about the healing deadline?

A remarkable roster of notable big leaguers, the majority of them A-list pitchers, will remain on medical leave and be ready, if their recovery stays on schedule, to pump new air into their teams just as the dog days start barking.

In football, these standbys were known collectively as the taxi squad -- before it "lost" its license and was discontinued. For baseball, let's call it the gurney squad.

More than two dozen established notables will begin the season on the disabled list, hoping to leave the pits and hit the track before the All-Star break to give their teams a midseason fuel injection.

Before getting around to them, we must note the man who merits the Lifetime Achievement Award in this category, the Good-Bye Guy, Roger Clemens, who is setting himself up as a lottery pick for his three potential part-time employers.

Clemens will be the carrot chased through the opening two months by the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. If he decides to suit up for a 24th season, The Rocket says he would first want to see how his potential teams are faring in their respective divisions before making his pick.

This sets up as a race within the races. While the Yankees have played it cool, the Astros still have a light on and the Red Sox haven't shied away from proclaiming that, while no one remembers where Paul Revere's ride ended, there is only one proper place for Clemens' ride to end.

Clemens has no intention of pitching prior to June. Until then, he'll surf MLB.com and watch SportsCenter like the rest of us, while humming Michael Jackson's "Never Can Say Good-bye."

Perhaps no other midseason injection could match the octane or wow factor of a Clemens, yet many in the wings have the ability to influence division fights.

Here, we highlight the top five according to their potential impact rating, and acknowledge other prominent players poised to jump aboard a moving season.

RHP Pedro Martinez, Mets
Delay: Shoulder surgery
ETA: July

When Pedro started breaking down -- both physically and emotionally -- late last season, it cast a pall over the Mets, their wide National League East lead notwithstanding. Martinez had shown them the way out of three years' depression, and there's reason to believe he remains their emotional beacon.

A midseason return by a healthy Pedro would give Willie Randolph's club the jolt it figures to need. The rotation sets up as a potential cry for help; even if veterans Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez pull their load every five days, the other three-fifths of the rotation (John Maine, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey) combined for 11 wins last season and have a total of 40 in their careers.

July seems to be a best-case scenario for a Pedro return. When doctors got a look inside his shoulder during the October operation, word was Martinez wouldn't be able to even resume throwing off a mound until June.

After playing light toss at a distance of 60 feet a couple of days ago, Pedro said he could again "roll onto my arm, lay on my side." That's a far cry from going up against the NL's best.

The Mets have to proceed gingerly, balancing their eagerness to welcome back Martinez with his brittle psyche. If he is rushed into any setbacks, he could call it a career. Martinez himself admits as much, saying, "I'm working hard enough that if I'm not in shape by that time [given to him by trainers], I'm hanging them up."

LHP Mark Mulder, Cardinals
Delay: Shoulder surgery
ETA: July

A situation cloned from the Mets' with Martinez. Mulder even had the same operation, only a month earlier. Damage in his rotator cuff wasn't quite as extensive, however, and from the get-go he was given a good shot at being back in someone's rotation by midseason -- convincing the Cardinals to sign him to a new contract.

St. Louis' need for him is acute, even if Tony La Russa is a champion improviser. His season-opening rotation will include Braden Looper, who has appeared in 572 Major League games but his next big-league start will be his first, Adam Wainwright, who has also yet to start in the big leagues, and Anthony Reyes, a rookie sensation the second half of last season.

OF Juan Rivera, Angels
Delay: Fractured left leg
ETA: Early August

Not to suggest that news of Rivera's ugly mishap in a Venezuela Winter League game terrified the Angels, but within five days they made a panic move for Shea Hillenbrand. However, Hillenbrand, a good line-drive, bottom-of-the-order guy, will play a different role in the Los Angeles lineup.

The Angels need the emerging game of Rivera, who at 28 has progressively improved in each of his six Major League seasons, peaking with 23 homers and 85 RBIs last year. Down the stretch, he was every bit as lethal as Vladimir Guerrero.

His return for another stretch drive could be perfectly timed. Garret Anderson is back in left field, but his 35-year-old wheels could use a break at DH just as Rivera makes his comeback.

LHP Eddie Guardado, Reds
Delay: Elbow surgery
ETA: July

The Reds wouldn't feel as comfortable with 37-year-old David Weathers and Mike Stanton, 40, as their season-opening closers if Guardado wasn't in line to be Any-Day-Now Eddie by the time the All-Star Game break rolls around.

Weathers did a solid job last season after Guardado's elbow ligament came undone in late August, and Stanton was a comparable surprise in San Francisco, where an injury to another closer (Armando Benitez) exposed him to his first ninth-inning fires since 2003.

Blessed with a strong rotation and a loaded offense, the Reds expect to be an NL Central force, which will put a lot of burden on the two veteran arms at the end of their bullpen. Having Guardado come to their rescue the last two months could be a season-saver.

OF Mark Kotsay, A's
Delay: Back surgery
ETA: June

Adaptability was one of the keys to the Athletics' success last season, and a democratic outfield platoon was one of the keys to that versatility. Five different outfielders made between 67 and 136 starts. Take out one of the pillars, and the whole game plan suffers, even if the arrival of Shannon Stewart keeps this from being a full-blown crisis.

Pain from an old injury quickly became unbearable this spring for Kotsay. He has a capable replacement in center in Milton Bradley, but his absence also forces manager Bob Geren to plant Nick Swisher in right.

Kotsay may be even more valuable in the clubhouse, as one of the emotional anchors of the team. Seeing him return pain-free will give everyone a boost.

Also on deck, alphabetically (surgery; ETA):

RHP Yhency Brazoban, Dodgers (elbow surgery; August).
RHP Matt Clement, Red Sox (shoulder surgery: September).
RHP Bartolo Colon, Angels (non-surgical rehab of torn cuff: May).
RHP Scott Elarton, Royals (shoulder surgery: June).
RHP Shawn Estes, Padres (elbow surgery: August).
LHP Mike Hampton, Braves (strained left oblique: May).
RHP Josh Johnson, Marlins (irritated ulnar nerve: June).
1B Nick Johnson, Nationals (fractured right leg: July).
LHP Randy Johnson, D-backs (back surgery: May).
LHP Cliff Lee, Indians (abdominal pain: June).
RHP Shinji Mori, Devil Rays (non-surgical rehab of turn labrum: July).
LHP Dave Williams, Mets (neck disc hernia: July).
RHP Doug Waechter, Devil Rays (shoulder surgery: June).
RHP Victor Zambrano, Blue Jays (elbow surgery: July).

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["spring_training" ] }
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