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Star pitchers looking to regain form

Star pitchers looking to regain form

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Off the radar screen for all or most of the 2007 season because of injury, several All-Star pitchers are hoping to get back in the picture in a big way in 2008.

These eight are not to be confused with typical non-roster invitees hoping to catch on with a Major League team for another season. For these eight, there is much more riding on their return to health besides individual careers. Whether or not they can make it back and contribute at a rate approaching their pre-injury level could be a deciding factor in their teams' playoff hopes.

One exceptional player can make a difference in the win-loss record. And when healthy, there's no question these pitchers are exceptional talents: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, B.J. Ryan, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Jason Schmidt, Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder.

Combined, they've won nine Cy Young Awards, been named to 29 All-Star teams and won 956 games, though the awards and almost all of the victories came before 2007, a season all eight would just as soon forget.

Will these put it behind them for good in 2008?

We're about to find out.

Martinez: The addition of two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana lessens the pressure on Martinez, but if the Mets are going to reclaim the National League East crown this year, they'll need three-time Cy Young Award winner Martinez to bounce back or at least continue to be as effective as he was following his return last year.

The 36-year-old was 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA in five starts late last season and the eight-time All-Star will be 17 months removed from shoulder surgery when April rolls around.

The Mets are optimistic, but this is shoulder surgery, not Tommy John elbow reconstruction, so look for Martinez to be on strict pitch counts and don't be surprised if he's not the 200-plus-innings workhorse he was before surgery. The most encouraging aspect of Martinez's situation was his effectiveness last September. The Mets will take that kind of performance from him.

Johnson: You need only to realize the D-backs already have 2006 National League Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, who finished third in the American League in ERA last year, in the rotation to understand how huge a healthy Big Unit would be to Arizona's chances.

The 44-year-old went 4-3 with a 3.81 in 10 starts last year as he battled disc problems for the second consecutive year. Johnson won 50 games and worked 676 innings over the three previous seasons. The 10-time All-Star and five-time Cy Young Award winner showed there was still plenty of life left in his arm last year, as he went 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and 42 strikeouts and just four walks in one five-start stretch.

There is reason to believe this year will be even better, as Johnson had the surgery three months earlier and therefore should be farther along in his rehab when Spring Training begins.

"I'm optimistic that I can be an asset to the rotation," Johnson told MLB.com in December. "What the team accomplished last year was a great thing, and I really wanted to be a part of it. Next year, I'm looking forward to being able to contribute because I feel very good about this team and our chances."

Ryan: When Ryan went down in April, the Blue Jays' postseason chances essentially went with him. After saving 38 games and striking out 86 batters in 72 1/3 innings in 2006, the hard-throwing Ryan appeared in just five games in 2007 before going on the disabled list. He underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery on May 10, and the Jays are optimistic the 32-year-old will be ready for Opening Day.

"He threw his second bullpen recently. Until I'm told different, he'll be with us in Spring Training and ready to start the season," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "If we have to hold him back a month based on what we see, we'll do that."

Wood: The one-time ace of the Cubs rotation made 22 appearances out of the bullpen last year and finished two games. The right-hander went 1-1 with a 3.33 ERA in 24 1/3 innings, convincing manager Lou Piniella that Wood is ready to compete with Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol for the closer's job this spring.

Wood is healthy and has the stuff and makeup to be a closer, the big question is will he be durable enough for the job.

"The closer situation, I think that will take care of itself," Piniella said. "We'll let itself play out. We'll bring them all along the same way. Spring Training will tell us that."

Prior: Prior hasn't thrown a pitch in a Major League game since 2006, when he was 1-6 with a 7.21 ERA in nine starts with the Cubs.

Prior, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, underwent shoulder surgery last April. The right-hander signed a one-year contract with his hometown San Diego Padres as he tries to resurrect a career that has been derailed by injuries since he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA with the Cubs in 2003.

"I'm 27, and guys are pitching into their 40s now," Prior said. "For unfortunate reasons, I haven't been healthy since 2005. But I feel that I have a lot of great years ahead of me."

Prior won't be available to pitch at the start of the season, but he's expecting to be ready to pitch in a Major League game in mid to late May.

"Mark Prior is a competitor and is working hard to regain the form that made him one of the great young pitchers in the game," GM Kevin Towers said. "We are confident he is going to help us in our rotation this season. It's exciting that Mark is coming home to San Diego to pitch for the Padres."

A healthy Prior would be quite an addition to a rotation that already includes 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux and Randy Wolf. During his career, Prior has recorded 21 double-digit strikeout games and 65 outings in which he has issued two or fewer walks. He is averaging 10.37 strikeouts per nine innings over his career.

"I'm really confident that I'm going to get back on my feet and reestablish myself as a competitor in this league," Prior said. "I know there are going to be some ups and downs. But I think this is going to be a great summer."

Schmidt: Limited to a half-dozen starts last season before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, the 35-year-old right-hander has been rehabbing his shoulder in preparation for Spring Training.

Schmidt, who signed a three-year, $47 million contract with the Dodgers last winter, was 1-4 with a 6.31 ERA before undergoing surgery June 20 to repair an inflamed bursa, a torn labrum and a frayed biceps tendon in his right shoulder.

While reports from the club officials have indicated Schmidt's recovery is proceeding as planned, the pitcher hasn't spoken publicly about his rehab, which has caused skepticism in some quarters. The Dodgers have not publicly projected a timetable for his return.

Carpenter, Mulder: Carpenter, who turns 33 in April, made just one start last season after going 51-18 during 2004-06. The two-time All-Star and 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner is expected to be out until at least the All-Star break following reconstructive elbow surgery.

Mulder, 30, made just three starts last season and has pitched only 104 innings since 2005. He isn't expected back until May 1 at the earliest, and his most recent shoulder surgery means his effectiveness will be in question when he does return.

Though they won't be around in April if these two stars do make it back later this summer, the Cardinals could enjoy a substantial second-half boost.

Jim Molony 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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