By Anthony Castrovince
Funny thing about a sport that features unnatural mechanical motions, robust rotational movement, sudden and spontaneous sprinting, a hard ball thrown in the vicinity of a hard bat (or, sometimes, a body), day games after night games, whatever elements Mother Nature decides to unleash and -- oh yeah -- a 162-game schedule:
People get hurt.
Here in 2014, some very prominent people have gotten hurt, and that's been the case from the very beginning.
Ask the Rangers if they think their season might have played out differently had they not used the disabled list 24 times, to date. Ask the Rays if they think they'd have gotten off to a stronger start had Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson not all been erased early from their rotation.
And while you're at it, ask every other club if they feel any sympathy for them.
Injuries have made their mark (sometimes, literally) on the pennant races already, testing the depth and creativity of clubs, and returns from injuries will go a long way toward determining who gets into October.
With that in mind, here's a ranking of the 10 most devastating current injury issues in MLB:
10. Eric Hosmer, Royals
Expected return: Two to three weeks
That WAR mark (as well as Hosmer's .689 OPS) is an indication that the name is bigger than the output, which perhaps helps explain why the Royals were able to go on their greatest surge of the season in the midst of losing one of their main attractions. Hosmer's fractured right hand will prevent him from swinging a bat for at least another week, and the Royals keep rolling without him.
9. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
Expected return: Three to six weeks
The Blue Jays' average offensive output without Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion was similar to what it was before those two middle-of-the-order bats went to the DL in early July, but the fact remains that the Blue Jays had lost nine of their previous 12 going into the weekend, and that's a dangerous trend for a club in a crowded Wild Card pursuit.
Lawrie's oblique issue has become an annual one. The previous two times, in 2012 and '13, the injury cost him more than a month of action. His contributions at the plate (.722 OPS, 12 homers, 38 RBI) this season were basically league average, which, in this day and age, is not negligible, and his absence means John Gibbons has to go with a patchwork plan in the infield, where trade acquisition Danny Valencia is getting more use than imagined. Even without Lawrie, the Blue Jays still have the goods to mash their way into October, which is what they'll have to do in light of their mediocre starting staff.
8. Manny Machado, Orioles
Expected return: Aug. 27, at the earliest
It was really tough to watch Machado suffer another knee ligament sprain, but at least the injury to his right knee this week did not appear nearly as bad as the one suffered to his left last September; an MRI on Thursday revealed no structural damage.
Still, Machado's injury is serious enough to keep him out of the lineup until Aug. 27, at the earliest, and the O's have also been dealing with J.J. Hardy's sprained left thumb, severely compromising the left side of the infield for a team that emphasizes defense. Machado had a .941 OPS over his last 26 games, providing a big jolt to the O's as they padded their AL East lead.
That lead is great enough that the Machado situation shouldn't greatly diminish the O's hopes of wrapping up the East, which is why this issue doesn't rate higher here. But it's obvious they need him healthy for October.
7. Matt Cain, Giants:
Expected return: 2015
Cain had surgery this week to remove bone chips from what had been a cranky elbow, and the elbow issue makes his subpar stats the past two seasons, in the wake of six consecutive 200-inning-plus seasons, a bit more understandable.
Because Cain was contributing an adjusted ERA+ 17 points below league average, his absence is perhaps not as impactful in reality as it is in appearance. Still, Cain's injury just tests Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum all the more.
6. Matt Garza, Brewers:
Expected return: Late August, at earliest
Garza's oblique strain was the first major injury to strike a Brew Crew rotation that is not overpowering but has been effective. An oblique injury is what cost Garza the first six weeks of the 2013 season, but this one, which landed him on the DL earlier this month, was not considered to be quite as extreme. Still, the Brewers have acknowledged that he won't be back at the end of the 15-day period, and Garza's absence puts the pressure on youngster Jimmy Nelson and Mike Fiers, who has been utterly dominant his last two starts.
While Garza ultimately profiles best as a mid- to back-end rotation option, any significant injury issue is a big deal in an NL Central packed so tight.
5. Tyler Skaggs, Angels
Expected return: 2016
Losing Skaggs to a torn elbow ligament earlier this week was a stunning blow to a Halos rotation already dealing with C.J. Wilson's struggles and a general thinness at the Minor League level.
While they have a significant amount of wiggle room with regard to their AL Wild Card positioning, overtaking the A's for the AL West top spot is the obvious goal, and the Angels will need Matt Shoemaker (8-3, 3.81 ERA in 13 starts this season) and Hector Santiago (1-7, 3.92 in 16 starts) to step up in a meaningful way, to say nothing about their need for Willson, who picked up his first win since June 24 on Tuesday, to prove he's straightened out.
4. Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Homer Bailey, Reds
WAR: 2.0 (Votto), 1.2 (Phillips), 1.5 (Bailey)
Expected return: By month's end for Phillips, by season's end for Votto, Bailey
We'll simply never know how good this Reds team could have been had it not been so saddled by injuries right out the chute this season (eight guys were on the Opening Day DL). Just when the Reds did appear to be hitting their stride shortly before the All-Star break, Votto hit the DL with a quadriceps injury, and Phillips hit the surgeon's table with a torn thumb ligament. Now, Bailey hits the DL with a flexor mass strain in his elbow, weakening the rotation that had been working overtime to keep the Reds in the race.
Phillips is beginning his rehab stint this weekend and will be back in the lineup relatively soon, while Votto's two platelet-rich plasma treatments make his return and effectiveness an open question. Bailey's return is also up in the air, as the Reds will only acknowledge that he's out "a while" but could be back before season's end. A September schedule heavily weighted toward division games gives the Reds a chance to make strides in the Central, but they likely won't be doing so at full strength.
3. Michael Wacha and Yadier Molina, Cardinals
WAR: 1.7 (Wacha), 2.2 (Molina)
Expected return: Sometime in September
Wacha's impact is probably best summed up this way: From the start of the season until June 17, his final outing, Cardinals starters compiled the fourth-most innings of any rotation in baseball. From June 18 on, they've compiled the second-fewest.
That's not all about Wacha, of course, but the Cardinals probably don't trade for both John Lackey and Justin Masterson (both of whom have had mixed results since their arrival) if he had stayed healthy, and they could really use some meaningful contributions from Wacha down the stretch as they fight for their postseason lives. The stress reaction in his shoulder is a murky matter, but he has been throwing off flat ground and could be off a mound soon.
Molina's thumb surgery has also undoubtedly affected the bid for quality innings from a pitching staff he handles so well. And even with Yadi's OPS down 85 points from his 2013 level and A.J. Pierzynski making positive contributions since his arrival, the Cards can use all the offensive assistance they can get. Molina is out of his cast and has begun catching bullpen sessions, so he's actually ahead of schedule in his recovery.
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Expected return: Aug. 19, at the earliest
Shortly after it was announced that Andrew McCutchen has a fractured rib, one member of an NL Central rival summed up the Buccos' situation this way: "They're done."
Are they, though? Even with McCutchen out and Neil Walker battling an ailing back, the Pirates have won five of their last 10 to remain in play for the NL Wild Card.
Still, the Buccos are about to play 18 straight against fellow NL contenders (the Nationals this weekend, followed by the Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds and Cardinals again). The earliest McCutchen could come off the DL is Tuesday, but his injury is uncommon enough that it's hard to get a firm gauge on whether he'll be ready at that time -- or at what level. He's taken some swings and played some catch, and those are encouraging signs for a Pirates team that really can't afford to be without his bat and glove for long.
If they can package McCutchen's return with that of Gerrit Cole, who will make another rehab start Saturday and could be back in the rotation next Friday in Milwaukee, that would be monumental.
1. Anibal Sanchez, Joakim Soria and Justin Verlander, Tigers
WAR: 2.8 (Sanchez), 0.6 (Soria), 0.5 (Verlander)
Expected return: Two to three more weeks for Sanchez and Soria, one to two weeks for Verlander
In the blink of an eye, we went from talking about the Tigers' rotation in historic terms to watching Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer make consecutive starts this week. And Soria was supposed to be the Trade Deadline acquisition putting a bandage on the Tigers' battered bullpen. The game is cruel.
Soria, who suffered an oblique injury, might actually be the biggest hit of the three, because the Tigers' relief situation has been shaky all year. They really needed him as either an effective bridge to Joba Chamberlain or, possibly, as an effective replacement for the erratic Joe Nathan. Now, they're simply thin, with little meaningful help available on the waiver wire.
Sanchez, who strained his pectoral muscle, had also been erratic, of late, posting a 5.23 ERA over his last seven starts. But his 2.33 ERA in his first 12 starts of the season made him an essential rotation figure.
Verlander's sore shoulder was examined and deemed to not have "major" damage, but who knows what we ought to read into that choice of wording. Verlander is seeking out a second opinion and might still be bound for the DL. All we know for sure is that he'll miss at least one or two turns through the rotation at a time when he was just beginning to patch together quality starts.
Other teams may certainly disagree, but with what they have riding on this World Series or bust season and with the way the Royals have played of late, the Tigers have been bitten hardest and most meaningfully by the injury bug.
Anthony Castrovince is a columnist for Sports on Earth and MLB.com who also hopes to be healthy for October.