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Will Kershaw and Stanton return? Each contender's biggest injury question

As Major League Baseball's award competitions gain clarity and the game's pennant races grind toward a resolution, health will be a significant factor in how the next six weeks unfold. Sorting through the list of players trying to survive assorted dings (or worse) is an undertaking of massive proportions.

Which injuries are the most impactful, suspenseful and worthy of monitoring for contending clubs? For the purposes of this exercise, we excluded Prince Fielder, Matt Harvey and other players who are absolutely positively done for the rest of the season. And we assessed the disabled lists and injury reports for 18 clubs that are either leading their divisions or lurking within five games in the wild-card races, because health could play a major role in whether they make it to October.

For teams with even a glimmer of hope of reaching the playoffs, here are the pivotal injuries worth watching between now and Game No. 162.

1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Few injury vigils in recent years have unfolded with the sense of urgency surrounding Kershaw, who continues to lead all big-league pitchers with a 5.5 FanGraphs WAR even though he has missed almost two months.

The Dodgers were 41-36 and eight games behind San Francisco when Kershaw went on the disabled list with a herniated disc on June 26. They're 27-19 since, but that's more a tribute to a potent offense than a rotation that has picked up the slack for its injured ace.

Kershaw joined the Dodgers for a series in Cincinnati this week because he missed being around the team. He has been throwing off flat ground, and the Dodgers say they expect him to be back on the mound by mid-September. The sense of urgency will be even more acute if the Dodgers make the playoffs as a wild-card team. Critics can harp on Kershaw's 2-6 record and 4.59 ERA in the postseason, but other than Madison Bumgarner, is there a pitcher you'd rather have on the mound in a winner-moves-on scenario?

2. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

Stanton's season was considered over when he suffered a groin injury on a game-ending slide against the White Sox nine days ago, but the forecast out of Miami has taken a more optimistic turn of late. On Sunday, president of baseball operations Michael Hill expressed confidence that Stanton will return by the end of the regular season.

"He's going to be back," Hill told reporters. "He's told me he's going to be back. He's going to help this team get into October and help us get through October.''

The Marlins are a resilient team, as evidenced by their response to Dee Gordon's 80-game PED suspension and their 15-6 record with Stanton out of the lineup. But Stanton provides the quick-strike capability the Marlins lack as the 13th ranked home run hitting team in the National League. He changes the tenor of games when he steps in the batter's box, and it would be a personal crusher for him if the team made it to the postseason and he weren't able to contribute.

Although Stanton's desire to play again in 2016 is admirable, it's worth noting that he pledged to come back from a Mike Fiers fastball to the face in 2014 and a broken hamate bone last season and simply couldn't make it back either time. Pardon Stanton if he speaks more with his heart than his head.

3. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

The Nationals say they're being pro-active and that Strasburg's elbow problems aren't structural. Still, there's reason for concern in light of Strasburg's injury history (he had Tommy John surgery in 2010), his new $175 million contract and his three straight clunkers against Atlanta, San Francisco and Colorado.

The Nationals could benefit from a return to action soon by Joe Ross, who has been out since July with a shoulder injury. If Ross can come back for a few starts in September, he'll have an opportunity to compete with Gio Gonzalez for the No. 4 spot in the October rotation beyond Mark Scherzer, Strasburg and under-the-radar Cy Young candidate Tanner Roark.

4. Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians

Salazar came off the disabled list from an elbow injury Friday, but it's hard to declare him "back'' at this point. He was ineffective in an inning of work against the White Sox, and manager Terry Francona mercifully pulled him after 34 pitches. The Indians attributed the performance to rust, but until Salazar regains the dominant form he showed in the first half of the season, scouts, opponents and media members are bound to have their doubts.

To add to the anxiety in Cleveland, Josh Tomlin has been a home run dispenser of late and looks like a guy who's badly in need of a rest. FanGraphs gives the Indians a 95.5 percent chance to win the division, so they have the luxury of picking their spots with Salazar. He has the kind of stuff that can neutralize the best lineups in October, so the Indians will proceed with enough caution to make sure he still has something left in the tank.

5. Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles are 20-6 in Tillman's outings this season, and 47-50 behind their other starters. So it was an obvious concern when manager Buck Showalter had to push Tillman back three days because of shoulder discomfort before his last outing. Tillman's velocity was down as he allowed 11 baserunners in two innings in a blowout loss to Houston. He needs to do better against Max Scherzer on Thursday night to make a statement that the injury was just a blip in his season.

Wade Miley has been dreadful since his arrival from Seattle, Yovani Gallardo has a 5.08 ERA for the season (although he's pitched better of late) and Dylan Bundy has already pitched more innings than the Orioles had a right to expect, so any kind of physical setback for Tillman would be devastating for Baltimore's postseason hopes.

6. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

Bautista has missed 44 games this season, mainly due to a case of turf toe and a sprained left knee, and the Blue Jays have gone 27-17 in his absence. He's working out at Toronto's spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, and expects to begin playing rehab games within a matter of days.

Bautista is having a down year by his typical standards, with a slash line of .222/.349/.444. But the prospect of having him back in the lineup must seem awfully appealing to Toronto manager John Gibbons when he's running out a starting outfield of Melvin Upton Jr., Ezequiel Carrera and Darrell Ceciliani. The Jays need Joey Bats to return to fastball-punishing, bat-flipping mode down the stretch if they want to outlast Boston and Toronto in the AL East.
7. Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals

The Royals have climbed back into contention behind terrific starting pitching, a reawakening by Alex Gordon at the plate and some nice work from Kelvin Herrera, who has converted seven straight save opportunities as Kansas City's temporary closer. They've also given America a handy entomology lesson with their care and feeding of the "Rally Mantis,'' the team's new mascot.

Davis, out since July 28 with a right forearm strain, will give the defending champs a lift when he returns from the disabled list. He traveled to Arizona to begin throwing over the weekend, so he's gradually moving closer to a return. Once he returns, Royals manager Ned Yost will be back in his comfort zone with an ultra-deep pen, and the Royals will have yet another reason to think they're poised for a run at a third straight postseason appearance.

8. Matt Holliday and Aledmys Diaz, St. Louis Cardinals

Holliday, who has logged 371 of his 380 at-bats this season out of the third and fourth spots in the batting order, and Diaz, a strong early rookie of the year candidate, both are out with thumb injuries. In addition, first baseman Matt Adams is nearing the end of a 15-day DL visit caused by shoulder problems.

The Cardinals have survived thanks to some big power production from unexpected sources. Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko have combined for 43 homers in 562 at-bats, and Jeremy Hazelbaker has provided a nice feel-good story with 11 bombs in 170 at-bats. St. Louis leads the National League with 173 home runs.

Holliday has a $17 million club option for 2017 with a $1 million buyout, so it's possible he might have played his final game as a Cardinal. Can he defy the early expectations and contribute down the stretch and in the postseason.

"The procedure went well," Matheny said. "He's one of the toughest guys I know. He's relentless in how he works. His pain tolerance is high. So all those are reasons to believe it will be sooner for him than it might be for somebody else. But I'm always cautious to give a time even if the medical team says it to me. If a guy has a date set in his mind and he bumps into something and he's not ready, it could be counterproductive."

9. Steven Matz, New York Mets

Yoenis Cespedes is back and cranking home runs after missing time with a quadriceps injury, and David Wright and Matt Harvey are already lost for the season. The requisite Citi Field drama currently revolves around Matz, who's pitched with a bone spur in his left elbow and is now dealing with shoulder discomfort that prompted the Mets to send him to the disabled list on Monday.

Seth Lugo is expected to fill in for Matz, who is 9-8 with a 3.40 ERA in his rookie season. An extended absence by Matz would put yet another crimp in the Mets' quest to get on a roll and make the playoffs for a second straight season.

10. Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

Uehara has been out since mid-July with a strained right pectoral muscle. He has been throwing off flat ground, but there's no timetable set for his return.

In his absence, Boston manager John Farrell has been forced to mix-and-match and use Brad Ziegler, Matt Barnes, Junichi Tazawa and Robbie Ross in late-inning setup roles in front of closer Craig Kimbrel. Fernando Abad, acquired in a deadline deal with Minnesota, has a 2.00 WHIP since coming to Boston and has not performed to expectations. The Red Sox considered bringing in Jonathan Papelbon for the stretch run, but that ship has apparently sailed.

Starter Steven Wright, on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, could return to the rotation Friday against Kansas City. He has made only one start this month, but Rick Porcello, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez(who is dealing with his own injury issue)and the much-maligned Clay Buchholz have picked up their games in August and given the Red Sox some welcome stability in the rotation.

11. Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers

Zimmermann, out since early July with a neck injury, will begin a rehab outing with Class A Toledo on Friday. If it consists of three starts, as expected, he'll rejoin manager Brad Ausmus' rotation sometime in mid-September.

The Tigers have done a nice job replacing Zimmermann with Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris. In addition, Anibal Sanchez has pitched better of late after a horrendous first three months. But the Tigers gave Zimmermann $110 million for a reason, and they'll take comfort sending him to the mound when every game matters in September.

The Tigers have actually been more challenged replacing the production of third baseman Nick Castellanos, who suffered a broken hand two weeks ago and probably won't return until mid-September at the earliest. The four players who've replaced Castellanos at third (Casey McGehee, Mike Aviles, Andrew Romine and Miguel Cabrera, in a one-game cameo) have hit a combined .221 with one homer in 86 at-bats at the position.

12. Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, Chicago Cubs

John Lackey just landed on the disabled list with a right shoulder strain, and he's hoping to return in early September. At the moment, any concerns about Chicago's rotation are outweighed by an array of bullpen issues.

Rondon, Chicago's closer before Aroldis Chapman came to town, is on the DL with a right triceps strain and expected to return next month when the rosters expand. Strop, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, should also be back sometime in early September.

In the absence of Rondon, Strop and veteran sidearmer Joe Smith, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is tinkering in search of bullpen stability. Chicago's brief flirtation with Papelbon went nowhere, and on Friday the Cubs summoned rookies Felix Pena and Rob Zastryzny from Triple-A Iowa.

The good news: The Cubs lead St. Louis by 12 games in the NL Central, so Maddon has ample time to let pitchers proceed at their own pace and enter the postseason fresh and ready to go. Chapman has a 17-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 11 innings with the Cubs, so the ninth inning appears to be in capable hands.

13. Lance McCullers,Houston Astros

McCullers missed his first seven starts with shoulder soreness and went on the disabled list with elbow issues in early August. Although the Astros have yet to declare him out for the season, they plan to exercise caution with him. Houston is on the fringe of the wild-card race at 64-60, so a few games either way could bring more clarity to the situation.

"It's all guesswork at this point," manager A.J. Hinch told reporters last week. Once McCullers returns to throwing sometime this week, the Astros should have a better handle on precisely where they're headed with him.

McCullers' ratio of 11.78 strikeouts per nine innings places him second in the majors to Miami's Jose Fernandez among pitchers with 80 innings or more. His mid-90s fastball and power curve provide a different look to a Houston staff made up primarily of finesse types.

14. Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers

Now that Derek Holland is off the disabled list and scheduled to start Tuesday in Cincinnati, the Rangers have one more item to check off their list to give the rotation some depth behind Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.

After missing two months with a torn muscle in the back of his shoulder, Lewis is scheduled to make a three-inning rehab appearance for Double-A Frisco on Wednesday. He'll make one more start after that before the Rangers decide if he's ready to make the jump to the big leagues.

Lewis is strictly a pitch-to-contact guy (61 strikeouts in 98 innings), but his teammates have a lot of faith in him and he usually finds a way to keep games close through five or six innings. Lewis' 1.02 WHIP in 15 starts this season is the best of any starter in the Texas rotation.

15. Jung Ho Kang, Pittsburgh Pirates

Kang injured his left shoulder sliding into second base against the Marlins on Friday. He's expected to miss 2-4 weeks, which puts him on track somewhere to return in the heart of September.

David Freese, hitting a respectable .276/.355/.437 with a 1.6 WAR in 107 games, slides back in as the everyday third baseman with Kang out. The Pirates summoned prospect Josh Bell to fill Kang's place on the 25-man roster. Bell is likely to see playing time at first base and could give the Pirates a defensive upgrade over John Jaso at the position.

16. James Paxton, Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are healthy as they try to fend off Houston and take a wild-card spot, but their rotation took a hit when Paxton suffered a bruised left elbow on a comebacker by the Angels' Andrelton Simmons two weeks ago. Paxton threw three innings in a minor-league rehab appearance Saturday and is poised to rejoin the rotation later this week against the Chicago White Sox.

"It felt really good," Paxton told Shannon Drayer of ESPN710 radio after his outing. "No pain, no tightness. That was awesome. It was really good to go out there and get back to throwing the ball 100 percent."

The Mariners hope Paxton can pick up where he left off in his previous two starts, when he spun back-to-back eight-inning gems against the Angels and Red Sox. It will be hard for him to surpass his performance on Aug. 7, when he struck out Mike Trout four straight times.

17. Angel Pagan, San Francisco Giants

The Giants haven't played well, but it's not because of injuries. Hunter Pence has recovered from his hamstring problems, and Joe Panik is back from concussion issues. Matt Cain is on the disabled list with a lower-back strain, but opponents are batting .302 against him in his 17 starts, so it's hard to imagine Bruce Bochy inserting Jake Peavy or someone from the farm system into the rotation and the Giants' experiencing much of a drop-off.

Pagan missed two games against the Mets with a groin injury over the weekend. It's day-to-day kind of stuff. But he leads the Giants with a .368 batting average and a .985 OPS in August, and he's been susceptible to leg injuries in the past, so the Giants will keep a close watch on him.

18. Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees

Teixeira is strictly a bench player after announcing he'll retire at the end of the 2016 season. But he at least provides a dose of sentimentality for a Yankees team with borderline playoff aspirations. If Teixeira can put the neck and knee injuries behind him and thrill Yankee diehards with a few big moments in September, it will make for a more heartwarming sendoff than the one enjoyed by Alex Rodriguez.

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