Chipper Jones, Braves: Strong early indications that Atlanta's leader is recovering well from major knee surgery last August. Just ask the baseballs: Jones has been hitting in Atlanta since the first of the year, and the legend already is growing. Earlier this month, he literally knocked the cover off of a ball -- ala Roy Hobbs in The Natural -- in a Turner Field batting cage.
"There might have been a stitch or two loose," says general manager Frank Wren, who was away on the Braves' Winter Caravan at the time and was told of the feat by club president John Schuerholz.
Where there was talk last summer that Jones' torn knee could have been a career-ending injury, now the Braves are expecting him to be full-go on the first day of spring training.
"I think we all expected him to be back performing at a high level," Wren says. "You're talking about a very gifted player. All the hard work he's put in, you can just see it. You can see it with your eyes."
Justin Morneau, Twins: The 2006 AL MVP did not play after July 7 last year -- one day after Peavy went down -- because of post-concussion syndrome. The Twins missed him badly during their first-round playoff loss to the Yankees, and there's still a weird vibe about this whole situation. Such as, Twins GM Bill Smith told Morneau to skip TwinsFest a couple of weeks ago so he could stay home and concentrate on his conditioning. And as of the end of January, Morneau still had not resumed baseball activities.
What to expect from Morneau this spring?
"We have pledged patience, and we only want him to go when he's ready," Smith told colleague Danny Knobler a couple of weeks ago. "If that's March 1, April 1 or July 1, that's what it will be. We only want him to go through this one time. We don't want this to become a rollercoaster."
Smith says the date he has circled is April 1, because that's Minnesota's opening day. But it sounds like it's in pencil, not pen.
Brandon Webb, Rangers: In danger of falling permanently into the "Whatever Happened To..." category, Webb has a chance to become Texas' sleeper this summer and help ease the Rangers' pain following the departure of ace Cliff Lee. The 2006 NL Cy Young winner, Webb has made only one big-league start since 2008. And that lasted only four innings.
Arizona was hopeful Webb would have helped last year's club, but he couldn't make it back to the mound following shoulder debridement surgery in August, 2009.
"There's obviously a risk, an unknown anytime a guy is coming back from surgery," Texas GM Jon Daniels says. "But the timeline, the 18-months-out from surgery when you think a guy has a chance to bounce back, lines up with the beginning of the season.
"We're betting on the guy."
The Rangers like what they see so far: Webb has been on a conditioning and throwing program, he's worked over the winter with Rangers strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez and he's talked with pitching coach Mike Maddux about what everyone expects. His heavy sinker is made-to-order for the Ballpark in Arlington.
"We're going to push him more on the conditioning side than anything," Daniels says. "If he's ready to go, I'd expect him to be in the rotation."
Kendry Morales, Angels: We haven't heard from Morales since his game-winning grand slam last May beat the Mariners and Morales suffered a broken leg when he awkwardly landed on home plate. The injury required immediate surgery and Morales, who led the Angels at the time with 11 homers, 39 RBIs and a .290 batting average, was done for the season.
The injury was one of many things that wrecked the Angels' season, and after a rough winter in which they failed in their quest to sign Carl Crawford, a big comeback season from Morales is a must. The hope is that he can replicate a 2009 season in which he crashed 34 home runs, compiled a .569 slugging percentage and finished fifth in AL MVP voting.
"We're anticipating him to be full go in spring training," manager Mike Scioscia said at the winter meetings in December. "Obviously, once you get on the field and get into some more extensive activities, you're going to take it slow. Does it mean he'll play our first spring training game? I don't know yet. When he comes into spring training, we expect he'll be full go for all the drills. And if not, we'll adjust on that."
Joe Nathan, Twins: The Upper Midwest report on the Twins' closer sounds more promising than it does on Morneau. Nathan, sidelined the entire 2010 season following Tommy John surgery, has been throwing off of a mound and was throwing breaking balls by the end of January. Smith described Nathan as "very upbeat" and noted what a big boost it would be to have a fully healthy Nathan along with experienced closer Matt Capps late in games.
Carlos Santana, Indians: He could have been Buster Posey, or Jason Heyward. Instead, things weren't exactly smooth for the baseball Santana, whose rookie season was ruined after his June 11 recall when he suffered a torn lateral collateral ligament in his left knee during a home plate collision with Boston's Ryan Kalish on Aug. 2.
One of the many bright lights in a stunningly good rookie class in 2010, Santana has been cleared by Indians doctors to resume full baseball activities during spring training. Barring any setbacks, Santana could start playing in games when the Cactus League schedule begins on Feb. 27.
The Indians, losers of 93 games and the worst-drawing team in the majors last season, are not expected to contend in 2011. But in Santana, one of the brightest young prospects in the game, and center fielder Grady Sizemore -- also recovering from left knee surgery -- Cleveland's season could gain traction (or slip into the ditch) depending on how this duo progresses in Arizona this spring.