FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Forget the Evil Empire. There's trouble right here in Red Sox country as Terry Francona's crew yesterday faced the prospect of opening the regular season without Trot Nixon, Byung Hyun Kim, and possibly Nomar Garciaparra.
While the Sox brass clung to the hope Garciaparra could return by Opening Night in Baltimore April 4, Nixon is expected to miss the first month of the season and the prognosis for Kim was hardly much brighter.
So much for matching last year's hardy health report.
The first sign of gloom occurred about 8:15 a.m., when Garciaparra hobbled into the clubhouse at City of Palms Park with a removable boot on his right leg. The All-Star shortstop, who underwent an MRI Thursday, was diagnosed with mild tendinitis in his right Achilles' and is expected to be sidelined for about two weeks. That would leave him about a 48-hour margin for error before the season opener.
Then came word of Nixon's plight. The day after the right fielder was examined at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles by Dr. Robert G. Watkins, one the nation's foremost back specialists, the Sox announced Nixon will be lost for about six weeks with a mildly herniated disk in his lower back. Watkins, who has operated on numerous star athletes, including Yankees righthander Kevin Brown, discovered Nixon's condition was slightly worse than initially indicated.
Sox team physician Bill Morgan, who consulted Watkins, said there was "a fine line" between Morgan's initial diagnosis that the disk was bulging -- but not herniated -- and the finding by Watkins. A herniation is a tear in the disk's support structure.
"It's not a ruptured disk," Morgan said, describing the condition as "a little bit larger extension" than initially believed.
Watkins confirmed Morgan's finding that the injured disk has impinged on some nerve root in Nixon's spine but should not require surgery.
"[Watkins] feels very strongly that it will respond to a very conservative exercise program, which [Nixon] already had started," Morgan said. "We're looking at six weeks before he's ready for active play."
As for Kim, a Sox official said it was "a safe assumption" the righthander will not be ready to take his turn in the starting rotation when the season opens. Kim is battling inflammation in his right shoulder.
General manager Theo Epstein said the injuries would prompt him to step up his search for additional help, but he indicated he hopes to get by with the players currently in camp. Nixon's at-bats will go primarily to Gabe Kapler and Ellis Burks, while Kapler and Kevin Millar largely will fill Nixon's role in right field. Bronson Arroyo is expected to replace Kim in the rotation, and if Garciaparra is not ready by Opening Night, Pokey Reese would play shortstop with Mark Bellhorn at second base.
"Obviously, multiple injuries stresses your organizational depth and you need to intensify your monitoring of other organizations to see if there's a way to improve," Epstein said. "But we're not in a position to step up and do anything major. We don't have players to expend and we don't necessarily have the resources to bring in a huge contract right now."
What's more, Epstein said, it could be unwise to make a major new investment if the injuries heal on schedule.
Morgan said Garciaparra's MRI showed "no structural deficits," which suggests the shortstop should heal sufficiently with rest and anti-inflammatory medications.
"His ability to return will be based on the symptoms," Morgan said. "The hope is he'll be game-ready in about two weeks."
Epstein and Francona each said they expect Garciaparra to be ready for the opener, as did Garciaparra.
"The good news is, there's nothing wrong with the tendon," Garciaparra said, sounding very much like a physician. "What [the MRI] did show was some swelling around the tendon, some fluid that gets caught around the sheath that surrounds the tendon in the bursa sac area that's right below the Achilles' [tendon]. When you're dealing with an area like that, where there's not a whole lot of skin, it just takes a while to get rid of that inflammation."
The tendon was injured March 5 when a batted ball caromed off it during practice. Garciaparra tried several times to play through it, most recently Wednesday.
"It obviously showed that it wasn't ready and just got aggravated even more," he said. "The best way to knock it out is to put it in this [boot]."
Garciaparra said he hoped to shed the boot in about a week. But even though he is hitless in eight official at-bats in spring training, his timing has looked sharp, and both he and Francona predicted he would need little time once he heals before he begins playing again.
"When he's healthy," Francona stated flatly, "he's playing."
Morgan initially treated Nixon with oral anti-inflammatories. When those failed, Nixon received an injection of anti-inflammatory steroids in his spine.
"We were hoping the epidural steroid would facilitate it," Morgan said, "but it really didn't accomplish as much as we would like."
Hence, the visit to Watkins. Morgan said Nixon will continue on anti-inflammatories and avoid such activities as prolonged sitting and heavy squatting exercises. Nixon was returning from Los Angeles and could not be reached.
As for Kim, Morgan is scheduled to evaluate him today.
"If the exam looks good, we'll start an extremely regimented and controlled rehab program," said Morgan. He could not predict when Kim would be ready to return.