I'm not sure when it'll happen, but at some point MLB and the MLBPA Players Association will agree to a new collective bargaining agreement, and baseball will return. The league will not cease to exist. I promise you that much.
And whenever baseball does return, teams across the league will look forward to welcoming back players who missed most or all of last season with injuries. Injuries are unfortunate but they are part of the game, and sometimes they rob a team of an important piece for most of the year. When injuries happens, all you can do is trust your depth and try to overcome it.
Inevitably several players will return from long-term injuries this coming season and make an impact on the postseason races. For example, Yordan Álvarez missed all but two games in 2020 with knee surgeries (plural), then returned in 2021 to be a middle of the lineup force for the American League champion Houston Astros. Other clubs hope for similar impact in 2022.
We're going to look at 10 players expected to return from major injuries this year who could give their clubs a significant lift. We're going to focus on players who missed the vast majority of 2021, so guys like Ronald Acuña Jr. (82 games in 2021) and Jacob deGrom (15 starts) don't make our cut. Anything more than a month or so of playing time last year is too much for this exercise.
Also, we're going to focus on players expected to return on or around Opening Day. That means poor Mike Soroka (torn Achilles) is not included. He's not due back until much later in the year. Ditto James Paxton (Tommy John surgery) and Kirby Yates (Tommy John surgery). Our focus is on players who project to be available from Day 1 or close to it.
One player we're not going to cover: Robinson Canó. The New York Mets second baseman did not play last year but not because he was injured. He served a 162-game performance-enhancing drug suspension. Yes, the Mets will technically welcome Canó back to the lineup this year. His absence was not injured related though. He has no one to blame for the lost season but himself.
Now that we've set our ground rules, here are 10 notable players who are expected to return from long-term injuries this season, listed alphabetically.
RHP Mike Clevinger, Padres
The Padres were so short on arms late last season that they had to sign Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez off the scrap heap. This year they can look forward to Clevinger rejoining the rotation. He missed last season with his second career Tommy John surgery, and while the second Tommy John carries more risk than the first, it's not as risky as it once was (Nathan Eovaldi is a two-time Tommy John surgery success story). The 31-year-old Clevinger threw just under 500 innings with a 2.96 ERA from 2017-20. When he's healthy, he moves the needle in a significant way. Also, Clevinger is entering his contract year. There's a lot riding on his right arm in 2022.
RHP Ken Giles, Mariners
OF Kyle Lewis, Mariners
The Mariners got a head start on building their 2022 bullpen last offseason, when they signed Giles to a two-year deal worth $7 million even though he would miss 2021 while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The 31-year-old is on track to return when the season begins and he was outstanding when last healthy in 2019. Giles has had some high-profile meltdowns over the years, sure, but the presence of Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider will allow Seattle to ease him into action at his own pace.
As for Lewis, multiple knee injuries limited the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year to only 36 games a season ago, and GM Jerry Dipoto recently admitted they're not entirely sure what they'll get when he returns. The Mariners seemingly have the outfield depth to slow play Lewis' return, though they also need a power right-handed bat, and he can provide that. Depending how Seattle plays the post-lockout portion of the offseason, they could treat Lewis primarily as a DH in the early going this year to protect the knee.
Shout out to hard-throwing righty Andrés Muñoz here as well. The 23-year-old was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when he came over in the Austin Nola trade with the Padres. Muñoz returned late last season (late as in Game 162) and the Mariners are comfortable enough with his surgically-repaired elbow that they signed him to a four-year, $7.5 million extension earlier this winter. He and Giles could add serious length and formidability to the back of Seattle's bullpen.
RHP Jordan Hicks, Cardinals
RHP Dakota Hudson, Cardinals
It can be easy to forget how good Hudson was as a rookie in 2019. The fancy stats hated him (4.93 ERA and 5.09 xERA), but at some point we just have to acknowledge 174 2/3 innings with a 3.35 ERA and a 56.9 percent ground ball rate is pretty darn good. Whether it's repeatable is another matter. It happened. It's in the bank. Anyway, Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery to make one start and one relief appearance in September, and he's set to rejoin the rotation full-time in 2022. The Cardinals don't need him to be an ace. Just solidify the back of the rotation.
Also returning from Tommy John surgery is Hicks, who missed all of 2020 and made 10 late season appearances last year. The velocity is still there -- Hicks threw the eighth most 100 mph pitches in 2021 (52) -- and now it's just a matter of dialing in the control, and throwing enough strikes to be a trusted reliever. The Cardinals are said to be prioritizing a late-inning reliever whenever the lockout ends. That's smart. Don't ask too much from Hicks too soon, and let him grow back into a high-leverage role at his own pace. If nothing else, Hicks and Hudson will be inventory arms with upside.
Miles Mikolas deserves a mention here as well. Shoulder and forearm issues limited him to nine starts last season -- Mikolas started the year on the injured list, returned in May, went back on the injured after one start, then returned for good in late August -- and while I don't expect to ever see 2018 Mikolas again, a guy who takes the ball every fifth day and pitches at a league average-ish rate has value too. Mikolas, now 33, did that in 2019 and the Cardinals hope he can do it again in 2022.
RHP Luis Severino, Yankees
Several injuries, including a lat strain and Tommy John surgery, limited Severino to only 27 2/3 innings from 2019-21 (including the postseason). He returned from elbow reconstruction and made four relief appearances last September, and is poised to jump back into the rotation this year. Severino turns only 28 later this month and he's been nothing but excellent when on the mound since his 2017 breakout. He just hasn't been on the mound often enough the last three years. A healthy Severino would be a game-changer for a Yankees team with uncertainty in the rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery. It's an important year for Severino as well. He's in the last guaranteed year of his contract and has a $15 million option on the line for 2023.
RHP Noah Syndergaard, Angels
OF Mike Trout, Angels
Tommy John surgery and numerous setbacks delayed Syndergaard's 2021 debut and limited him to two one-inning starts in September, and in those two innings he did not throw breaking balls. Fastballs and changeups only. That was Syndergaard's free agent showcase and it was enough to land him a one-year, $21 million deal with the Angels. Syndergaard turns 30 in August and he has shown ace ability in the past. The Halos hope he pitches to that level in 2022 and helps them return to the postseason, and Syndergaard hopes to make good on that "prove yourself" contract, and cash in big next winter.
As for Trout, baseball's best player was limited to 36 games by right calf strain that just wouldn't get better last season. He did not play after May 17 -- calf strains are very tricky, they can take a long time to heal and are easy to reaggravate -- and by all accounts Trout is over the injury and ready to play on Opening Day. Trout was still a force before the injury, hitting .333/.466/.624 in those 36 games, and I have no reason to believe he won't be a force in 2022. He did turn 30 last August though. Those nagging aches and pains tend to build up and take their toll. Trout and Syndergaard are paramount to Anaheim's postseason chances this year.
Truth be told, the Nationals are unlikely to contend this year even with a perfectly healthy Strasburg. The 2019 World Series MVP made two starts in 2020 before having carpal tunnel surgery, and five starts in 2021 before having thoracic outlet surgery. He is on track to be ready for spring training, though thoracic outlet syndrome is a significant issue that has ended careers, and we have no idea what Strasburg will look like when he returns. That's a scary proposition for Washington seeing how they owe him $175 million through 2026. But hey, maybe Strasburg returns good as new and stays healthy, and the Nationals make a run at an expanded postseason spot. Crazier things have happened, like the Nationals going from 19-31 to World Series champs in 2019.
RHP Justin Verlander, Astros
Verlander started on Opening Day 2020 (on July 24) and hasn't appeared in a game since. He came down with an elbow issue and later had Tommy John surgery. By all accounts his rehab is going well, so well that the Astros re-signed him to a new $25 million contract with a $25 million player option for a second year earlier this offseason. Verlander turns 39 later this month and Houston has the rotation depth to ease him back into action with his new elbow ligament. They want him at full strength for the stretch run and the postseason, and if that means taking their foot off the gas in April, so be it. The return from Tommy John surgery can be bumpy, though I wouldn't doubt Verlander's ability to return as immediate difference-maker.
Other notables returning from long-term injuries: RHP Tyler Beede, Giants (Tommy John surgery); RHP Seranthony Domínguez, Phillies (Tommy John surgery); OF Aaron Hicks, Yankees (wrist surgery); RHP Tommy Kahnle, Dodgers (Tommy John surgery); LHP Colin Poche, Rays (Tommy John surgery); UTIL Nick Senzel, Reds (knee surgery)