30 MLB players primed for bounce-back seasons after missing time in 2019: Stanton, McCullers and more
Lots of players could impact 2020 postseason races after missing most (or all) of 2019
The grind of the 162-game major league season makes baseball a war of attrition. Injuries are inevitable, especially with pitchers, and the teams best equipped to deal with those injuries are usually the clubs left standing in September and October. Depth is often the separator between contenders and the teams that miss out on the postseason.
Each year there are players who miss a chunk of the season with an injury, then return the following year and have an impact. Josh Donaldson was limited to 52 games in 2018, then he stayed healthy in 2019 and appeared in 155 games, and received MVP votes. Heck, the Comeback Player of the Year award is often the "player who had the most successful return from injury" award.
Spring training is roughly five weeks away and undoubtedly several teams -- most teams, I'd say -- will go into 2020 hoping that one player who was hurt in 2019 will stay healthy and make a difference in 2020. For many teams, it may be more than one player. With that in mind, let's run down the notable players returning from long 2019 injured list stints in 2020.
Players who could impact postseason races
An awkward dive back into third base sabotaged Miguel Andujar's sophomore season. The 2018 Rookie of the Year runner-up had surgery to repair a torn labor in May and, during his absence, Gio Urshela grabbed the third base job. Andujar is progressing well with his rehab and is expected to be ready to play early in 2020, though the third base job is Urshela's to lose now, and the Yankees have discussed moving Andujar to another position (first base? left field?). The bat will play anywhere, as long as he's healthy.
Native New Yorker Dellin Betances switched boroughs this offseason. He left the Yankees to join the Mets after being limited to two batters (both strikeouts) in 2019. He did a little celebratory hop off the mound following the second strikeout and managed to tear his Achilles. Ouch. Betances is on schedule with his rehab and is expected to return early in the season, and possibly even be part of the Opening Day roster. There's a lot of risk here after what amounts to a lost season, but also a ton of upside.
Could Yoenis Cespedes actually contribute to the Mets in 2020? He hasn't appeared in a big league game since July 2018, , suggesting both sides believe he could help in 2020. It is a stretch, for sure, though not completely impossible. The Mets are overloaded with corner outfielders at the moment. After serious foot and ankle injuries, is there a chance they give him a first baseman's glove? At least for part-time duty?
A potential All-Star season -- maybe even a Cy Young season -- was derailed when Rays righty Tyler Glasnow went down with the dreaded forearm tightness in May. Forearm problems are a common precursor to Tommy John surgery, though Glasnow was able to avoid the knife, and he returned to the mound in September. A completely healthy Glasnow may have allowed the Rays to avoid the AL Wild Card Game, or escape the ALDS with a win. Alas.
At the time, no one would've guessed Corey Kluber had thrown his final pitch as an Indian when he was hit by a comebacker last May. The comebacker broke his forearm, and, as he neared a return late in the season, Kluber went down with an abdominal injury. Cleveland traded him to the Rangers earlier this offseason and the expectation is Kluber will be 100 percent ready to go come spring training. He didn't pitch all that well before the broken forearm, but the track record is as good as it gets.
The Brewers had a three-headed bullpen monster in 2018 and it fell apart in 2019. Josh Hader was still awesome, but Jeremy Jeffress struggled, and Corey Knebel needed elbow reconstruction in spring training. Milwaukee really missed him last year. By all accounts Knebel's rehab is going well, and he is on track to rejoin the Brewers early in 2020. Once he returns and gets his feet wet, it's possible Knebel will resume closing duties, with Hader serving as a multi-inning "moment of truth" reliever.
It has been a very busy offseason for the White Sox, who have spent considerably as they look to transition from rebuilder to contender. Michael Kopech was arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball when he made his MLB debut in August 2018. Four starts later his elbow ligament gave out and he needed Tommy John surgery. Kopech is due back early in 2020 and he has the talent to pitch at an ace level and soon, though I would expect the White Sox to be cautious with their prized young arm.
The Mets kept the exact nature of Jed Lowrie's injury and subsequent setbacks a secret last season, weirdly. He made a handful of pinch-hitting appearances late in the season and he's spent the offseason on the trade block, so it's unclear whether he will still be with the team come spring training. Either way, Lowrie is presumably healthy now, and a switch-hitter who can play multiple infield positions can be a valuable role player for a contending club.
Sean Manaea returned just in the nick of time last season. The Athletics left-hander completed his shoulder surgery rehab and turned in five strong September starts before getting the ball in the AL Wild Card Game. The Wild Card Game didn't go so well, which was a bummer, but Manaea is healthy and he looked good in his late season cameo. The A's are not blessed with great pitching depth and having a healthy Manaea from the outset in 2020 improves their postseason odds considerably.
The Astros lost Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency last offseason and Gerrit Cole this offseason, and both Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are on the wrong side of 35. There's a sneaky need for rotation depth in Houston. Lance McCullers Jr. pitched through his elbow injury in the 2018 postseason and had Tommy John surgery after the season. He'll be ready to go early in 2020, possibly even on Opening Day. The Astros will of course ease him back into action, but McCullers can be an impact guy.
An awkward baserunning play ended Andrew McCutchen's first season with the Phillies on June 3. His rehab from knee surgery is said to be going well, and McCutchen will be ready for the start of spring training, or close to it. His days as an MVP candidate are over, but he can still be an impact player and create havoc atop a contender's lineup. The Phillies really missed McCutchen last year. Getting him back adds a leadoff element Philadelphia's offense lacked following his injury.
It was only a year ago that Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo posted a .404 on-base percentage and played with the type of infectious energy fans either love or hate, depending which side you're rooting for. Nimmo started slowly last season, got hurt in May, and did not return until the team was out of contention in September. The Mets are loaded with corner outfielders, but few are capable of reaching base 40 percent of the time. A healthy and productive Nimmo setting the table for Pete Alonso could be awfully fun.
Technically, Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani was healthy most of 2019. He returned from elbow reconstruction in early May and appeared in 106 games. That was all as a DH, however. Ohtani completed the pitcher portion of his rehab a few weeks ago and he is expected to take the mound again in 2020. Even with Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran joining the staff, the Angels have rotation questions, and Ohtani can be a difference-maker. Expect the Halos to be careful with his workload throughout the summer.
This is a reach, admittedly. Ongoing knee trouble has limited Dustin Pedroia to nine games the last two years and, while he and the Red Sox say they hope he can play in 2020, the expectation is he will spend the season on the injured list. The Red Sox brought in second base contingency plans (Jonathan Arauz, Jose Peraza) and they could always slide Michael Chavis over to second base and bring in a new first baseman. Pedroia gets a mention because of his career to date. Realistically, playing in 2020 is a long shot.
A spring training shoulder injury led to a midseason lat strain and kept Yankees ace Luis Severino out of action until September. He was healthy in October, when the Yankees needed him most, but Severino was largely a non-factor in 2019. Because he was able to finish the season healthy, Severino had a normal offseason, and he will be ready to go on Day 1 of spring training. After landing Gerrit Cole a few weeks ago, New York could have the league's best 1-2 rotation should Severino return to his 2017-18 form.
It was one injury after another for Giancarlo Stanton in 2019. A torn biceps led to shoulder trouble, then, while participating in minor league rehab games, he was hit by a pitch in the calf. Stanton returned in June and hurt his knee six games later. He returned in September and pulled his quad in the postseason. I suppose the good news is it was not one chronic injury that kept sidelining him. Stanton is expected to be ready to go come Opening Day and, at age 30, he can still be an All-Star level hitter.
Very quietly, the soft-tossing Brent Suter returned from Tommy John surgery in September and was a bullpen force for the Brewers. Ten games, 19 1/3 innings, one run allowed (postseason included). The Brewers are likely to stretch Suter out in spring training so he can be a rotation option, but he was so dynamite in relief late last year that it may be tempting to just keep him there. Either way, Suter is in position to give Milwaukee's pitching staff a real nice shot in the arm in 2020.
Players on rebuilding teams
The Alex Cobb signing could not be going any worse for the Orioles. It's not Chris Davis bad, but it's bad. The O's gave Cobb four years and $57 million, and Year 1 of that contract returned a 4.90 ERA in 152 1/3 innings. Year 2 brought a litany of injuries. Back problems then surgery on his hips and knee. Cobb is expected to be ready for Opening Day, so I guess that's good news. He is owed $29 million the next two seasons and the O's figure to try to trade as soon as he reestablishes some value.
These days Tommy John surgery typically comes with a 16-18 month rehab. Giants righty Johnny Cueto returned in 13 months and had two very good and two not so good starts in September. The important thing is his rehab is complete and he had a normal offseason, and he won't have any restrictions come spring training. San Francisco is rebuilding and Cueto is owed $49 million the next two years. Can he pitch well enough to turn himself into a trade candidate this summer?
The Tigers declined all trade overtures for Michael Fulmer following his 2016 Rookie of the Year season, watched his performance decline in 2017 and 2018, and then lost him to Tommy John surgery in March 2019. The injury could explain the performance slip -- Fulmer had been batting elbow trouble in 2018 -- so perhaps he comes back good as new. Fulmer is likely to return at midseason this year. Probably too late to substantially increase his value prior to the trade deadline.
Mitch Haniger the Hit Manager definitely suffered the most cringe-worthy injury of the 2019 season. He went down with a ruptured testicle in early June, an injury that required surgery and ended his season. Haniger's recovery has gone well, well enough that he is drawing trade interest this offseason. It's not out of the question that the Mariners could deal him before Opening Day. More likely, they will let him rebuild some value during the regular season before getting serious about a trade.
There was a stretch early in 2018 where Pirates righty Chad Kuhl appeared to be establishing himself as a bonafide big-league starter. Then his elbow started barking, ending his season in June. Kuhl had elbow reconstruction that September and is expected to return early in 2020, if not be on the Opening Day roster. Pittsburgh needs all the pitching it can get right now. Kuhl rediscovering the form he showed in 2018 (3.27 ERA in an 11-start stretch) would be a welcome sight this year.
Aside from Jorge Soler becoming the first Royals player to ever lead the league in home runs, there wasn't much to get excited about in Kansas City in 2019. Salvador Perez, the club's beloved stalwart catcher, blew out his elbow in spring training and needed Tommy John surgery. I suppose the good news is the injury saved Perez's legs a season of wear and tear in a rebuilding year. That could help the Royals down the line, when they're in position to contend again.
An awkward slide in September 2018 has led to ongoing shoulder problems for Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco. He had surgery to stabilize the shoulder, returned last season, then went down with subsequent discomfort in the joint. Polanco's season ended in June and he never looked quite right when on the field. His throwing program is said to be going well and the hope is Polanco will go into spring training with no restrictions. Getting him healthy and on track is a top priority in Pittsburgh.
The Padres signed righty Garrett Richards to a two-year contract last December knowing he would spend most of the 2019 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He returned in September and made three starts while being held to strict pitch limits, and the expectation is he will be part of San Diego's Opening Day rotation. It was a nifty little upside play for a team on the rise. Richards had a normal offseason and will be 20 months out from surgery when the season begins.
Blue Jays righty Matt Shoemaker has had a very up-and-down career. He's had stretches -- long stretches -- where he's looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball, and other stretches where he's been unrosterable. Shoemaker was in the middle of one of his good stretches when he blew out his knee last season. The Blue Jays could've non-tendered him in December, but they decided to keep him, which tells us they feel good about his rehab and his potential to contribute in 2020.
Unsigned free agents
Another data point for the pro-DH crowd. Former Brewers righty Jimmy Nelson tore up his shoulder diving back into first base in September 2017 -- because pitchers needlessly hit and run the bases in the National League, you see -- and was unable to return to a big-league mound until June 2019. And, when he came back, he was missing velocity and command. Nelson was in the middle of a breakout season when he got hurt, and it won't be long before some team signs him and hopes for the best in 2020.
The last few seasons have been a grind for Danny Salazar. The former Indians hurler was an All-Star in 2016 and he's thrown only 139 2/3 innings since. He returned from major shoulder surgery in August and immediately injured his groin in his first game back. Rough. Salazar has barely pitched the last two seasons and his velocity was way down in his lone appearance last year. He's a minor-league contract candidate at this point, but has the upside to contribute in a meaningful way to a contending team.
The Diamondbacks opted to non-tender Taijuan Walker last month rather than pay him a projected $5 million or so through arbitration in 2020 even though he made it back in September. Walker seemed to put it all together in 2017, his last fully healthy season, and he will play most of 2020 at age 27. He's still so young. It won't be long before a club scoops him up and sees whether Walker can get back to where he was three years ago with a healthy elbow.
Bad problems turned what could've been a very lucrative free-agent contract into what will likely be a one-year reclamation project deal for Alex Wood. The former Dodgers and Reds lefty did not take the mound until late July last year, and, when he did, he looked very compromised. More back issues ended his season in late August. Wood will turn only 29 later this month and his track record is quite strong. There's some upside here. There's also a lot of injury risk. Back problems never really seem to go away.
Other notables returning from injury in 2020: LHP Ryan Borucki, Blue Jays (elbow); LHP Brett Cecil, Cardinals (carpal tunnel syndrome); OF Franchy Cordero, Padres (elbow); RHP Daniel Gossett, Athletics (Tommy John surgery); RHP Keynan Middleton, Angels (Tommy John surgery); LHP Jordan Montgomery, Yankees (Tommy John surgery); RHP Darren O'Day, Braves (forearm); RHP Bobby Wahl, Brewers (knee); OF Bradley Zimmer, Indians (shoulder, oblique)
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