Over the next three months, all 30 major league teams are going to look for ways to make themselves better. Some will sign big-name free agents, some will make blockbuster trades, and some will settle for minor moves like waiver claims and minor-league free agents. Most teams will do a little of everything.
Several teams also hope they'll be better next season simply by welcoming players back from major injuries. Injuries happen, they're part of the game, but some clubs deal with more than others. The teams that lost players for long stretches of time in 2016 are looking forward to getting them back in 2017.
Here are a dozen players who missed most, if not all, of the 2016 season with an injury and are poised to play big roles for their teams in 2017. The players are listed alphabetically.
A shoulder injury suffered during an offseason workout forced Greg Bird to undergo season-ending surgery in February. His 2016 season was over before it even started. Bird's rehab has gone well and he was able to play 17 games in the Arizona Fall League this last few weeks. With Mark Teixeira retired and the Yankees going young wherever possible, the first base job is Bird's for the taking in 2017. As long as he's healthy, of course.
The Indians managed to force the best team in baseball to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series even though Michael Brantley, their best all-around hitter, was limited to 11 games by a pair of shoulder surgeries in 2016. He did not play after May 9. Cleveland hopes Brantley will be ready for spring training, but they're not going to push it, especially not after this year's setback.
It goes without saying there are always risks when a player returns from an injury. His rehab might be slow, he might be rusty, he might lose some of his former ability ... all sorts of stuff can go wrong. Matt Harvey had Tommy John surgery three years ago and surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome this year. That's a scary combination. More than a few pitchers have never been the same after that.
That said, Harvey's condition was caught early, which improves the chances of him returning at full strength. He's expected to be 100 percent ready to go in spring training, and you know what? Even if he's not, the Mets have enough pitching depth to bring him along slowly and get his rehab right. Harvey's an impact player. Getting him healthy in 2017 improves the Mets' chances tremendously.
Tommy John surgery sidelined Lance Lynn for the entire 2016 season. He'll be 15 months out from surgery by time spring training begins, so his rehab won't be rushed. It's not uncommon for pitchers to need a little time to regain their command following elbow reconstruction, though Lynn has shown he can be effective as both a starter and reliever, so the odds are in favor of the Cardinals finding a role that works for him.
Hip and shoulder surgeries limited Devin Mesoraco to 18 games in 2016 and 39 total games from 2015-16. The Reds anticipate him being ready for spring training but they're not going to push it. There's no reason to when you're in the middle of a massive rebuild. Mesoraco is still only 28 and he hit 25 homers in 2014, his last healthy season, so the guy has a lot of career left. Catchers with that kind of pop are very valuable. At worst, the Reds want to be able to trade Mesoraco at some point for prospects.
The Royals lost both Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon after the two collided chasing a foul pop-up this summer. Moustakas tore his ACL and Gordon broke his wrist. Geez. Talk about a costly collision. Gordon was able to return in June. Moustakas needed season-ending surgery. He's expected to be ready for the start of next season, which is his contract year. Pretty important season for Moustakas and the team. He wants to set himself up for a big payday, and the team wants to have the option of trading him at the deadline should they be out of the race.
Garrett Richards made only six starts in 2016 before his elbow started to act up. Rather than undergo Tommy John surgery, he opted for a stem cell treatment program, and so far it's worked. In fact, Richards was able to make multiple starts for the Angels' instructional league roster last month.
Garrett Richards threw 3 innings and about 50 pitches in instrux today. "Everything was great," he said. "Felt even better than last time."— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) October 8, 2016
Most pitchers who try to rehab a partially torn elbow ligament don't make it this far. The rehab usually fails before the pitcher even gets back on a mound. That's what happened with Andrew Heaney, another Angels hurler. That Richards feels good and was able to pitch in instructs is a great sign. He's not completely out of the woods yet, but things are going well.
The 2016 season was a rough one for Tyson Ross. He got hammered on Opening Day (eight runs in 5 1/3 innings), then spent the rest of the season on the disabled list with shoulder and ankle problems. (He hurt his ankle during a fluke accident while rehabbing the shoulder.) And because that's not enough, Ross had surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome last month.
The rehab timetable has Ross on track for a return sometime in May or June. He's going to be a free agent next offseason, so: a. Ross wants to show teams he's healthy so he can cash in, and b. the Padres want Ross to show he's healthy so they can trade him at the deadline. The ankle injury was kind of stupid -- he twisted it in his hotel room -- but shoulder woes and TOS surgery are a bad combination.
Real talk: Pablo Sandoval might be the Red Sox's best third baseman. Travis Shaw had his moments last year before fading in the second half. Others like Aaron Hill and top prospect Yoan Moncada were ineffective. Sandoval is coming back from shoulder surgery, and when healthy, he very well might be the club's best option at the hot corner both offensively and defensively. Hanley Ramirez bounced back with a healthy shoulder in 2016. Sandoval could do the same in 2017.
Well, technically Kyle Schwarber has come back already. He tore his ACL in an outfield collision in April but was able to return as a DH during the World Series, during which he went 7 for 17 (.412). Schwarber has not yet been cleared to play the outfield yet, however. That's the next rehab milestone.
The fact Schwarber has already come back to hit major league pitching, albeit in a small sample, bodes well for his return next season. I do worry about his outfield defense following the knee injury -- Schwarber wasn't exactly the rangiest outfielder to begin with -- but as long as he hits, the Cubs won't care. I feel more confident in Schwarber being productive in 2017 than any other player in those post for obvious reasons.
The Red Sox picked up Carson Smith in a trade with the Mariners last offseason and expected him to be a huge part of their bullpen. Instead, he hurt his elbow in spring training and eventually needed Tommy John surgery. Smith is not expected to return to the mound until June, but as a high-strikeout, high-ground ball reliever, he could have an immediate impact.
Injuries have limited David Wright to 75 total games the last two seasons. He's coming off serious neck surgery that could very well be career-threatening. His return is far from certain, so much so that the Mets already brought back Jose Reyes at third base insurance. Wright can still be a productive player -- he had a 110 OPS+ in 37 games in 2016 despite back and neck trouble -- and that's why he's included in his this post, but he's facing a very big recovery. He may simply never be the same again.