These MLB players returning from Tommy John surgery could have bigger impact in delayed and shortened season

Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring training has been suspended and Opening Day has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and that remains subject to change as the situation develops.

The delayed start to the regular season will have a tangible on-field impact, though we won't know the full extent of that impact until we know when the season will begin. The New York Yankees, for example, could have some or all of their injured players in their Opening Day lineup depending when Opening Day actually occurs.

In baseball, Tommy John surgery is an occupational hazard, and during the pandemic the procedure presents an ethical dilemma. Players who need the surgery now or will soon, such as Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, may have trouble scheduling the procedure in the coming weeks, essentially putting their career on hold.

On the other side of the coin, many players are nearing the end of their Tommy John surgery rehab, and are close to resuming their careers and helping their teams in 2020. Some of those players could even impact postseason races. Here are 13 players on the way back from Tommy John surgery and how much they could contribute in 2020.

Players ready to come back

Prior to the shutdown, countless players around the league were making their return from a long injury absence, including several Tommy John surgery rehabbers. Here are five pitchers who returned to the mound with their new elbow ligament in spring training and were/are in position to help their club as soon as Opening Day.

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Kendall Graveman SEA • SP • 49
Tommy John surgery dateJuly 30, 2018

Three years ago, Kendall Graveman was on the cusp of being an All-Star with the Athletics. He pitched well in 2017, not so well early in 2018, and then had his elbow rebuilt in July 2018. The Cubs took a league minimum flier on Graveman last year but it didn't work out. The Mariners tried the same this offseason and he appeared in two Cactus League games before the shutdown, firing four scoreless innings and garnering mostly positive reviews. When the season begins, the still only 29-year-old Graveman will look to reestablish himself and get his career back on track, and the Mariners will see whether they struck gold on a one-year deal and can fit Graveman in their future plans (they hold a $3.5 million club option for 2021).

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Michael Kopech CHW • SP • 34
Tommy John surgery dateSept. 18, 2018

Few young pitchers show as much promise as White Sox flamethrower Michael Kopech. He blew out his elbow four starts into his 2018 big-league debut, but he completed his rehab, and he made a single one-inning appearance in spring training before the shutdown. The White Sox will of course be cautious with the 23-year-old Kopech, especially after COVID-19 threw a wrench into everyone's routine, but he is poised to impact postseason races whenever the season begins. And, with the ChiSox very much in it to win it, that could mean carrying Kopech as a starter without restrictions right from Opening Day. Every inning will matter that much more during a shortened season.

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Chad Kuhl PIT • SP • 39
Tommy John surgery dateSept. 19, 2018

The Pirates have been short on good news lately but Chad Kuhl's return this spring qualifies as good news. The 27-year-old righty was establishing himself as a rotation mainstay before his elbow gave out in 2018 -- he allowed two runs or fewer in five of his final seven starts -- and he returned to the mound this spring. Two runs in 1 2/3 innings in two Grapefruit League outings doesn't tell us much, but simply getting back on a mound and competing is a big step. There is opportunity abound on Pittsburgh's pitching staff and the return of 2018 Kuhl would be a major boon to the club's rebuilding effort.

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Lance McCullers HOU • SP • 43
Tommy John surgery dateNov. 6, 2018

Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton have all departed as free agents the last two years, leaving the Astros with a bunch of rotation uncertainty behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Lance McCullers Jr. pitched through elbow discomfort in the 2018 postseason and had surgery soon thereafter. His rehab went very well and made three spring appearances before the shutdown. Even before Tommy John surgery, McCullers was a 120-inning guy more than a 180-inning buy, but they were 120 really good innings, and those 120 innings would cover a higher percentage of Houston's total innings during a shortened season.

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Salvador Perez KC • C • 13
Tommy John surgery dateMarch 6, 2019

One game into spring training 2019, Royals catcher Salvador Perez blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. I guess the good news is the surgery saved his knees a year of wear and tear during a rebuilding season? The 29-year-old made it all the way back this spring -- position players have a shorter Tommy John surgery rehab than pitchers, though catchers have a more intense rehab than infielders and outfielders -- and went 8 for 32 (.250) in 13 Cactus League games before the shutdown. Perez provides stability at the game's most demanding position and his return coincides almost perfectly with the arrival of Kansas City's top pitching prospects.

Players who could be ready for new Opening Day

These days Tommy John surgery comes with a 14-16 month rehab timetable, so pitchers who blow out their elbow in spring training typically don't return until the following All-Star break. With Opening Day pushed back to some undetermined point in the future, players who hurt their elbow last spring could be on the Opening Day roster this year. Here are four players who would not have been ready for the original March 26 Opening Day, but could be available for the new Opening Day.

Michael Fulmer SP •
Tommy John surgery dateMarch 27, 2019

The Tigers resisted trade offers for Michael Fulmer from 2017-18, then he blew out his elbow last spring, and his career was put on hold. Fulmer started his throwing program a few weeks ago and he had started throwing off a mound just prior to the shutdown. That put him on track to return to big league action in three months or so. A truncated spring training may not be enough time to get Fulmer back to game readiness, though a return a few weeks into the regular season is now possible, rather than a few months.

"Whatever we do, it's going to be a shortened season," Fulmer told Chris McCosky of the Detroit News last month. "But that might help me, coming off TJ and limiting my innings a little bit without having to do so by missing starts and getting pushed back. I think it could be a good thing for me personally, the fact that they might push the season back a little bit."

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Aaron Hicks NYY • CF • 31
Tommy John surgery dateOct. 30, 2019

Last postseason Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks posted a .353 on-base percentage in the ALCS despite being told he needed Tommy John surgery weeks earlier. He went under the knife after the season and is targeting a return anywhere from mid-June to mid-July. Hicks recently started his throwing program and has not had any hiccups with his rehab. He'll likely need more than a spring training's worth of at-bats to get ready for the season, but that should still have him in the lineup not long after Opening Day.

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Corey Knebel MIL • RP • 46
Tommy John surgery dateApril 3, 2019

In 2018, Corey Knebel joined Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader to form the dynamic bullpen the Brewers rode to Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS. In 2019, Jeffress imploded and Knebel blew out his elbow, and that dynamic bullpen became the one-man Hader show. Knebel had started throwing off a mound before the shutdown and was targeting an early May return. As a reliever, he won't need as many rehab games to prepare for the season as Fulmer, so an Opening Day return is a very real possibility for Knebel. That's good news for a Brewers pitching staff built around "out-getters," as manager Craig Counsell calls them, rather than defined roles.

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Shohei Ohtani LAA • DH • 17
Tommy John surgery dateOct. 1, 2018

Perhaps the most hotly anticipated Tommy John surgery comeback since at least the late Jose Fernandez, and maybe since Stephen Strasburg. Ohtani returned last year as a hitter -- he authored a .286/.343/.505 batting line with 18 homers in 106 games -- and was expected to return to game action as a pitcher in June prior to the shutdown. He had started throwing bullpen sessions not long before the shutdown.

Ohtani's timetable has not yet been changed, as far as we know, though everything is up in the air right now. The Angels plan to be very cautious with him -- there was talk Ohtani could start every Wednesday and stick to a strict schedule once he does return as a pitcher -- but the longer the layoff, the more likely it is he will be ready to go come Opening Day. We know he'll be in the lineup as a hitter when the season begins, whenever that it. The shutdown could have him on the mound on Opening Day as well.

Players unlikely to contribute much in 2020

Even with Opening Day already pushed back several weeks and another delay becoming increasingly likely, several players may not make it back in 2020. They had their Tommy John surgery too late in 2019 to complete their rehab in time to contribute in a meaningful way this year. Here are four likely to be non-factors in 2020.

Jordan Hicks RP •
Tommy John surgery dateJune 26, 2019

One Hicks (Aaron) is expected back at midseason. The other Hicks (Jordan) is only nine months out from surgery and he was very early in his throwing program when the shutdown was announced. Because he's a reliever, Hicks won't have to face as many batters as a starter would during his rehab stint, but he's still looking at a return in August or maybe September. Should the season extend into October, then yeah, there's a chance Hicks will be able to contribute to the Cardinals late in the year. Under the original 162-game schedule, he would've been really pushing up against it.

Jameson Taillon SP •
Tommy John surgery dateAug. 13, 2019

There is no mystery here. Jameson Taillon recently told reporters, including Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribute-Review, the Pirates will not let him return this season no matter how deep into October (or November) they play. Taillon is rehabbing from his second career Tommy John surgery -- he had his first as a minor leaguer in 2014 -- and the second rehab requires much more care than the first. Pittsburgh is not going to rush their 28-year-old ace back and put him at increased risk of future injury in what figures to be a rebuilding year. We won't see Taillon on a big league mound until 2021.

"This postponement is not going to change what our big-picture vision is for Jameson, and that is that he not pitch in Year 1 after his (surgery). It's to pitch for five-plus years," Pirates director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk told Adamski. "Although the short-term goal is to get him back into competition when he and his arm and the team and the coaching staff deem it necessary, this is for the long haul." 

David Robertson RP •
Tommy John surgery dateAug. 15, 2019

Elbow trouble sent Phillies reliever David Robertson to the injured list in mid-April and, because he initially tried to rehab a flexor tendon injury, he did not have Tommy John surgery until mid-August last year. He was in the very early stages of his throwing program when the shutdown was announced and eyeing a return in the second half, though with his 35th birthday coming up, that might be optimistic. Setbacks and slow downs are not uncommon during the Tommy John surgery rehab process. That's why it takes so long. There's a non-zero chance Robertson will join the Phillies late this season and help in some capacity. They'd be silly to count on him, however.

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Carlos Rodon CHW • SP • 55
Tommy John surgery dateMay 15, 2019

The White Sox have two high-end starters currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery: Kopech and Carlos Rodon. Kopech has completed his rehab and is ready to help right now, or will be once Opening Day arrives. Rodon had not yet started his throwing program prior to the shutdown, so he is still in the "building strength" phase. His best-case scenario is a late-season return in September, or maybe October if the regular season is extended. Outside the box idea: Rodon as a reliever. That would shorten his minor-league rehab stint and get him on the big-league roster sooner, when Chicago is potentially fighting for a postseason spot.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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