Monday, April 15, 2024
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Ranking 10 players returning from injury who could impact playoff races, including Mike Trout, Edwin Díaz

Spring training camps are underway across Arizona and Florida, and Cactus League and Grapefruit League games aren’t too far off. Real live baseball is right around the corner, and with actual games soon to be played, teams across the league are looking forward to welcoming back players who missed most or all of last season with injuries. 

Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game and sometimes they rob a team of an important piece, altering the trajectory of their season. When an injury happens, all you can do is adjust on the fly and try to overcome it, like the Rangers did when they won the World Series last year despite losing Jacob deGrom to Tommy John surgery in June.

Several players will return from long-term injuries this season and make an impact on the postseason races. The best recent example is Justin Verlander. He had Tommy John surgery in 2020, then when he returned in 2022, he won the AL Cy Young and led the Astros to a World Series championship. It’s hard to come back from an injury and have more impact than that.

With that in mind, let’s look at players expected to return from major injuries this year who could give their clubs a significant lift and be a factor in the postseason race. We’re going to focus on players who missed a large portion of 2023 and either finished the season on the injured list, or were a non-factor late in the year.

We’re also looking at players expected to return on or around Opening Day. deGrom, for example, is not expected to return until the second half, so he’s out of the running here. We’re looking for players who missed a significant chunk of last season and are poised to return and contribute early in 2024. Got it? Good.

Now that we’ve set our ground rules, here are 10 notable players expected to return from long-term injuries this season, ranked in order of how important they are to their team’s chances of contention.

1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Simply put, the Angels have no chance of contending — zero — without a full and healthy season from Trout. Shohei Ohtani is gone and it’s hard to count on Anthony Rendon being healthy and productive. Trout was in the middle of a career-worst season before breaking his hamate last July, but a career-worst season for Trout is a career year for most players. We needn’t overthink this. The Angels are a fringe contender as it is. Their chances with Trout are slim, and without him their chances are none.

2. Joe Musgrove, San Diego Padres

The Padres did well adding needed pitching depth in the Juan Soto trade, which isn’t the same thing as saying their pitching is in great shape. Their nominal ace is coming off elbow surgery to remove a bone spur (Yu Darvish), their No. 3 starter is a converted reliever (Michael King), and the back of the rotation is still unsettled. Musgrove had a toe fracture early in 2023 and shoulder inflammation ended his season in early August. The Padres badly need him to take the ball every fifth day and be a stabilizer.

3. Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees

The Yankees have no shortage of candidates for this list — Scott Effross, Jonathan Loáisiga, Anthony Rizzo, and Jose Trevino all spent significant time on the injured list and were non-factors much of last season — but we’ll go with Cortes, who made only one start after May because of two bouts of rotator cuff inflammation. With Carlos Rodón being a question mark in terms of both health and performance, the Yankees really need Cortes to be a steady source of innings, even if he doesn’t fully regain his 2022 All-Star form.

4. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

This will sound much harsher than I mean it: Buxton is a staple on this list. His body will not allow him to stay on the field and show us his incredible talent. Last year it was a knee injury that sidelined him the final two months and required offseason surgery. Buxton is planning to play center field this coming season and the Twins don’t have a great backup plan at the moment (Willi Castro? Max Kepler?). When healthy, Buxton can be so impactful, and Minnesota needs him healthy after a low-key offseason.

5. Rhys Hoskins, Milwaukee Brewers

For the first time in a long time, the Brewers will rely on their offense to win games more than their pitching staff. Corbin Burnes was traded away, Brandon Woodruff was non-tendered, and the back of the rotation is looking a little questionable. Hoskins missed the entire 2023 season after tearing his ACL late in spring training with the Phillies and he had to settle for a “prove yourself” contract as a free agent. With good health, it’s possible Hoskins will be Milwaukee’s most impactful first baseman since Prince Fielder.

6. Edwin Díaz, New York Mets

The Mets are in an unusual place where they’re kinda sorta maybe good enough to contend in 2024, but not definitely. If a few things go their way, sure, they could be in the mix for a postseason spot. Their playoff odds are better with a healthy Díaz, something the Mets did not have last year following his World Baseball Classic knee injury. Díaz is a game-changer in the ninth inning. Starling Marte deserves a mention here too. He barely played in the second half due to migraines and a groin issue.

7. John Means, Baltimore Orioles

Means sat through some of the ugly rebuilding years in Baltimore and looked so good in return from Tommy John surgery last September. Alas, his elbow began to act back up late in the season and he missed the Orioles’ first postseason games in almost a decade. What a shame. The two-time Opening Day starter no longer has to be The Man atop the rotation thanks to the trade for Corbin Burnes, though a healthy Means would solidify the back of the rotation and give the Orioles their best chance to repeat as AL East champs.

8. Walker Buehler and Gavin Lux, Los Angeles Dodgers

I’m going to cheat and list two Dodgers players here. They have a few others coming back from major injuries too, including Blake Treinen and J.P. Feyereisen. Buehler (elbow) and Lux (knee) both missed the entire 2023 season after surgeries and are expected to be important pieces in 2024 (the Dodgers will ease Buehler back into action though). The case can be made these two should rank higher because they’re so good when healthy, but the Dodgers are good enough to contend without them (they did last year), so I made the executive decision to bump them down a new pegs.

9. Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays

As always, the Rays have a small army of pitchers making their way back from Tommy John surgery. Baz will be back early in the season, if not on Opening Day, whereas Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen are targeting a second half return, and Shane McClanahan could miss the entire season. Still only 24, Baz was arguably the top pitching prospect in the game before blowing out his elbow in 2022. He has the talent to replace McClanahan as the staff ace, and could swing the balance of power in the AL East.

10. Nick Lodolo, Cincinnati Reds

A stress reaction in his left tibia limited Lodolo to seven mostly ineffective starts last season, and he did not pitch after early May. In 2022, Lodolo threw 103 1/3 innings with a 3.66 ERA, and earned some Rookie of the Year votes. Getting that guy back would go a long way to improving Cincinnati’s postseason chances. The team has a lot of young talent and they spent in free agency (Jeimer Candelario, Nick Martinez, Frankie Montas, etc.). A healthy Lodolo would be another nice boost.


Other notable players returning from major injuries: SS Oneil Cruz, Pirates; LHP Tyler Matzek, Braves; RHP Casey Mize, Tigers; RHP Max Meyer, Marlins; RHP Chris Paddack, Twins; 1B Vinnie Pasquantino, Royals; LHP Trevor Rogers, Marlins

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