12 key injury comebacks to watch this season

ByStephania Bell and David Schoenfield ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The best part about this baseball season is everything. The worst part: injuries. Turning to ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell for her expertise on injuries and recoveries, and to David Schoenfield of ESPN.com to give us his evaluation of the performance impact these players can have on their teams, let's look at 12 key injury comebacks to monitor and what to expect for each of these players in 2019. We start with three members of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Last year Kershaw went only a month into the season before hitting the disabled list with tendinitis in his left biceps; this year his throwing shoulder didn't even allow him to start the season on time. When something didn't feel right after a couple of throwing outings this spring, the Dodgers shut Kershaw down briefly to allow the inflammation to settle in the hope he could successfully return for the bulk of the year. But, his recent injury history is a cause for concern.

Despite spending nearly a month on the DL for his shoulder last May, Kershaw lasted just five innings in his return before exiting with back tightness. He subsequently returned to the DL for another three weeks, marking his second consecutive season missing time due to his back (he missed five weeks in 2017 with a disk injury). While it could be argued that his most recent episode of back pain was not as severe as the original, disk problems are notoriously chronic in nature and have the potential to resurface at any time.

As for the shoulder issue, it is expected that anyone who throws a baseball for a living will incur progressive wear and tear in the joint, even more so for someone who has exceeded 200 innings pitched per year for half of his major league career. When Kershaw went on the DL in 2017 there were reports of no structural damage on imaging; in baseball pitchers, that can often be interpreted as nothing beyond the normal throwing-related changes that occur over time. But even those changes can contribute to the age-related performance decline pitchers experience such as a dip in velocity or difficulty locating pitches. Kershaw's recent velocity drop on his four-seam fastball has been noticeable, yet he still managed to be effective late last season, suggesting his adaptability to his aging arm may be more important than what is happening in his arm itself.

Perhaps this is partly why Kershaw and the Dodgers did not seek an MRI this spring when problems surfaced and he opted to focus simply on how his arm responded to each progression in rehab. So far that approach has him trending in the right direction with a rehab start in Oklahoma City (Triple-A) scheduled for later this week. While his progress is encouraging, given the chronicity of his injuries and the accumulation of career mileage on his arm, there will still be the specter of injury risk even after Kershaw returns to action.

I want Kershaw to stay young forever. I want him to rediscover his 2014 magic, when he was so dominant -- 21-3, 1.77 ERA -- that he won not only the National League Cy Young Award but an MVP award even though he made only 27 starts. I want another season like 2015, when he made 33 starts and pitched 232 innings and struck out 301 batters. He may never have been better than he was in 2016 when he made 21 starts, but had a 1.69 ERA and the remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 172 to 11.

Last year, Kershaw battled biceps tendinitis and then went on the injured list with a back problem. He made 26 starts and was still very effective with a 2.73 ERA, but he wasn't throwing quite as hard, he gave up some home runs and his 8.6 K/9 was his lowest since his rookie season. Now he has missed the start of 2019 with shoulder inflammation and will make his debut in a rehab start Thursday night for Oklahoma City. What to expect? Vintage Kershaw is likely a thing of the past as he's now 31 with more than 2,000 innings in the majors and a growing list of injuries he has had to deal with. He has had 10 consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA. It will be a test to run that to 11.

When you're forced to the sideline because of an injury, you may as well maximize your time and address everything that's ailing you. Such was the philosophy of Seager, who faced an extended rehab following Tommy John surgery on his right (throwing) elbow last May. His elbow had been problematic since the latter part of 2017 and despite his best efforts to address it through rehab, it became clear to Seager he could not continue.

Meanwhile, Seager had a labral tear and impingement in his opposite hip which nagged at him intermittently and kept him from being able to get into certain positions when fielding. Although he believes he could have played last season with it, the forced time off from his elbow surgery created a window to simultaneously address the issue with his hip. It appears to have paid off as Seager claims he is moving with increased ease, especially when squatting deep to field a ball toward his front left side. Before the surgery, Seager said he would need to pop up from his hip and bend at his back to make a similar play. He now notices decreased stress in his back (it's worth noting his back did cause him to miss the 2017 National League Championship Series) along with more fluidity in his hip motion.

Seager enters the season as healthy as he has been in two years, although the Dodgers may opt to give him some intermittent rest days so as not to overload him right out of the gate.

The interesting issue with Seager isn't so much if he'll return to his 2016-17 level -- he should -- but whether he can improve. As a rookie, he hit 26 home runs in 687 plate appearances. In 2017, he hit 22 in 613 PAs, but was slowed by the elbow issues and hit just four home runs the final two months. There is 30-homer potential here (given their hot start, the Dodgers already seem like a reasonable bet to break the NL record for home runs in a season).

For Seager to get there, he may have to pull the ball more in the air. In his career, he has hit 30 of his 55 home runs to center field or the opposite field and in 2017, he pulled just five of his 22 home runs. He has the strength to hit it out the other way, which is nice, and you don't want to mess with a swing and approach that obviously works, so maybe Seager does settle in as 25-to-30-homer guy with a high average and lots of doubles. Which is absolutely fine given that he averaged 5.8 WAR in 2016-17.

Urias finds himself in the starting rotation for the Dodgers to begin the season with Kershaw and Rich Hill sidelined. Given the limited volume of work he has seen since undergoing an anterior capsular repair in his left (throwing) shoulder, this is an interesting development.

A capsular repair in the shoulder is not insignificant; the capsule is fibrous tissue that surrounds the joint and its integrity is critical for shoulder stability. Instability can result in pain and inability to move the shoulder into the extreme positions necessary to throw a baseball, hence the need for surgery. Repairing the capsule in a thrower is not easy; it requires a delicate balance of tightening it to restore stability while not overconstraining the tissue. The thrower still has to be able to achieve the necessary motion to wind up the arm in advance of delivery. The rehab is lengthy and challenging but Urias demonstrated in a limited outing return late in 2018 that he could not only throw but still deliver at his pre-injury velocity.

Urias' return last year answered the question about whether the shoulder was fully healed, so his recovery is no longer a concern. But as a young pitcher who has seen limited major league action, there is still the overarching concern about the magnitude of the jump from one season to the next, particularly following a year spent mostly rehabilitating. Urias has been off to a strong start this spring, albeit with limited innings exposure and his first regular-season start was no different as his command and velocity appear on point. The key for him will be efficiency as the Dodgers try to manage his utilization across the season.

Urías was supposed to start the season in the Dodgers' bullpen, but the injuries to Kershaw and Rich Hill put him in the rotation and he dazzled in his debut on Monday with five scoreless innings, seven K's and no walks. He hit 97 mph with his four-seamer and mixed in a curveball, slider and changeup, looking much like the top prospect who reached the majors at 19 back in 2015. If he keeps pitching like this, it will be difficult for the Dodgers to take him out of the rotation, but the Dodgers will want to keep him on an innings limit and the feeling is he'll pitch 100 to 125 innings if he stays healthy, so he may go back and forth between the rotation and bullpen.

Ohtani will not pitch this season; this much we know. After undergoing reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last October, Ohtani will not be ready to pitch prior to the 2020 season.

The good news is he will be able to hit this season and will serve in the DH role when he returns, which is expected to be sometime in May. Actually, Ohtani never stopped hitting, considering he remained available to the Angels through the end of the 2018 season despite injuring his elbow in June. As a left-handed hitter, his right medial (inner) elbow was not subject to excessive stress, hence the team's decision to allow him to continue swinging the bat even as he attempted to conservatively rehab his right elbow.

Now that he has undergone Tommy John surgery, the medial side of the elbow is reinforced with the graft and Ohtani is not incurring any significant injury risk by serving as DH. That said, he is just now ramping up his volume of batting work and when his performance is where the club wants it to be, he will return. As far as simultaneously resuming a throwing program, Ohtani has already initiated this aspect of his elbow recovery and will proceed under the supervision of the medical staff. Should he develop soreness along the way -- as is often the case with pitchers recovering from UCL reconstruction -- it could result in an adjustment in his plate appearances, but it should not severely limit his availability.

Ohtani surprised the experts with his production at the plate, hitting .285/.361/.564. He displayed enormous raw power to center and left-center fields, with 14 of his 22 home runs going away from his pull side, unusual for a power hitter. Among players with 300 plate appearances, he ranked ninth in at-bats per home run, eighth in isolated power and ninth in OPS, where he squeezed in between Alex Bregman and Justin Turner. These were not the numbers of a pitcher moonlighting as a hitter on the side as something of a lark.

Once he returns, it will be interesting to see how pitchers attack him. Ohtani crushed fastballs -- 1.137 OPS -- and does have some swing-and-miss in his game. He showed decent plate discipline, however, ranking 131st of 278 hitters with 300 PAs in chase rate. Pitchers will try to get him to chase breaking balls, but Ohtani won't necessarily bite. Because of that, I don't think his rookie performance was a fluke. His numbers may go down overall if he faces more left-handers (he struggled against them with a .654 OPS in 110 PAs) and when he gets back on the mound in 2020, the fatigue of doing both may come into play. But in 2019, look for more big offensive numbers.

Once Bryant went on the disabled list last June with an injury to his left shoulder, it essentially spelled the end of his season. An attempted return to action in July lasted only 10 days after which Bryant remained sidelined until September. Even in September he could not swing a bat freely and he ended his season with a career-low 13 home runs.

An offseason of rest and rehab combined with perhaps a slight chip on his shoulder may have been the perfect recipe for Bryant's recovery. He wasted no time showing off his restored power stroke, delivering a home run in his first at-bat in spring training followed by a two-run homer in his first game of the regular season. No longer relying on a two-handed swing to protect his shoulder from going into a painful range, Bryant is once again showing the big one-handed follow-through to his swing that brings his left shoulder into extension, a necessary component of both delivering on distance and making the full field available for a batted ball.

Through May 19 last year, Bryant was hitting .311/.428/.595 with 24 extra-base hits and 28 runs in 38 games. In other words, he was playing like an MVP candidate. Somewhere in there, he developed soreness in his left shoulder, although it was another month before he landed on the injured list. He came back but then missed all of August and lacked pop when he did return. If the shoulder is healthy, Bryant should be back in the MVP hunt and I'd expect something closer to the 39 home runs he hit in his MVP season of 2016 than the 29 he hit in 2017.

When you're 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, the expectation is that you will deliver power when you swing the bat. Of course swinging the bat requires being in the lineup, a challenge for Cabrera in 2018 when he was limited to just 38 games because of injury. Delivering power also requires strength and given that Cabrera was out much of last season due to a ruptured biceps tendon followed by surgical repair, there were questions about the 35-year-old's strength coming into this spring.

Concerns about power were alleviated in March when Cabrera launched his first home run of the spring. Now healed from surgery, his biceps should not be at any significant risk of reinjury. The bigger question may be how his lower half will hold up across the season. In 2017, Cabrera's struggles at the plate -- an increased strikeout rate along with a career-low batting average -- were linked to two herniated disks in his back. He worked hard in the subsequent offseason to build his core strength and avoid surgery and appeared to be surging back to form until a hamstring injury (which can be associated with lower back problems) sent him to the disabled list for three weeks in May. Cabrera was able to return but just two weeks later suffered the biceps injury.

Manager Ron Gardenhire has indicated he will monitor Cabrera's performance and will continue to dialogue with him throughout the season when deciding how to utilize him. Cabrera would like to remain at first base as much as possible but seems to recognize the DH role -- at least on an intermittent basis -- may help to actually keep him on the field.

As one of the great hitters in the game's history, you never want to completely write off the chance of one more big season from Cabrera. After all, he won a batting title in 2015 and hit .316 with 38 home runs in 2016 before the back issue in 2017 and then the torn biceps in 2018. He's about to turn 36, however, and he has reached 30 home runs just once in the past five seasons. He hit .299 last year in 38 games, but with just three home runs. His problem wasn't exit velocity like it was in 2017, but rather launch angle; he wasn't getting the ball in the air. If I had to guess, that's the new Cabrera: He can still hit close to .300, but he won't be a big power threat.

At last, after missing more than half of the major league season last year due to injury and deconditioning, Sano was ready to return fully healthy this spring. Well, almost.

Shortly before spring training got underway, Sano suffered a laceration (a deep cut) on his heel that proved to be resistant to healing, preventing him from participating in baseball activities for the entire preseason. The good news is that the cut has now healed to the point that his stitches have been removed and he can now increase his activity. Missing all of camp, however, means it will be a while before Sano is up to major league game speed and his return could still be a month away.

Perhaps more important than this recent setback is that Sano's lower leg should be fully healed from a prolonged stress injury after he underwent surgery to insert a titanium rod in his shin bone in 2017. Given that his conditioning was an issue in the months that followed, the Twins may want to see evidence that he is truly in game shape before having him rejoin the roster this spring.

Man, that 2015 rookie season feels like another era. It's also easy to forget that Sano was an All-Star in 2017 and that he doesn't turn 26 until May. Still, it's hard not to focus on the lack of improvement from his rookie season and the dismal .199 batting average in 2018. As a rookie, his strikeout rate was 35.5 percent and it's almost impossible to be a productive major leaguer doing that, but he was, thanks to his power, high walk rate and .396 BABIP. The latter figure was unsustainable and Sano's average plummeted last season while his strikeout rate rose to 38.5 percent and his walk rate decreased.

Does he have the discipline -- both on and off the field -- to improve? Can he stay healthy after landing on the injured list four seasons in a row? With Nelson Cruz at DH, C.J. Cron at first and Marwin Gonzalez at third, it's not even clear Sano has a clear route to playing time when he returns. Just speculation, but this may have to be one of those change-of-scenery situations.

When your young ace, your flamethrower, your projected Opening Day starter for the second year in a row, your talent you want to lock down so you sign him to a four-year, $40 million contract extension, feels "something" in his shoulder on a single pitch -- a slider during warm-ups before his first spring training appearance of the season -- you're undoubtedly crossing your fingers that it's not as bad as you fear and you're searching for a silver lining. In this case, you are the Yankees, and you are relieved to learn that Severino is not in as dire straits as you may have initially feared.

It turns out Severino's discomfort was attributed to some inflammation in his rotator cuff, and while it's not ideal, it's not overly worrisome. The silver lining in all of this is that the Yankees had -- as teams often do when considering a multi-year contract for a thrower -- recent imaging of Severino's shoulder. So, when the spring issue cropped up a comparison could be made between that image and the one taken after Severino experienced discomfort and there were no significant differences. While that doesn't eliminate the need for treatment to resolve the flare-up, it does provide reassurance to both the player and the club that there is no major damage to the stabilizing structures (labrum, capsule, biceps, or even the cuff) of the throwing shoulder. That's welcome news, especially given how young Severino is and how hard he throws.

The key then is ensuring that this little hiccup does not turn into something bigger; Severino must be fully recovered before he attempts to join the rotation. To that end the Yankees have been conservative, progressing him gradually through a flat ground throwing progression. He will continue to ramp up his workload and intensity as his shoulder permits and he is not expected to see major league action before May. Shoulder issues in pitchers can be complex and there are no guarantees that this won't be a problem down the line but, for the time being, the Yankees and Severino appear to have avoided a major blow.

Severino was one of just nine pitchers to reach 190 innings the past two seasons, but he won't get there this year as his current timetable includes a return in early May. Of all the current Yankees' injuries, a long-term issue with Severino would likely be the most damaging to their division title hopes. He was the team's best starter the past two seasons (5.3 WAR in 2017, 4.8 in 2018), but you also aren't going to find a pitcher of Severino's caliber available on the trade market (Madison Bumgarner may be the one top-of-the-rotation starter who could be dealt and Dallas Keuchel is still unsigned).

Oh, where to begin the injury conversation when it comes to Tulowitzki? There is no denying his talent at the position, but there is also no denying the litany of mostly soft-tissue injuries that have plagued him dating back to when he suffered a quadriceps injury while playing for Single-A Modesto in 2005. His subsequent soft-tissue injuries have involved his quad, hamstring, core and calf muscles, a sprained ankle and a torn labrum in his hip. He also broke his wrist in 2010, fractured a rib in 2013 and cracked his left scapula (shoulder blade) in 2015. Most recently, Tulowitzki underwent a procedure to address pain in both heels after missing all of the 2018 season due to the problem.

And yet, the Yankees opted to take a chance on him in 2019. When asked about the decision, general manager Brian Cashman said they felt comfortable signing him after seeing him move around the field without limitation during a private workout. The hope is that he will be healthy enough to provide a bridge at the position until Didi Gregorius returns (Didi is out until potentially the All-Star break following Tommy John surgery).

There is some thought that Tulowitzki's previous heel pain may have contributed to problematic biomechanical compensations, which are no longer an issue, but that remains to be seen. So far this spring Tulowitzki has delivered some power at the plate and as long as he can stay healthy, he presents a valuable option for the Yankees, who just lost another infielder, Miguel Andujar, at least temporarily to injury. The risk with Tulowitzki is real but the team is hoping the reward over the first few months of the season outweighs it.

Call me skeptical, no matter how good Tulo looked in spring training. He's now 34 with his injury list in 2016 and 2017 including a hamstring strain, a severe ankle sprain and heel surgery last year that was supposed to keep him out eight weeks but instead cost him the entire season. The last season Tulo was better than a league-average hitter at the plate was 2014 in 91 games with the Rockies. I wouldn't expect him, five years later, to suddenly produce at the plate. Tulo was probably going to play only a few times, but with Miguel Andújar on the injured list with a labrum tear in his shoulder, Tulo will play a lot of shortstop with DJ LeMahieu at third base, at least until Didi Gregorius returns around midseason.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2015, Darvish showed strong signs of rebounding in the second half of 2016 with multiple quality starts, even at a controlled volume of work. In 2017, he started 31 games and seemed to be in a good place for a veteran post-elbow ligament reconstruction. In 2018, however, things took a turn in the wrong direction: Darvish, newly with the Cubs, again had problems with his throwing elbow resulting in just eight major league starts and a season-ending arthroscopic debridement (cleanup procedure) in September. The hope was that he would be fully healthy by spring and return to the 2017 version of himself.

Alas, things have not gone quite as planned since the start of the 2019 regular season, which is somewhat odd given the way his spring training began. He was throwing in the low-to-mid-90s in bullpen sessions, then increased his velocity and sharpened his command in his second and third spring games. A blister derailed his next outing, but he was ready to start the season. Or, was he?

Darvish's first regular-season outing was a disaster and he was forced out of the game before the third inning was complete. He claimed the blister was not an issue -- maybe it was a return to his former home park in Arlington? Whatever the cause, it is too soon to project what the season has in store for him, but from an injury perspective, there is legitimate reason to wonder if he can sustain the form he displayed in 2017. The restoration of velocity and command following Tommy John surgery are two key metrics of a successful return, but the ability to sustain those types of metrics across multiple outings is more elusive, particularly for older pitchers. Adding to the challenge for Darvish are the post-surgery issues with his throwing elbow and a second procedure roughly three years later. He showed this spring he could flash his skills; he has yet to show that he can do it consistently across a season.

Darvish's first season with the Cubs was a disaster. The Marlins tagged him for five runs in his first start, he missed time with the flu, biceps tendinitis and then a stress reaction and the resulting season-ending surgery. He made eight starts and won just one game. His first start of 2019 didn't offer immediate hope as he walked seven batters in 2 innings in a nightmare performance. Remember, Darvish is 32 and has been throwing 200 innings a year since he was a 20-year-old phenom in Japan. Like Kershaw, he has a lot of wear and tear on his arm at this point. Unlike Kershaw, he has never had the plus-plus command to fall back on if the quality of his stuff or velocity declines. Darvish was one of the most difficult pitchers to project this season. Let's put it this way: I avoided him in any fantasy leagues.

At the start of spring training, the Red Sox were optimistic, the club and Pedroia both said he was healthy, and they agreed he would take it slow in spring training with the hope of being ready for Opening Day. He had just 15 plate appearance in spring training, however, as a problematic left knee landed him on the injured list. What do we have? A 35-year-old infielder who has always relied on his athleticism and grit and baseball smarts. Now he has to deal with all the regular aging stuff that happens at 35 aside from the bad knee. Like with Tulo, it's just asking too much at his age to expect him to return to an elite level of performance. With Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez, the Red Sox have options at second base. They will be as loyal as possible to Pedroia, but he'll have to earn his way back into the lineup.

With electric stuff and an impressive 46-inning debut with the Cardinals in 2016 (1.57 ERA), Reyes entered 2017 as arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball. Instead, he had Tommy John surgery, made it back last May and after throwing four scoreless innings in his return suffered a season-ending torn lat. At this point, it's hard to know what to expect from a pitcher who has thrown just 27 innings in two years.

The Cardinals will use him in high-leverage relief innings to start the season and since they will carefully monitor his workload, he may remain in the bullpen all season. That's not necessarily a bad thing for the Cardinals, who struggled with bullpen depth last season, but will now have Reyes and Andrew Miller along with Jordan Hicks in the late innings. Reyes has hit 99 mph in his early outings so far, so the fastball velocity is still there, at least in these short relief stints. Is his long-term future still as a starter? We may not know the answer to that question until 2020.