MLB's Best Comeback Stories of 2017 Spring Training

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2017

MLB's Best Comeback Stories of 2017 Spring Training

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    Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber.
    Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Everyone loves a good comeback story. Whether it's Rocky Balboa or Robert Downey Jr., we like to watch a guy pick himself up off the mat and start swinging againliterally, metaphorically, whatever. 

    Fortunately, the 2017 MLB season is full of intriguing comeback yarns.

    Some players on this list are working their way back from injuries, while others are hoping to atone for a troubling dip in production. A few didn't play at all in 2016; one hasn't played since 2014.

    They're all worth keeping an eye on in spring training and beyond. Not every comeback will be successful, but they'll all be compelling by definition.

Honorable Mentions

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    Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Zack Greinke.
    Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Zack Greinke.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Sonny Gray, RHP

    A top-three American League Cy Young Award finisher in 2015, Sonny Gray posted a 5.69 ERA last season and made two trips to the disabled list. He's slated to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, a good indicator that he's on the mend.

    The Oakland A's don't figure to be strong postseason contenders, meaning Gray's profile will be diminished unless he's dealt at the trade deadline. 

          

    Zack Greinke, RHP

    After leading MLB with a 1.66 ERA in 2015, Zack Greinke signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks and proceeded to stink up the desert. The 33-year-old right-hander posted a 4.37 ERA in his first season with Arizona and a 6.02 ERA in the second half while battling an oblique injury.

    As with Gray, he loses intrigue points because the D-Backs are a fringe contender at best. Considering the Snakes are paying him more than $1 million per start, though, they're undoubtedly praying for a rebirth.

           

    Greg Holland, RHP

    A two-time All-Star and one of the best closers in baseball in 2013 and 2014 with the Kansas City Royals, Greg Holland missed the entire 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Now, he's headed for the Mile High City after inking a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Colorado Rockies.

    Coors Field isn't where pitchers go to rebuild their value. To steal a slogan from New York, though, if the 31-year-old Holland can make it there, he can (probably) make it anywhere. 

     

    Mike Moustakas, 3B

    Mike Moustakas was limited to 27 games by a knee injury in 2016. He'd already hit seven home runs at that point, meaning he was on track to vault past the career-high 22 he hit in 2015.

    Now, the Kansas City Royals third baseman is entering a contract year with a chance to prove he's back and to cash in next winter. 

Brian Wilson, RHP

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The last time Brian Wilson stepped onto a big league mound, he had a bushy black beard and was trying to overpower hitters.

    Now, the former San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers reliever is clean-shaven and seeking to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer, per Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown

    The Dodgers cut Wilson loose after the 2014 season with $9.5 million left on his contract. He's had two Tommy John surgeries. 

    The odds are long, in other words. As of this writing, Wilson hadn't received so much as a non-roster invite to spring training.

    The eccentric three-time All-Star has faith in his knuckleball, however, which he taught himself at age 12, according to Brown.

    "It was kinda good to lay back and figure out what I wanted," Wilson told Brown. "It feels like a new leaf."

    If it leads to more moments like this, we're all for it.

Josh Hamilton, DH/OF

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    It's been three seasons since Josh Hamilton looked like a passable big league contributor. He didn't play at all last year after undergoing his third knee surgery in the span of nine months.
     
    If you're taking bets, bet on "stick a fork in him."

    Still, he'll be in camp with the Texas Rangers as a non-roster invitee and could make the team as a bench bat and designated hitter behind Mike Napoli.

    Hamilton was a franchise stud for Texas between 2008 and 2012, making five straight All-Star teams and winning AL MVP honors in 2010. He's also wrestled his share of off-field demons.

    Now 35 years old, he's at a crossroads: produce or give up the dream.

    "He's been working out hard and really looks good," manager Jeff Banister said of Hamilton, per SportsDay's Gerry Fraley. "When we get to games, we'll know better where he's at."

Eric Thames, 1B

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    Brad White/Getty Images

    In 2012, Eric Thames was a 25-year-old former seventh-round pick with a career .250/.296/.431 slash line in 181 big league games spread over two seasons. 

    Then, he went to Korea and proceeded to do a credible Barry Bonds impression.

    In four campaigns with the Korea Baseball Organization, Thames hit .347 with a 1.162 OPS and 126 home runs in 397 games.

    Now, he's back in the big leagues after landing a three-year, $16 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers on the strength of his KBO stats.

    Will they translate? There's no guarantee, but there is precedent.

    "Cecil Fielder went to Japan and learned an approach that worked for him," an unnamed AL scout told Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler in December. "What you're betting on with Thames is he's learned how to be a hitter."

Felix Hernandez, RHP

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Felix Hernandez posted his worst ERA (3.82) in nine seasons while battling injuries and velocity decline in 2016. His strikeouts have been diminishing and his walks increasing for the past two seasons. Those are all red flags.

    On the other hand, Hernandez is one of the best pitchers of his generation, a borderline Hall of Famer if his career ended today. Doubters can doubt, but they can't take that away.

    "I've got to prove people wrong," the 2010 Cy Young Award winner said at the Mariners' spring facility, per Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. "I feel fine. I'm healthy, and that's the main thing."

    Seattle made a flurry of offseason moves and is positioned to compete in the AL West. The M's won't go far, however, unless King Felix reclaims his throne.

Kyle Schwarber, OF/C

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    When Kyle Schwarber busted his knee last April, the best-case-scenario seemed like a spring 2017 comeback.

    Instead, he improbably returned for the World Series and had some huge moments at the plate for the Chicago Cubs, adding another sprinkling of magic to their curse-busting run.

    Now, the 23-year-old is looking to show what he can do in his first full big league season.

    Schwarber teased great things with 16 home runs in 69 games in 2015. He's been cleared to catch on a limited basis, per ESPN.co.uk's Jesse Rogers, so between that and the outfield, he should get plenty of at-bats.

    Speaking of the outfield, the Cubbies are also hoping for a bounce-back from right fielder Jason Heyward, who laid an offensive egg after inking an eight-year, $184 million deal last winter.

    With his youth and untapped power potential, though, Schwarber is the North Side's highest-upside wild card.

Dallas Keuchel, LHP

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    In 2015, Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award. In 2016, he...didn't.

    The Houston Astros southpaw's ERA rose from 2.48 to 4.55, and his innings dropped from a league-leading 232 to 168. Most disturbingly, he missed the final five weeks of the season with inflammation in his throwing shoulder.

    He's begun throwing off a mound, and the results have been "very positive," as manager A.J. Hinch said, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle.

    Keuchel has to prove it in game action, however. The Astros boosted their offense, adding catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Josh Reddick and outfielder/designated hitter Carlos Beltran. 

    They haven't acquired an impact starter, despite a rotation that posted a 4.37 ERA. That means Keuchel could determine whether or not the 'Stros ascend to the top of the Junior Circuit power rankings.

Andrew McCutchen, RF

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Andrew McCutchen was at the center of trade rumors all offseason. Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington "remains willing to deal," per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

    As spring commences, McCutchen is a Pirate. He's also moving from center field to right to cover for his defensive shortcomings, per MLB.com's Adam Berry.

    McCutchen scuffled at the plate in 2016, posting career lows in average (.256) and OPS (.766). After making five straight All-Star teams and winning NL MVP honors in 2013, he looked troublingly mortal.

    Entering his age-30 season, McCutchen has only one more guaranteed year on his current contract, with a team option for 2018. 

    This would be an opportune moment to rediscover his superstar mojo.

Matt Harvey, RHP

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    This entry could be about the entire New York Mets starting rotation.

    Ace Noah Syndergaard took the next step, but the rest of the Mets arms faltered, with Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom all succumbing to season-ending injuries.

    Zack Wheeler, meanwhile, hasn't pitched since 2014 while working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

    We'll focus on Harvey, however, since he's coming off a procedure for thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare condition with mixed recovery results, as Nick Lampe of SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score detailed.

    The Dark Knight also missed all of 2014 because of Tommy John surgery. He's managed some impressive results in between, but he needs a full, productive year before he can shed the inevitable "injury-prone" label.

    "We aren't sure how many guys have bounced back from the injury he had to be what they were the year before," Mets manager Terry Collins said, per Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News. "But I know one thing about Matt Harvey, that if anybody can do that, Matt Harvey will be one of those guys that can regain that dominance he once had."

Giancarlo Stanton, RF

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    If you created a prototypical 21st-century power hitter in a lab, he'd look, swing and crush like Giancarlo Stanton.

    The only difference? He'd be able to stay on the field.

    The Miami Marlins masher has played just 193 games over the past two seasons while battling an array of injuries. Last season, he posted career lows in average (.240) and slugging percentage (.489).

    He's also 27 years old and assuming a leadership role with the Marlins in the wake of ace Jose Fernandez's tragic passing, as Bleacher Report's Scott Miller reported. 

    Steamer projects a .557 slugging percentage and 34 homers for Stanton in 2017, per FanGraphs. The Marlins would take it as they try to maintain contact with the Mets and Washington Nationals in the NL East.

    Stanton has the potential for even more, though, for numbers history will remember. Perhaps this is the year he realizes it.

Bryce Harper, RF

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Bryce Harper silenced the haters in 2015 with an NL MVP season. He led the league with 42 home runs and paced all of baseball with a 1.109 OPS.

    A polarizing hype magnet before he turned 20, it seemed Harper had officially, unequivocally arrived.

    He didn't disappear in 2016. A stat line that includes 24 home runs, 21 stolen bases and an .814 OPS would land on the happy side of the ledger for most players.

    Harper isn't most players. His showing for the division-winning Washington Nationals raised eyebrows and sounded alarm bells.

    Superagent Scott Boras, who represents Harper, said his client dealt with "nagging injuries," per Howard Fendrich of the Associated Press (via Cnsnews.com).

    Assuming he's healthy, it's a safe bet he'll come roaring back. Just ask his skipper.

    "Harper will rebound," Nats manager Dusty Baker said, per Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball. "He's young enough where we’re not real worried about Harp. And soon the pride factor will come into it. You don't like seeing those down years on your bubble gum cards." 

       

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.