Buying or Selling Top MLB Players Coming off Injury

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMarch 25, 2021

Buying or Selling Top MLB Players Coming off Injury

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Everybody likes a good comeback story, and there are plenty to follow in MLB this season.

    We are going to take a closer look at some of the top MLB players making their returns. Because there are a number of players who could fit this template, we have chosen the following criteria for selection. Consider these merely as a baseline:

    • Position players with fewer than 100 plate appearances in 2020
    • Starting pitchers with fewer than five starts
    • Relievers with fewer than 10.0 innings

    The list will also include players who missed all of 2020 as a result of health issues. It will exclude players—like Marcus Stroman and Lorenzo Cain—who opted out, save for one exception.

    We are also excluding starting pitchers not expected to return until the summer months. That means Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale and Luis Severino are all disqualified.

    Make sense? Let's get to it.

Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Whereas other high-profile starters are not expected to be ready until June or later, Mike Soroka is tracking to return within the first month after suffering a torn Achilles last summer. 

    Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos (h/t David O'Brien of The Athletic) said Friday Soroka could be back in mid-April. That is good news for a Braves rotation that got deeper this offseason with the additions of Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. 

    There really aren't too many past precedents in terms of pitchers returning from Achilles injuries. Zack Britton (who then went by Zach Britton) and Joe Smith returned to be effective, but both are relievers. How will Soroka respond? 

    The 23-year-old should be fine. Soroka is a command and ground ball guy. His sinker-slider combination resulted in a 52.9 percent ground ball rate in 2019. He also ranked in the 84th percentile in barrel rate.

    Soroka mixes his pitches well. The changeup is especially effective (.215 expected wOBA in 2019) because it plays perfectly off the sinker and is a bona fide out pitch.

    Atlanta should have its frontline guy back should Soroka find comfort in repeating his mechanics.

    The Verdict: Buy

Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Giancarlo Stanton is one of the more frustrating talents in baseball.

    The former National league MVP is one of the eminent sluggers in the game when healthy. He is as dangerous as any hitter in the majors and routinely ranks among the leaders in max exit velocity.

    Of course, the New York Yankees star has rarely been healthy.

    Stanton has played just 41 combined games in the past two regular seasons due to an assortment of injuries, including just 23 last year. This isn’t a new issue for the 31-year-old. Stanton had myriad injuries during his eight seasons with the Miami Marlins.

    It seems foolish to buy a guy who cannot stay on the field. But that is mighty hard considering Stanton's showing last October, with his performance this spring has left me no other option.

    Stanton clubbed six homers and drove in 13 in the playoffs. He has picked up right where he left off over the course of the last month, hitting .370 with a 1.025 OPS in his first 10 games of the spring.

    Here's to hoping the Yanks and manager Aaron Boone refrain from using Stanton in the outfield. He should be in line for a massive season if healthy.

    The Verdict: Tentative Buy

Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Houston Astros youngster Yordan Alvarez made quite the statement upon being called up to the majors in June of 2019.

    Alvarez slashed .313/.412/.655 in 87 games, hitting 27 homers and posting a 173 OPS+ en route to American League Rookie of the Year honors. 

    But Alvarez's sophomore campaign came to an early conclusion. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees in late-August, primarily to repair a slight tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee. 

    Despite that setback, however, Alvarez is back and ready to make a major impact as a run-producer in the middle of Houston's lineup.

    The 23-year-old has struggled this spring, hitting just .143 with a .407 OPS through Wednesday. Still, Alvarez's pure hit tool is tough to ignore. 

    Alvarez ranked in the 94th percentile in average exit velocity and 95th percentile in hard-hit rate in 2019. He also ranked in the 98th percentile in both barrel rate and expected slugging (xSLG). He walks at a terrific clip and stays through the middle of the field.

    The Astros will need the added production after losing George Springer this offseason. I like Alvarez to get back to eventually get back to his 2019 form and then some.

    The Verdict: Buy

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Stephen Strasburg had quite the eventful 2019, only for his positive momentum to grind to a screeching halt last summer.

    The 2019 World Series MVP signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Washington Nationals in December of 2019. He proceeded to make just two starts in 2020 before undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Like Stanton, injuries have had a big impact on Strasburg's career. He has made at least 30 starts in just three seasons, throwing more than 200 innings just twice. That’s not terribly encouraging for a pitcher the Nats are paying to be one of the best starters in baseball. 

    Physical issues have once again limited Strasburg this spring. He made two starts before being sidelined by a calf issue. However, the right-hander threw a simulated game Friday with little issues and threw four innings Wednesday against the Houston Astros. He sounded optimistic afterwards. 

    Strasburg is one of the best pitchers on the planet when healthy. His 2.97 fielding independent (FIP) pitching mark ranks fourth among active starters. Of course, the health is an ever-present question for Nats fans. 

    It was encouraging that Strasburg threw 209 innings in 2019, his most since 2014. He also said the carpal tunnel surgery has removed all prior issues in his throwing hand and—aside from the calf issue—has looked quite good this spring.

    There are warning signs. But I'll buy on Strasburg, who is absolutely vital to Washington's hopes of contending in 2021.

    The Verdict: Tentative Buy

Shohei Ohtani (Pitcher), Los Angeles Angels

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    We are not talking about Shohei Ohtani the designated hitter here. Rather, this is an evaluation of Ohtani's status as a starting pitcher.

    Ohtani did not pitch at all in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the fall of 2018. He returned to the mound in 2020, but was shut down after suffering a flexor strain.

    The Japanese star has shown signs of returning to star form at the plate this spring, hitting .600 with four homers in 10 games. Can he also be the frontline starter the Los Angeles Angels so desperately need?

    There have been flashes. Ohtani has routinely been in the upper-90s with the fastball since early-March. He has displayed some nasty stuff, like this gross splitter.

    Still, I'm not convinced Ohtani will pull a star turn on the mound.

    Angels manager Joe Maddon is somewhat notorious for having a long leash for his starters. He let Ohtani throw 48 pitches in one inning last summer in his second start back Tommy John. 

    Maddon and the Halos cannot afford to mismanage Ohtani. Yet, Rhett Bollinger of reported Los Angeles plans to be "aggressive" with Ohtani.

    I just wonder whether the club will truly be able to manage Ohtani and prevent him from potentially burning out when he is already throwing gas so early on. Pitchers and baseball personnel in general are already concerned about the impending innings jump after a shortened 2020.

    The Verdict: Sell

Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, New York Yankees

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Why not pair these two New York Yankees starters? Both will be heavily relied upon to help bolster the rotation. 

    Corey Kluber pitched all of one inning in 2020 before being shut down with a Grade 2 tear in his teres major muscle. The unfortunate setback followed a 2019 in which he made just seven starts. 

    The Bronx Bombers were convinced enough by Kluber's January bullpen session to sign him to a one-year, $11 million deal. It is an upside play. Kluber was one of the best starters in baseball from 2014 to 2018, winning a pair of AL Cy Youngs and ranking third in fWAR.

    Taillon, meanwhile, has not pitched since undergoing a second Tommy John surgery in August of 2019. He previously had a breakout season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018, going 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 191 innings. 

    Both starters have been interesting follows in camp. Kluber has attempted to reestablish his cutter, and his breaking stuff still plays. But as Eno Sarris of The Athletic noted, his velocity could be a question mark.

    Taillon, meanwhile, has looked terrific. He has 14 strikeouts in 8.1 innings this spring and has displayed the full arsenal. Taillon averaged close to 93 mph with the fastball during Monday's start against the Phillies, with a strong spin rate to boot. That heater worked to both sides of the plate, and the slider was excellent.

    It will be fascinating to see what kind of impact both guys have in New York's rotation.

    Kluber Verdict: Sell a return to Cy Young form, buy as an innings-eater

    Taillon Verdict: Buy No. 2 ceiling behind Gerrit Cole

Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox

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    Billy Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    The Boston Red Sox's starting rotation was atrocious in 2020. But it was also missing two of its best pitchers.

    Chris Sale hit the shelf after undergoing Tommy John. The more frightening news came when it was revealed left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez was diagnosed with myocarditis after a battle with COVID-19.

    Fortunately, Rodriguez is back and healthy… and he looks good. 

    The 27-year-old has had a very strong spring, striking out 15 to go with a 0.95 WHIP and a .224 batting average against in four starts. He was also named Boston's Opening Day starter.

    Rodriguez ranked in the 95th percentile in average exit velocity and 64th percentile in whiff rate in 2019 despite not having a ton of velocity. He excels mostly with his command and especially heavy use of the changeup. That changeup has been in good form. Rodriguez got seven whiffs on 11 swings in his March 11 start against the Minnesota Twins.

    It should be said Rodriguez has also given up some hard contact. The Twins peppered the ball off him a little bit in the aforementioned start even though they scored just one run.

    Still, Rodriguez has been building quite well this spring. His velocity is right where it should be. He has been extended in some starts. Plus, the changeup has been brilliant. 

    If Rodriguez can harness his command, he will be a big asset at the top of Boston's rotation.

    The Verdict: Buy

Miles Mikolas, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Cardinals are experiencing some rotation issues. Miles Mikolas' injuries play a role in said issues. 

    Mikolas missed the entirety of the 2020 season with a torn flexor tendon. He has dealt with shoulder soreness this spring and will miss the start of the season. 

    The right-hander's timeline remains somewhat unclear. He ended his throwing shutdown by playing catch last week and figures to do so again soon, though the Cards have not set a concrete timeline for their former All-Star. 

    Mikolas was a Cy Young candidate in 2018, going 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA in 32 starts and 200.2 innings. He led the majors with just 1.3 walks per nine innings, exhibiting excellent command and inducing plenty of soft contact. 

    But Mikolas took a step back in 2019. He ranked in just the 51st percentile in hard-hit rate and 19th percentile in whiff rate, posting a 4.16 ERA and 4.76 expected ERA (xERA). Now, the 32-year-old is coming off a lost season and still dealing with physical issues that could set him back in the first month-plus.

    The Cardinals are likely to be cautious with Mikolas as he builds in this next couple weeks. But the sharp regression in 2019 and delayed timetable this spring are not very encouraging.

    The Verdict: Sell

Trey Mancini, Baltimore Orioles

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles slugger Trey Mancini had quite the fight of his own in 2020 as he battled Stage 3 colon cancer. 

    The diagnosis naturally forced Mancini to miss the 2020 season as he underwent treatment. But the 29-year-old completed chemotherapy in September and is back on the field for the O's. Moreover, he has been excellent in camp.

    Mancini had hit safely in each of his last 10 games entering Wednesday's game against the Boston Red Sox. He has also homered in two of his last four, racking up a spring slash line of .342/.350/.500.

    The homers have hardly been cheap ones, either. Mancini showed tremendous opposite-field power on Tuesday and had an exit velocity of 109.1 mph with his shot off Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Edgar Santana on Friday. He had three of the 16 hardest-hit balls in that game.

    These are all terrific indicators for a guy who mashed 35 homers to go with a 135 OPS+ in 2019. Mancini will still need some time to settle in, to be sure. He has struck out 15 times in his first 40 plate appearances in camp. It will take more at-bats to feel fully acclimated. 

    Still, he is hitting the ball hard and spreading it around. Mancini could make a big push pushes for AL Comeback Player of the Year. 

    The Verdict: Buy

Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals

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    St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jordan Hicks is the most notable reliever on this list after it was announced Toronto Blue Jays closer Kirby Yates could need Tommy John. He is also our lone exception to some of the criteria stated in the intro slide.

    Hicks was one of the players who opted out of the 2020 campaign, citing preexisting health concerns. But he is on the list because he is still returning from a debilitating injury. His status for 2020 was a bit uncertain, anyway. 

    The 24-year-old had undergone Tommy John himself in June of 2019, with a full UCL reconstruction in his right elbow. This spring has marked his first glimpse of action in quite some time. It has been a wild ride. 

    Hicks had a 22-pitch at-bat against Luis Guillorme facing his first in-game hitter in nearly two years. How about that for a welcome back? 

    The next couple appearances were a mixed bag. Hicks hit a batter and walked two in 0.2 innings against the Houston Astros on March 17, but threw a scoreless inning and showed off much better command against Houston three days later. Hicks threw another scoreless inning on Wednesday.

    It's hard not to love Hicks' talent. He fires off 100 mph four-seamers and turbo sinkers and also possesses hard-biting breaking pitches. The stuff is evident.

    Command will be key. Hicks walked 5.2 per nine innings and hit eight batters in his rookie season in 2018. He seemed to have ironed out some of those issues in 2019, however, walking just 3.5 per nine.

    Hicks has brilliant strikeout stuff and induces soft contact. I think he could also benefit from a slightly lesser role if the Redbirds spread save opportunities between Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos and Andre Miller. 

    The Verdict: Buy

Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    We are wrapping things up with a potential X-factor for a young and improving AL West club.

    Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger has shown what he is capable of over the course of a full season. He slashed .285/.366/.493 with 26 homers and a 139 OPS+ in 2018, making the All-Star team and finishing 11th in AL MVP voting.

    But that's the only time Haniger has put together a "full" season. He suffered an unfortunate injury in 2019 after fouling the ball off his groin area. He then underwent multiple surgeries to repair core and back issues, missing all of 2020. 

    What is to be made of all this? Maybe nothing.

    Haniger has been terrific in spring training. He is slashing .275/.356/.600 with three homers and eight RBI. If there were any concerns as to how the 30-year-old would adjust after so much time away, they seem to have been alleviated. 

    Again, we shouldn't place too much stock into spring ball. But Haniger is a guy with demonstrable big-league success. It is inherently positive for the M's that he is flourishing once again. 

    There is also the sheer element that some of his injuries (like in 2019) are a bit fluky. The core and back surgeries are perhaps more worrisome when projecting long-term health, but he seems to be doing just fine.

    Scouts told Baseball America they expect a bounceback year from Haniger. Why not? 

    The Verdict: Tentative Buy


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant, unless otherwise noted.