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Covering Recoveries: Three Key Injury Comebacks In The American League

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Have you forgotten about these guys? Three AL players coming back from injury who can make — or break — their teams’ fortunes.

With 162 games in the MLB season, baseball players endure an everyday grind that can inflict damage upon even the most able-bodied young men. As is the case with all professional sports, injuries are bound to occur. But when a standard trip to the 15-day disabled list (DL) amounts to missing close to 10% of the season, at a minimum, nothing can derail a team’s hopes and dreams like injuries. 

Similarly, nothing provides fans with more optimism than the impending return of a star player from an offseason of recovery. With that in mind, there were three American League stars — one from each division — who spent 2016 banged up and whose teams need them to have a healthy 2017 if they want a chance to win. 

AL East – Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay RaysImage title

Brad Penner - USA TODAY Sports

Cobb has yet to pitch a complete season in the Big Leagues due to an array of injuries that have plagued him throughout his young career. The injuries have ranged from relatively common (Tommy John surgery in 2015) to frightening (concussion from a batted ball in 2013). But when the righty has taken the hill, he has shown an All-Star ceiling with his patented split-change. In 309.2 IP between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Cobb struck out 283 batters while allowing just 262 hits and 92 BB, recording an ERA of 2.82 (134 ERA+). His ERA over that span was third among AL pitchers with over 300 IP, behind two guys you may have heard of: Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez. 

Last season, Tampa Bay’s rotation ranked sixth in the league in ERA at 4.26, but they also featured the league’s second-worst offense at 4.15 runs per game. Obviously, Cobb cannot help them with his bat. However, the projected rotation behind Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb consists of two second-year players (Blake Snell and Jose De Leon) and a pitcher whose appearances are evenly split between the rotation and bullpen (Matt Andriese).  

A healthy Alex Cobb will provide a sense of security when the younger and less experienced starters go through their growing pains, but a full return to form for the 29-year-old Rays starter would give Tampa a top-flight rotation in the American League which, when paired with their already elite defense, could have them contending for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs come September.

AL Central – Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians

Image title

David Richard - USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, Brantley posted a wRC+ of 151 and finished third in the AL MVP voting. In 2015, he continued his strong hitting (133 wRC+), pushed his walk rate over 10%, and played fewer than 140 games for the first time in three years. But over the past year and a half, Brantley’s shoulder — not his bat — made headlines. 

Offseason shoulder surgery in 2015 and the subsequent rehab delayed his 2016 debut, in which he would only play 11 games before undergoing a second shoulder surgery and missing the rest of the season. The health of the once-durable Michael Brantley is now something of a question mark.

Thanks to the emergence of Jose Ramirez as a second Michael Brantley, the Indians absorbed their starting left fielder’s absence and reached the World Series. Brantley’s return would not only add stability to the position (the Indians used eight different left fielders in 2016) and to an outfield that presently consists of platoons in right and center, but his comeback would also move Ramirez back to third base, Cleveland’s second-weakest offensive position by OPS (behind catcher) last season. The Indians proved that they do not need Brantley to make it big in October, but the depth he adds to a lineup that now includes Edwin Encarnacion certainly bolsters their chances for another AL pennant.

AL West – Lance McCullers, Houston AstrosImage title

Troy Taormina - USA TODAY Sports

In his first two major league seasons, all the while pitching under the age of 23, McCullers pitched to the tune of a 3.22 ERA, ringing up 235 batters in 206.2 innings. In 2016, only three pitchers (the late José Fernández, Yu Darvish, and interestingly David Phelps) had more strikeouts per nine innings than McCullers (11.78) in more than 80 innings pitched. The problem, of course, is that McCullers was limited to just 81 innings over 14 starts due to shoulder discomfort in the spring and a sprained pitching elbow in August. 

Houston’s 2016 rotation was middle-of-the-road to slightly below average, with the eighth best ERA (4.37) and 10th best WHIP (1.38) in the American League. However, only one pitcher recorded an ERA below 4.00 with double-digit starts: Lance McCullers. FIP paints a prettier picture, with Dallas Keuchel (3.85) and Collin McHugh (3.95) joining McCullers (3.00) below that baseline. 

If a healthy Alex Cobb offers stability to the Rays rotation, then McCullers offers upside in spades. Projected as the best per-inning arm in Houston’s rotation, McCullers has a chance to emerge as an elite starter for a revamped Astros team that has pegged the present as the time to win.

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

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

SQuiz
Who led the American League in ERA in 2013?
Created 3/12/17
  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Anibal Sanchez
  3. Alex Cobb
  4. Chris Sale

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