Best and worst comeback attempts of all time

February 23rd, 2021

The beginning of Spring Training doesn't just mark the beginning of the baseball year for Major League Baseball's superstars and stalwarts. It's also a glimmer of hope for players who are trying to make comebacks to the game's biggest stage, however unlikely they might seem.

This year, that group includes three-time All-Star , who has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Giants after having not pitched in the Majors since 2016. In fact, one could argue this is Kazmir's second comeback attempt, after successfully pulling off the feat once before (more on that below).

In honor of Kazmir and others with the same goal, is looking back at some of the most successful, and unsuccessful, Major League comeback attempts. These were players like Kazmir -- Major Leaguers who spent a full year or more out of baseball before attempting a return to the field.

Best comebacks

Rick Ankiel

A highly regarded pitching prospect with the Cardinals, Ankiel debuted successfully in 1999 and the next season finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting after going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings. But the left-hander encountered an infamous bout of severe control problems that postseason and never recovered, pitching in just 11 more big league games.

Ankiel opened a new chapter of his career when he converted to the outfield in 2005. Injuries wiped out his '06 season and stalled his progress, but he returned to the Majors with the Cardinals in '07 and over the next two seasons batted .270/.334/.515 with 36 home runs in 167 games. The strong-armed outfielder stuck around in MLB as a part-time player through '13.

Andy Pettitte

Pettitte struggled to decide whether to play in 2011, but he ultimately concluded that his heart wasn't in it. The three-time All-Star left-hander retired with 240 career wins, more than 2,200 strikeouts and five World Series championships with the Yankees.

But the following year, Pettitte's stint as a guest instructor at Yankees Spring Training inspired him to get back on the mound, and he signed a Minor League deal in March. Pettitte ultimately made 42 more big league starts from 2012-13, posting a stellar 3.49 ERA. He started two more games in the '12 postseason, leaving his all-time record total at 44.

Julio Franco

His first comeback, at a mere 37 years old, came in 1996. The three-time All-Star and 1991 American League batting champion, coming off a strong but strike-shortened '94 with the White Sox, spent '95 in Japan before returning with Cleveland. Then his world tour really kicked into gear. Franco spent '98 back in Japan, '99 in Mexico (with the exception of one at-bat for Tampa Bay), 2000 in South Korea and most of '01 in Mexico again.

After tearing it up for Mexico City that year, Franco earned a job with the Braves, turning 43 about a week before his first game with the club on Sept. 1. Incredibly, Franco wound up playing in the Majors every year from '01-'07, racking up 1,618 plate appearances with a league-average 100 OPS+. He suited up for the final time as a 49-year-old for the '07 Braves.

Yes, Kazmir has already done this before. His original career arc took him from rising star, to disappointment, to rejuvenated. At first, he was a promising young left-hander who led the AL in strikeouts at age 23 and was a two-time All-Star by age 24. Then, he lost his stuff and suffered through a slew of injuries, and it looked like his career was in jeopardy. Kazmir went unsigned prior to the 2012 season, and he had to go to the independent leagues, where he began pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters.

That's where the comeback began. After his stint in indy ball and some time pitching in Puerto Rico, Kazmir landed a Minor League deal with Cleveland and won their fifth-starter job in Spring Training. He kept pitching well in the regular season, earning some Comeback Player of the Year votes, and parlayed his success into a contract with the A's. The next year, Kazmir was an All-Star again, capping his inspired comeback. Now, he'll try to do it all over again.

Colon is a favorite of fans all around baseball, but his career seemed in question after he missed the entire 2011 season due to significant right shoulder injuries -- he had pain brought on by damage to his rotator cuff, tendons and ligaments. But after a stem cell transplant to repair the damage, Colon not only managed to make it back to the Majors, he reinvented himself as a pitcher and found success as a command artist for years to come.

Colon signed a Minor League deal with the Yankees entering 2011 and made the team as a reliever, then took over for the injured Phil Hughes in the rotation and made 26 starts, performing admirably. He got even better from there. In 2013 with the A's, at age 40, he made an All-Star team for the first time since his Cy Young-winning 2005. In 2016, with the Mets, he was an All-Star again, at age 43. Colon laced up his cleats one more time with the Rangers in 2018, ultimately making Texas' roster after signing on a Minor League deal, and he nearly threw a perfect game against the reigning World Series champion Astros in an appearance on Sunday Night Baseball.

Worst comebacks

Jim Palmer

Palmer's was one of the strangest comeback attempts in MLB history. He was already in the Hall of Fame when he decided to come out of retirement in 1991 ... more than six years after he had last pitched in a Major League game. Since then, Palmer had become an Orioles broadcaster, but he re-joined the club in Spring Training at age 45 under manager Frank Robinson, who had been his teammate from 1966-71.

Palmer would have been the first Hall of Famer to return to play again in the Majors, but his comeback came to an abrupt end. He made only one Spring Training start, allowing two runs on five hits in two innings, with lackluster velocity and command. The next day, he decided to give up on the comeback and go back to broadcasting, revealing he had torn his hamstring during warmups before the start. "I had breakfast with Frank this morning," Palmer told reporters, detailing his conversation informing Robinson of his decision. "He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'No, I'm not, but my leg is.'"

Hideo Nomo

Nomo was a pioneer, the first pitcher in decades to move from Japan to the Major Leagues when he arrived in 1995. His success helped blaze the trail for the many players who have come since -- Nomo burst onto the scene with the Dodgers by making the All-Star team and winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award, he had two straight top-five Cy Young finishes to start his MLB career, he twice led his league in strikeouts and he even threw two no-hitters.

So The Tornado had nothing left to prove in 2008, when he signed a Minor League deal with the Royals at age 39, three years after his last game in the Majors. But he wanted to pitch, and Nomo even ended up making the Royals' roster as a reliever. His brief stint in Kansas City was rocky, though, resulting in an ERA of 18.69 in three appearances. He allowed nine runs on 10 hits, including three homers, in just 4 1/3 innings. He was released in late April and announced his retirement in mid-July.

Dontrelle Willis

The D-Train took the Major Leagues by storm with his NL Rookie of the Year-winning debut with the Marlins in 2003 and Cy Young runner-up finish in 2005. With his intimidating left-handed delivery, Willis was a sensation, but he fell out of the spotlight almost as quickly as he entered it. Willis' production fell off dramatically in the late 2000s, and after a 2011 season with the Reds where he went 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA, Willis was unable to break into another Major League rotation, signing a series of contracts over the next several seasons that never turned into any big league action.

But Willis was still trying to come back as recently as 2015, after even pitching in the independent leagues. The Brewers signed him in late January 2015, but the sidewinder was never able to make it all the way back to the bigs. He announced his retirement that March.

Johan Santana

Johan's comeback attempts fell short through no fault of his own. His body just broke down. Santana had already missed an entire season due to shoulder surgery when he gutted his way through 134 pitches on June 1, 2012, to provide the Mets one of the shining moments in their history -- the franchise's first and so far only no-hitter. And after that night, one of the most agonizing of manager Terry Collins' career, Santana never really regained his dominant form.

In fact, the two-time AL Cy Young winner never pitched another Major League game after that season. Each of his comeback attempts was thwarted by injury. In 2013, Santana re-tore his shoulder capsule. In '14, with the Orioles, he tore his Achilles tendon. In '15, a toe infection shut down his comeback attempt with the Blue Jays. A franchise icon for both the Twins and Mets, Johan deserved better.

Tim Lincecum

Another two-time Cy Young Award winner and fan favorite, Lincecum wasn't satisfied with going out the way it appeared he might after a forgettable 2016 season with the Angels, which saw him post a 9.16 ERA and allow 11 homers across only nine starts. That season was technically Lincecum's first comeback attempt, as waning velocity and performance during his final years with the Giants had lowered his stock before he signed with the Angels in May 2016. The Halos designated him for assignment later that year when it was clear that he wasn't succeeding at the big league level.

Two years later, Lincecum came back from relative obscurity to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with the Rangers. But that attempt never got off the ground; Lincecum struggled in his rehab assignments in Triple-A, and Texas decided to release him after his 60-day injury list window expired.

Brian Wilson

The days of "Fear the Beard" were long past when Wilson, the former fireballing closer for the Giants who got the final outs of the 2010 World Series, tried to make a big league comeback ... as a knuckleballer. Wilson had last pitched for the Dodgers at the end of '14, but he got the urge to pitch again and started putting time into his knuckleball in the winter before the '17 season.

The 34-year-old reportedly threw for multiple teams, focusing on a pitch he had learned as a teenager but he never used professionally because of the toll it would have taken on his catchers. (The only time he'd broken out the knuckle was in Spring Training with the Dodgers in '14.) After a 30-pitch knuckleball bullpen session at the University of Southern California, Wilson told Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown, "That right there was an MVP-Cy Young knuckleball." But unfortunately, nothing ended up coming out of his attempt to knuckleball his way back into the Major Leagues. But The Beard lives on in baseball lore.