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Ranking the impact of players back from injury

@SlangsOnSports
January 11, 2020

As we move forward in 2020, it’s a good time to take stock of your team’s roster. Sure, you recall that superstar who had an MVP-caliber season in '19, or that ace who ascended to a new level, but what about the players who missed significant time? Every year, there

As we move forward in 2020, it’s a good time to take stock of your team’s roster. Sure, you recall that superstar who had an MVP-caliber season in '19, or that ace who ascended to a new level, but what about the players who missed significant time?

Every year, there are players who sustain season-ending or long-term injuries, but a new season means they get a fresh chance to prove themselves. Some could impact a pennant race, while others simply hope to return to form as their teams rebuild.

The focus here will be on players likely to be back by Opening Day, but it's also worth keeping in mind a few others of note returning this year. That includes right-hander Michael Kopech, who could help the White Sox take the next step after recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Phillies righty David Robertson, who hopes to impact the stretch run after his own surgery in August 2019. There's also outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who missed all of 2019 with a left knee injury and is still looking for a new team.

Here are nine players who were limited by injuries in 2019, ranked by their projected impact in '20.

1) Luis Severino, RHP, Yankees

Severino began the 2019 season on the injured list with right rotator cuff inflammation, and his return date kept getting pushed back. He didn’t make his season debut until Sept. 19, pitched 12 innings over three outings, then made two postseason starts, including a Game 3 loss to the Astros in the American League Championship Series.

2020 outlook: The starting staff in the Bronx is already much improved with the signing of Gerrit Cole, but the reemergence of Severino makes it almost like the Yankees are getting two top free-agent pitchers. The last time we saw Severino in a full season, he made his second straight All-Star team and posted a 3.39 ERA in nearly 200 innings. The Yankees had a 4.51 rotation ERA in 2019, which ranked 15th in the Majors, so the addition of Cole and the return to form of Severino is welcome news.

2) Andrew McCutchen, LF, Phillies

McCutchen wasn’t the big ticket outfielder the Phillies signed before 2019 -- that was Bryce Harper -- but his impact seemed evident early in the season. He played 59 games through June 3, hitting 10 homers and posting an OBP of of .378. But he exited that June 3 game with a left knee injury and was diagnosed with a torn ACL, ending his season.

2020 outlook: Through June 3, the Phillies were 33-27 and a half-game ahead of the Braves for first place in the NL East. They went 48-54 the rest of the way and finished fourth at 81-81. There were multiple problems, including a shaky bullpen and some starting pitching woes, but McCutchen’s disappearance from the top of the order was noticeable. Phillies leadoff hitters, primarily McCutchen, had a 123 wRC+ through June 3, which was fifth in MLB. The rest of the year, that spot produced just a 79 wRC+, tied for last. In other words, his return should reenergize the lineup.

3) Lance McCullers Jr., RHP, Astros

McCullers missed the entire 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery the previous November. We last saw him as an effective reliever in the 2018 postseason, after right elbow discomfort derailed him that summer (and eventually led to the aforementioned surgery). But in 80 career starts, McCullers and his dazzling curveball have produced a 3.69 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

2020 outlook: After Cole left for the Yankees, the Astros have a definite need for quality innings. It remains to be seen whether McCullers’ return will be enough to help them remain top-three in rotation ERA, but at the very least his presence should ensure that the group remains effective. McCullers is still just 26 and has yet to turn in a Major League season with more than 130 innings, so there’s plenty of room to grow and improve on the potential we’ve already seen.

4) Dellin Betances, RHP, Mets

Betances began the 2019 season on the injured list with a right shoulder impingement. He finally returned to the Yankees on Sept. 15 in Toronto, striking out both batters he faced. As he walked off the mound, he jumped to celebrate and partially tore his left Achilles tendon, ending his season.

2020 outlook: Betances’ 2020 situation is a bit different, because his impact will come with a new team. The Mets’ bullpen finished 2019 with a 4.95 ERA, which ranked 25th in the Majors, and struck out 556 batters, fifth-fewest in MLB. Betances can help fix that. His 14.7 career K/9 rate is second best among relievers with at least 300 innings behind former teammate Aroldis Chapman.

5) Giancarlo Stanton, LF/DH, Yankees

Stanton played in three games at the start of the season before landing on the injured list with a strained left biceps. He returned in mid-June and played in six games before landing back on the IL, this time with a sprained PCL in his right knee. He came back from that for nine games to end the regular season and played in five postseason games, but there’s no question that Stanton’s second year in New York wasn’t what anyone expected.

2020 outlook: Steamer projections have Stanton playing 143 games and amassing an MLB-leading 49 homers, which would be the second most of his career, behind his 59-homer NL MVP campaign in 2017. When healthy, there’s no question that Stanton is one of the most feared hitters in the game. The Yankees won 103 games with only 18 games and three homers from Stanton last season, meaning the sky could be the limit with him back and Cole on board in '20.

6) Corey Kluber, RHP, Rangers

Kluber made seven starts in 2019 before his season ended abruptly with a broken right ulna after he was hit by a line drive, and his rehab stint was shut down in August due to an abdominal strain. Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, did not quite look like himself in the seven starts he did make, with a 5.80 ERA. A lot has changed for Kluber since that start on May 1 that ultimately ended his season -- he was traded to the Rangers on Dec. 15.

2020 outlook: Steamer projects Kluber to make 31 starts, which would be back to what we came to expect from him before the injury. A healthy Kluber -- along with free-agent acquisitions Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles -- would be a big help for Texas. There was a significant dropoff in the Rangers’ rotation in 2019 after Mike Minor (3.59 ERA) and Lance Lynn (3.67 ERA) -- to the tune of a 7.22 ERA from all other starters combined.

7) Miguel Andújar, 3B, Yankees

Andújar finished second in the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year Award voting behind Shohei Ohtani -- and ahead of teammate Gleyber Torres. In the third game of the 2019 season, he tore his right labrum diving back into third base. He was placed on the injured list and returned in early May, but he ultimately underwent season-ending surgery to repair the shoulder. He played in 12 games total.

2020 outlook: Andújar’s return will put the Yankees in an interesting spot because of the job that Gio Urshela did at third this past season. After slugging .527 as a 23-year-old in 2018, Andújar was seen as the third baseman of the future for the Yankees, so he should get the chance to earn back that post, though he could see time at first or DH as well.

8) Salvador Perez, C, Royals

Perez underwent Tommy John surgery in Spring Training, which ended his season before it started. Prior to 2019, he’d been an All-Star in six straight seasons and won the AL Gold Glove Award at catcher in five of those.

2020 outlook: The return of an All-Star starting catcher is certainly important, but Perez is a bit lower down on the list, since the Royals have a long way to go after losing 103 games last season. Nonetheless, his production and defense at catcher will be a welcome sight for K.C. fans.

9) Zack Cozart, INF, Giants

Cozart has dealt with shoulder injuries for the better part of the last two seasons, playing a total of 96 games and last playing on May 26 before undergoing left shoulder debridement surgery. He played in 38 games for the Angels in 2019, hitting .124/.178/.144, and he was traded to the Giants in December as the Angels moved his nearly $13 million salary while giving up a prospect.

2020 outlook: It remains to be seen what Cozart’s production will be after shoulder issues, which are of particular concern considering his position. But the Giants will have plenty of playing time opportunities across the board this year, and before his injuries, Cozart was an All-Star in 2017 with the Reds, posting a career-high 4.9 WAR according to Baseball Reference.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.