Injured stars poised to be difference-makers

July 15th, 2021

Of all the looming storylines of this riveting MLB season, the unhappiest one is injuries. Many teams have been riddled with them from the start of the season. This was to be somewhat expected: After a shortened 2020 season, the natural rhythms and routines of players were bound to be disrupted, which was inevitably going to lead to more injuries.

But as we look forward to the second half of the season, we’ve got some stars coming back, too! There will be many trades coming down the pipe over the next couple of weeks, but for most teams, the best addition they can get for the stretch run is simply the return of some of their best players from injury. Here are 11 key players we’ll see over the next month or so. They may well affect the playoff chase far more than any trade acquisitions. And we’ll all be grateful to see them back.

Shane Bieber, RHP, Cleveland
Out since June 13: Right shoulder strain

The defending AL Cy Young Award winner hasn’t pitched since June 13, in what was his worst outing of the season, a 6-2 loss to Seattle. Bieber has been resting and rehabbing his shoulder since then, and he’s still reportedly a couple of weeks away from throwing off a mound. Cleveland is barely hanging around the playoff chase right now, but the team is still around, and if it can stay afloat until mid-August, Bieber could be the electric charge it desperately needs. And if you want to see Bieber -- and who doesn’t? -- you should cheer for Cleveland over the next month, because if the club is out of the playoff race, he could end up being shut down for the season. It’d sure be good to see him.

Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros
Out since June 16: Strained left quad

The Astros have one of the best offenses in baseball, and they’ve been doing it without Bregman, who, until last year, was widely considered their top MVP candidate. He was actually having his weakest offensive season when he was placed on the IL in mid-June with a quadriceps issue, but he’ll be starting his rehab assignment shortly after the All-Star break and could be back by the end of the month. Houston looks like the juggernaut it was for most of the back half of the last decade, and Bregman could restore the Astros, offensively anyway, to their best selves. Look out.

Carlos Carrasco, RHP, Mets
Has not pitched in 2021: Torn right hamstring

Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets
Has not pitched since 2019: Tommy John surgery

You thought the Mets might be done by now, didn’t you? Despite all the injuries, they’re still in first place in the NL East, though the Phillies and the Nationals might still have a charge left in them. (The Braves, without Ronald Acuña Jr., seem less certain.) Getting Carrasco and Syndergaard, neither of whom have thrown a pitch this season, could be the exact push they need … and even make this rotation kind of terrifying. Carrasco looks like he’ll be back first, but the Mets can afford, for now, to take their time with both of them. Imagine each of them back at full strength for the playoffs.

Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals
Out since May 31: Left oblique strain

The Cardinals might be too far back to catch the Brewers (or even the Reds), but seemingly unlike the Cubs, with whom they are tied in the NL Central, they’re more likely to be buyers than sellers at the July 30 Trade Deadline. No acquisition would mean more than the return of their ace Flaherty. The Cards are 14-22 since Flaherty made his last start, and while losing Flaherty isn’t their only problem, it might be their biggest one. The right-hander recently threw off the mound for the first time since his oblique injury, and if he continues to progress, he could, theoretically, be back by early August. Will the Cardinals still be in the playoff chase by then? If so, Flaherty would give them the rotation anchor they desperately need.

Eloy Jiménez, OF, White Sox
Has not played in 2021: Ruptured left pectoral tendon

Luis Robert, OF, White Sox
Out since since May 2: Right hip flexor tear

For all the talk about manager Tony LaRussa in Chicago’s dugout -- and it sure seems like that talk has gotten a lot quieter over the last month, doesn’t it? -- the White Sox are still comfortably in first place and have the best record in the American League. That they’ve done that without perhaps their two most exciting young hitters speaks to just how dangerous this team is going to be when the duo returns. That’s going to be sooner than you might think. Jiménez is playing in Minor League games this week, and Robert, a little behind, is starting to “ramp up” baseball activities. Jiménez and Robert were widely considered the most fun reasons to watch the White Sox this year, but the team has been plenty fun without them. Imagine what it’ll be like when those two return.

Chris Sale, LHP, Red Sox
Has not pitched since 2019: Tommy John surgery

The player all of New England has been waiting for is, at last, on his way. Sale will throw a simulated game at the Red Sox’s complex in Fort Meyers, Fla., on Thursday, and a rehab assignment should follow. Boston has taken its sweet time with the lefty, and will surely continue to as the team’s success this year looks like it’s vindicating that decision. Sale could be close to 100 percent when he returns, which might be smack in the middle of a playoff chase. Imagine facing a fully operational Sale in Game 1 of a playoff series.

Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
Out since May 15: Right hand fracture

Slowly but surely, the Dodgers are returning to full health. Seager has been out since May 15, but he will be taking at-bats in a simulated game this week and could return to the team over the next fortnight. That’s in time not just for the Dodgers, who are still in second place in the NL West, but also for Seager, who will be a free agent this coming offseason. In a market crowded with shortstops, he might still be the best one.

Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
Out since June 1: Neck strain

Stras has thrown 26 2/3 innings since the Nationals signed him to that big contract after he won the 2019 World Series MVP Award, and he has given up 17 earned runs in that span. It hasn’t gone much better for the Nationals over that time, who are 13 games under .500 since winning the 2019 championship. Strasburg, at this point, just needs to show he can be healthy, rather than someone the Nats need to rely upon. But with a rehab assignment on the horizon, it looks like everyone’s about to find out how this is going to turn out.

Mike Trout, OF, Angels
Out since May 17: Right calf strain

Here, obviously, is the big one. Trout is eligible to come off the 60-day injured list on Saturday, and while he might not be ready by then, he’s optimistic it won’t be long after that. And while Shohei Ohtani has, very deservedly, taken up all the oxygen with this team, it’s fair to say that getting the best player in baseball over the last decade back will prove helpful. The Angels are still hanging around the Wild Card race, improbably, and Trout, even though he can’t pitch, is central to any hopes the team has. No one will get a better addition over these last three months. The only thing missing from this glorious Ohtani run has been Trout at his side. We might finally get the two together, at peak capacity.