10 returning players to watch in 2021

January 29th, 2021

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

Here are 10 returning players to watch in 2021, in alphabetical order by last name. The focus here will be on players likely to be back by Opening Day.

, DH, Astros
The unanimous 2019 American League Rookie of the Year missed the beginning of the 2020 season with COVID-19 and made an immediate impact upon his return on Aug. 14 with a homer in his first at-bat. But he ended up playing in just two games in ‘20, undergoing surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.

2021 outlook: The Astros’ offense came alive in the playoffs, but overall, the team took a step back in 2020 with a league-average wRC+ of 100 on the dot, down from an MLB-leading 126 in ‘19. Jose Altuve wasn’t his usual self, but there’s no question that Alvarez’s power was a missing piece. His return becomes even more important heading into this year with the departure of George Springer in free agency.

, RHP, Cardinals
The fireballing Hicks’ 2019 season ended in June after he underwent Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire 2020 season after opting out due to pre-existing health concerns in the midst of his recovery from surgery.

2021 outlook: Hicks has thrown just 106 1/3 innings in his career, but he has already made an impact with his high velocity -- averaging 101.1 mph on his sinker in 2019 and 100.5 on the pitch in ‘18. Before his injury in 2019, Hicks had become the team’s closer, going 14-for-15 in save opportunities. His arrival as the team’s returning closer will be notable, with the National League Central currently a wide-open division in 2021.

, RHP, Yankees
Kluber threw one inning for the Rangers in 2020 after an offseason trade from the Indians, exiting that start and missing the rest of the year with with a torn teres major muscle in his right shoulder. It was the second straight injury-shortened season for the righty, who threw just 35 ⅔ innings in 2019 before suffering a fractured right ulna. He signed a one year, $11 million deal with the Yankees this month.

2021 outlook: The Kluber signing was a high-risk, high-reward one for the Yankees: If he is fully healthy and can pitch like the two-time Cy Young Award winner he is, the rotation has the potential to be fearsome, especially if Jameson Taillon and Luis Severino also live up to their best-case scenarios. Before the injuries struck, Kluber finished top three in the AL Cy Young voting in all but one season from 2014-18.

, 1B, Orioles
Mancini was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer during Spring Training in March, and he missed the season while undergoing chemotherapy. He completed the last of his scheduled treatments at the end of September.

2021 outlook: It’s hard to assess Mancini’s return in the same light as sports injuries, given the dire nature of what he experienced. But there’s no question that he’ll have an impact on a young Orioles team, both with his leadership and play on the field. In 2019, Mancini had a career-high 135 OPS+.

, RHP, Cardinals
After Mikolas returned from a stint in Japan in 2018, he posted a 2.83 ERA and finished sixth in the NL Cy Young vote, before taking a step back in ‘19 with a 4.16 ERA. He missed the entire ‘20 season after undergoing right forearm surgery.

2021 outlook: The top of the Cardinals’ rotation is strong, with Jack Flaherty, but the rest is rife with question marks. (With Adam Wainwright reportedly set to return, what will he give the team in his 16th season? Will Kwang Hyun Kim repeat his initial successes from 2020?) The club will likely be without Dakota Hudson for the entire year after he underwent Tommy John surgery in September. All of the above makes Mikolas’ stabilizing presence even more important.

, LHP, Red Sox
After a career-best season in 2019 when he received Cy Young votes for the first time and had a career-low 3.81 ERA, Rodriguez missed the entire 2020 season on the COVID-19 injured list, dealing with myocarditis, a heart condition. The Red Sox's rotation struggled, and 16 different pitchers made at least one start for them, two more than any other team.

2021 outlook: Chris Sale is the team’s ace, but he won’t be back until midseason after Tommy John surgery. With that, Rodriguez enters the season as the likely leader of a rotation that also features Nathan Eovaldi and free-agent acquisition Garrett Richards.

, RHP, Braves
The righty finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award race in 2019, receiving Cy Young votes and making the All-Star team. During his third start of 2020, Soroka tore his right Achilles tendon while moving off the mound to attempt to field a ball, and he missed the rest of the year.

2021 outlook: Even with Cy Young candidate Max Fried, the Braves’ rotation struggled in the regular season, posting a 5.51 ERA, third worst in the Majors. The Braves had eight different pitchers make at least four starts for them, and only two had an ERA below 4.50: Fried (2.25) and Ian Anderson (1.95). The rotation showed improvement in the playoffs, especially Anderson in his first season, but the re-emergence of Soroka as Fried’s co-ace will be important in a tough NL East in ‘21.

, RHP, Nationals
Strasburg’s 2020 debut was delayed until Aug. 9 due to a nerve issue in his right hand, and after his second start was cut short in the first inning, he landed on the injured list with right hand carpal tunnel neuritis. He underwent carpal tunnel surgery later that month, ending his season.

2021 outlook: After ranking second in the Majors in starters’ ERA in 2019, the Nats' rotation ranked fourth worst in ‘20, with a 5.38 ERA. The reigning World Series champs finished tied for last in the NL East, despite the MVP-level performance of Juan Soto. But it’s not just Strasburg. Max Scherzer had his highest ERA since 2012 and Patrick Corbin had his highest since ‘16, but there’s no question that a healthy Strasburg will be key in a crowded NL East.

, RHP, Yankees
Taillon threw just 37 1/3 innings in 2019 before his season ended due to a right elbow flexor strain, leading to Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire 2020 season while recovering.

2021 outlook: Taillon is part of that high-risk, potentially high-reward rotation with Kluber, as noted above. When he last pitched a full season in 2018, Taillon had a 3.20 ERA and two complete games in 191 innings. That was the highest innings total of his career, one that’s now included two Tommy John surgeries in addition to testicular cancer treatment. If he’s able to pitch consistent innings, he’ll help stabilize that group.

, RHP, Blue Jays
Yates appeared in six games in 2020 and did not look like himself, allowing six runs in 4 1/3 innings. He was diagnosed with bone chips in his right elbow, and he missed the rest of the season with the injury before signing with the Blue Jays as a free agent.

2021 outlook: In 2019, Yates led the Majors with 41 saves, and he figures to play that same key role in the Blue Jays’ bullpen after Toronto's 2020 closer, Ken Giles, missed most of the year injured himself and is now a free agent. The Blue Jays have reloaded in a big way this offseason, with George Springer and Marcus Semien in addition to Yates, and they figure to be competitive again in the AL East.

Midseason watch

There are a few notable pitchers who are due back closer to the middle of the season, but they could loom large down the stretch and are worth mentioning as well.

Severino had Tommy John surgery at the end of February, and he hasn’t pitched since 2019, missing most of that year with a right rotator cuff injury. He’s part of that uncertain Yankees rotation that has the potential to be very good -- Severino received Cy Young votes in each of his two full seasons in 2017-18.

Noah Syndergaard and Sale both underwent Tommy John surgery, four days apart in March 2020. Both the Mets’ and Red Sox's rotations were short on innings from starters in 2020, and each pitcher will be a boost at the potential ace or ace level.

Justin Verlander underwent Tommy John surgery in September and seems unlikely to return in 2021, based on timing, but he has expressed a desire to pitch this year.