Conforto on comeback trail after long rehab

January 11th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Maria Guardado’s Giants Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click hereAnd subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

's first foray into free agency ended up dragging on far longer than he ever envisioned.

After seven years with the Mets, Conforto hit the open market at the end of the 2021 season and decided to bet on himself by turning down New York’s one-year, $18.4 million qualifying offer. But his offseason later took a turn for the worst, as he suffered a right shoulder injury that required surgery in April 2022, causing the market for his services to evaporate.

Unsigned and left to rehab on his own, Conforto spent the 2022 campaign at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., though he couldn’t get baseball off his mind. He bought an MLB.TV package to stay plugged in and keep tabs on his friends around the league, but he admitted it was difficult to watch an entire season go by without him.

“It's been hard,” Conforto said during a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. “You never want to miss an MLB season. It definitely wasn't an ideal situation. It was heartbreaking, but it did give me a little perspective. It gave me a chance to take a step back and kind of view my career as a whole.”

After signing a two-year, $36 million contract with the Giants, Conforto will finally get a chance to make his long-awaited comeback. The 29-year-old outfielder will have no shortage of motivation to stay healthy and reclaim the All-Star form he showed with the Mets in 2017, especially since his deal includes an opt-out clause following the 2023 season if he reaches 350 plate appearances this year.

“When you get a year of your career taken away from you, it relights that fire,” Conforto said. “You realize how much you love this game. Players always say you never know when the jersey’s going to be taken away from you. In my situation, it was taken away, and I'm still in the prime of my career. I have the opportunity to come back and turn it up a notch.”

Conforto endured a down season in 2021, batting .232 with 14 home runs, 55 RBIs and a .729 OPS (100 OPS+) over 125 games for the Mets, but he established a consistent track record of productivity before that. He recorded a 128 OPS+ over his first six seasons, including three straight (2017-19) with at least 27 homers.

A 2014 first-round Draft pick out of Oregon State, Conforto set career highs with 33 homers, 29 doubles and 92 RBIs in 2019 and hit .322 with a .927 OPS during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Despite the long layoff, Conforto believes he’s only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. He’s already working with the Giants’ training staff at the Papago Park Complex in Arizona to ensure that his surgically repaired right shoulder is back to full strength by Opening Day. Conforto is currently throwing out to 200 feet and expects to progress to throwing to bases and playing balls off the wall in the coming weeks.

“I’ve always had mobile shoulders,” Conforto said. “I’ve had laxity in my shoulders. It’s part of the reason I'm able to do the things I can do. But more or less, it was a matter of the shoulders getting beat up. This left one has been great ever since the [2017] surgery. All signs point to the right one being the same way.”

The arrival of Conforto and fellow newcomer Mitch Haniger should go a long way towards stabilizing the Giants’ outfield mix, which also includes Mike Yastrzemski, Austin Slater and Joc Pederson. Conforto has most recently played right field, but he could follow his childhood idol Barry Bonds and settle into an everyday spot in left in San Francisco. Like Bonds, Conforto is eager to unleash his left-handed swing and expand his tally of splash hits at Oracle Park this year.

“I've got one ball in the bay,” Conforto said. “I'm looking forward to hitting a lot more. It’s a beautiful ballpark. I don't know if there's a better one in the league. I couldn't be more excited.”