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7 returning players who missed all of 2019

@AndrewSimonMLB
July 12, 2020

While it’s been an unusually long wait for baseball, Summer Camp is finally underway, MLB stadiums are no longer entirely quiet, and a delayed Opening Day is less than two weeks away. But for teams that didn’t make the 2019 postseason, it’s now been more than nine months since their

While it’s been an unusually long wait for baseball, Summer Camp is finally underway, MLB stadiums are no longer entirely quiet, and a delayed Opening Day is less than two weeks away.

But for teams that didn’t make the 2019 postseason, it’s now been more than nine months since their last “real” game (not counting the interrupted Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues this spring). Even for the pennant-winning Nationals and Astros, it’s been more than eight months.

For some players, the wait has been even longer. Take these seven, each of whom missed the entire 2019 season due to injury. It’s now been close to two years (if not longer) since each of them competed in an MLB game. But now, at long last, they might be able to get those competitive juices flowing again -- and make a big difference for their teams in 2020.

Yoenis Céspedes, DH/OF, Mets
Last MLB game: July 20, 2018
Even if Céspedes cracks the Mets’ Opening Day lineup, it will be just over two years since he last stepped to the plate for them. A lot has happened in that time, with the slugger battling problems with his heels and sustaining a serious ankle injury in a ranching accident. Questions remain about his physical readiness, not to mention how much thunder is left in the 34-year-old’s bat. But there is no doubt that the implementation of the universal designated hitter in 2020 threw a lifeline to Céspedes’ chances of contributing to the Mets this year, and early signs are encouraging, with teammate Michael Conforto saying Céspedes “looks like a monster.” A healthy Céspedes would be an asset. If he can approximate his production from his injury-plagued 2017-18 campaigns (.282/.343/.525, 132 OPS+), the Mets will be ecstatic.

Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers
Last MLB game: Sept. 15, 2018
Coincidentally, the pitching prospect the Mets traded for Céspedes in 2015 is also on this list. Fulmer almost immediately became a terrific acquisition for Detroit, taking American League Rookie of the Year honors in ‘16 and making the All-Star team the following season. But Fulmer’s numbers slid in ‘18, while he missed time with oblique and knee injuries. Tommy John surgery stopped his ‘19 season before it began, but the 27-year-old is now feeling “100%,” and he used the time off to get himself into much better shape. The Tigers were already targeting a midseason return for Fulmer, so the delay might not have cost him much, if any, Major League time in 2020. And while it will be a stretch for Detroit to return to contention after last year’s 47-win campaign, Fulmer will have the opportunity to reestablish himself in a rotation that soon could feature Top 100 Prospects Casey Mize (No. 7), Matt Manning (No. 24), and Tarik Skubal (No. 46).

Corey Knebel, RHP, Brewers
Last MLB game: Oct. 20, 2018 (NLCS Game 7)
If you’ve forgotten the sort of impact Knebel can make out of the bullpen, look no further than the 2018 postseason. Appearing in nine of Milwaukee’s 10 games, Knebel allowed just one run on two hits over 10 innings, striking out 14 and holding batters to an .069 average. Among pitchers who threw at least 100 regular-season innings from 2017-18, only Craig Kimbrel, Dellin Betances and teammate Josh Hader surpassed Knebel’s eye-popping 40.2% strikeout rate, the product of a 97-mph fastball and devastating curve. Tommy John surgery wiped out Knebel’s 2019, but he has a good chance to be part of the delayed Opening Day roster. Whether the righty is back closing games or setting up for Hader, he could be a boon for the Brewers’ postseason hopes in a crowded NL Central.

Lance McCullers Jr., RHP, Astros
Last MLB game: Oct. 17, 2018 (ALCS Game 4)
McCullers has been an effective big league starter, when healthy. Among 117 pitchers with at least 400 innings from 2015-18, he ranked 31st in ERA (3.67), 11th in FIP (3.24) and 16th in strikeout rate (26.6%). Plus, he played a key role in Houston’s 2017 championship run. Unfortunately for McCullers and the Astros, he’s never been able to top 22 starts or 128 2/3 innings in a season, and that was before he didn’t appear at all in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. With that said, the 26-year-old with the deadly curveball is ready to roll now, and the 60-game schedule mitigates any concerns about his workload. If the Astros are going to weather the loss of Gerrit Cole, a healthy McCullers is going to have to play a major role.

Shohei Ohtani, RHP, Angels
Last MLB game (as a pitcher): Sept. 2, 2018
We’re half-cheating here, obviously. Ohtani was on a big league diamond plenty in 2019, taking 425 plate appearances over 106 games as a DH and pinch-hitter. But that only represents part of Ohtani’s two-way talent. His success at the plate makes it easy to forget, but Ohtani was more heralded as a pitcher before making the jump to the Majors. And he backed that up in 10 starts in 2018, posting a 3.31 ERA, with 63 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings, while showcasing an electric triple-digits fastball, unhittable splitter, and frisbee slider. Those appearances remain just a tiny but tantalizing taste of what Ohtani can bring on the mound, as he spent 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery while still helping the Angels at the plate. Now back to full strength, Ohtani can regain his status as a double threat and boost the Halos’ hopes.

Salvador Perez, C, Royals
Last MLB game: Sept. 30, 2018
Here we have another Tommy John surgery recovery case, but this time, it's a position player. It was flat-out weird not to see Perez behind the plate for the Royals last season, after he had made six straight AL All-Star teams and caught 761 games from 2013-18, second in MLB behind Yadier Molina. Perez’s replacements combined for a .637 OPS in 2019 and came in below replacement level. Now fully healed, Perez can resume his role in guiding the K.C. pitching staff and bringing pop with the bat, once he has been cleared to return to the team. (Perez tested positive for COVID-19 but is asymptomatic). While he has tended to wear down over the long summers, Perez’s career line of .274/.304/.459 in the first half suggests that he could put up strong numbers in a 60-game season.

Steven Souza Jr., OF, Cubs
Last MLB game: Sept. 30, 2018
Injuries have haunted Souza’s career since his debut with the Nationals in 2014. Most recently, Souza sustained a horrific left knee injury on a play at the plate just before Opening Day last season with the D-backs. The setback, which included multiple torn ligaments, could have ended Souza’s career. But he worked his way back, through grueling rehab, and he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs. Souza will have a chance for significant playing time in Chicago, if not an everyday role. In his only full season, for the 2017 Rays, Souza produced a 119 OPS+, launched 30 homers, stole 16 bases and was worth 8 Outs Above Average in the outfield. Now 31 and coming off major knee surgery, it remains to be seen if Souza can still be that sort of dynamic athlete. But now, he will finally get the opportunity to try.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.