The 6 players set up best to bounce back in '23

January 31st, 2023

You know what was fun about the Comeback Player of the Year Award last year? It was, for the first time, won by two players who are almost certain to be in the Hall of Fame someday. won it in the American League (along with that little Cy Young thing), and won in the National League, in what was his final season. Heading into the season, Verlander was a good bet; he was coming back from injury, after all. But Pujols? Not even the most optimistic Cardinals fan could anticipate what he was about to do. That’s the fun of the Comeback Player of the Year Award: It’s hard to predict.

But let’s try anyway. Here’s a look at six players who had a rough 2022 season but could be primed to be major factors in 2023. Some of them are young players who couldn’t quite get it going; some of them are veterans who have been better most of their careers than they were last year. But they all could bounce back in a big way in 2023.

Jonathan India, 2B, Reds
He wasn’t just the Rookie of the Year in 2021; it wasn’t even close. The Reds’ second baseman won 29 of the 30 votes -- the Marlins’ Trevor Rogers got the other one -- and he firmly established himself as not just one of the best players on the Reds, but also as a cornerstone. He had power, speed, defense, a great batting eye and undeniable panache; your eyes were just drawn to him.

Well, nobody wanted to look in 2022: India’s OBP dropped more than 50 points (from .376 to .327), his slugging dropped more than 80 (from .459 to .378) and even his defense was a little shakier. Hamstring issues messed with most of his first half, and after sustaining a bone bruise on his shin at the Field of Dreams game, he never really got going. India said he put too much pressure on himself last year after winning the Rookie of the Year, and you can see how this season, with lower expectations for both him and his team, should provide a different environment. The Reds are still figuring some things out, but India was expected to be a constant for this team. In 2023, he might be again.

Eddie Rosario, OF, Braves
Anybody remember who the Braves traded for Eddie Rosario, right before that incredible run to a World Series championship? Would you believe it was Pablo Sandoval? It’s true! It’s difficult to see the Braves winning that title without Rosario, who was the NLCS MVP, culminating in that incredible Game 6 three-run homer that essentially clinched the series. It wasn’t a surprise then that the Braves brought him back on a two-year deal, but 2022 was a total mess. Rosario got off to a start so wretched (an .068 average in April) that the Braves had his eyes checked and discovered that he had a swollen right retina, blurring his vision. He was better after returning -- he’d have to be -- and he should have his spot back in left field. After all, he hit throughout his entire career until the eye issues. He should have plenty of chances to be clutch in October again.

Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Tigers
The thing about can’t-miss prospects is that, uh, sometimes, for a little while anyway, they miss. Everything about Torkelson -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 Draft -- pointed to a breakout in 2022. But, like everything else with the Tigers in 2022, Torkelson did not get it going. After a much-heralded callup, he was hitting .199 with five homers (.577 OPS) in mid-July, forcing the Tigers to send him back down to Triple-A. He was a little better when he returned to the big league club in September (.678 OPS), but only a little.

On the whole: Torkelson looked nothing like the all-world prospect who was supposed to lead the Tigers back to the promised land. Of course, Mike Trout was terrible in his first stint in the Majors too; that turned out all right. The Tigers have invested so much in Torkelson that he’ll get every opportunity to establish himself, and clearly scouts didn’t imagine all that talent. Torkelson’s the ultimate post-hype sleeper: Try not to act surprised when he looks like himself again.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
There have been times in his career when it looked like Votto was in steep decline, only to bounce back and remind us why he's got a great case for the Hall of Fame. For example, after the 2021 All-Star break (pretty recent!) he hit 25 homers and had a 1.057 OPS. Of course, he got off to a bad start in 2022, and before he had a chance to rebound, he tore his left rotator cuff and biceps, ending his season. He should be healthy to start this season, and with the Reds holding a $20 million team option on him for 2024, this could be his final year in a Reds uniform, the year he turns 40. There aren’t many players more fun to cheer for than Votto. Bet against a return to past glory at your own peril.

Jared Walsh, 1B, Angels
For years, the plan to improve the Angels -- other than getting them more pitching -- was clear: Get another star to join Mike Trout. Well, in 2021, the Angels had two: MVP Shohei Ohtani and Walsh, who built off his breakthrough 2020 with a 29-homer, 98-RBI season that sent him to his first All-Star Game. Sure, some of his 2021 first half was a little bit of an aberration -- he fell off a bit in the second half -- but no one thought he would fall of a cliff like he did in 2022, hitting only 15 homers and losing 70 points off his OBP (from .340 to .269). The issue, as tends to be the case, was injuries: He had surgery to deal with thoracic outlet syndrome on Sept. 1, so he should be close to ready by Spring Training. He doesn’t have to be the superstar he was the first half of 2021 to help his team. But the increasingly desperate Angels sure would appreciate it.

Jesse Winker, OF, Brewers
If you said, "The Mariners will end up valuing Eugenio Suárez more than Jesse Winker" when they made that high-profile trade with the Reds before last season, well, sorry: I wouldn’t have believed you. But it turned out that way, with Suárez outperforming Winker and now sitting in the middle of the Mariners’ order while Winker was shipped off to Milwaukee for Kolten Wong. But Winker, while clearly taking a step back from his big 2021 season, wasn’t that bad in 2022: He still put up a 103 OPS+, after all. And Milwaukee might be the perfect place for him: in a division he knows well, on a contending team that trusts him right in the middle of its order. The Brewers made some sneaky-good moves this offseason, particularly with their lineup, and Winker is central to all of it. Don’t be surprised if he suddenly looks like the guy Seattle traded for off his All-Star 2021 campaign for the Reds.