Every offseason, rosters are tweaked and projected lineups and pitching staffs are set by clubs in hopes of having enough ‘depth’. Depth is what leads teams deep into October (see: Giants of 2010, 2012, and 2014 and Royals of 2014 and 2015), as the ability to overcome injuries to key players is key.
Heading into the 2016 season, more than a handful of teams will be paying close attention to their marquee performers – players that are on the mend or trying to fend off a potential injury long enough to be a vital part of the team’s season. The success or failure of these teams to succeed this season will hinge in part on the fortunes of these players, a few of which are profiled below.
The AL West-winning Texas Rangers were a resilient bunch. First-year manager Jeff Banister’s #NEVEREVERQUIT mantra was contagious, as his Rangers didn’t quit until coming up short in a dramatic Game 5 of the Division Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Their resilience was tested as early as Spring Training, when ace Yu Darvish was lost for the entire year (and then some) with Tommy John surgery. Despite his absence, the Rangers held off the Houston Astros and won the West thanks to a stable offense led by a resurgent Prince Fielder (.305/.378/.463, 23 HR, 98 RBI, 1.9 WAR) and a healthy Shin-Soo Choo (.276/.375/.463, 22 HR, 82 RBI, 3.5 WAR) and an under-the-radar bullpen corps that actually held leads in hitter-friendly Arlington.
Darvish is progressing well in his TJ rehab, per reports, and even carrying heavy chains around the Rangers’ spring training camp:
— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) February 22, 2016
He’s expected to rejoin the rotation in the early months of the 2016 campaign, barring any setbacks. When he does, though, will he be the same pitcher he was prior to going down in the spring of 2015? He made three straight All-Star trips in 2012, 2013, and 2014 on the strength of going 39-25 with a 3.27 ERA and 680 strikeouts in 545 innings of work.
Will he easily resume his role atop the rotation or work in tandem with stretch-drive acquisition Cole Hamels as a potent one-two punch? The Rangers project to have a solid chance at repeating in the West in 2016 if they continue to fend off the Astros (and, maybe, the Seattle Mariners)…and a healthy, dominant Darvish would be a big help in that regard.
The Miami Marlins are trying to make a move in the NL East under new manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Barry Bonds. Ace Jose Fernandez, not far removed from his own TJ surgery that robbed him of a full 2014 season, bounced back strong last year: he was 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA in just under 63 innings of work.
Of course, throwing a fastball upwards of 95+ mph on the regular presents a host of risks for any pitcher – especially one coming back from reconstructive TJ surgery. Will he be able to weather the load of carrying the Marlins’ pitching staff or will be on an innings limit not unlike the one the Mets gave Matt Harvey?
If the Marlins want to do anything in 2016, they’ll need Giancarlo Stanton to stay in the lineup. He’s a premier talent – everybody knows that, and he reminds folks of it when he flicks 450-foot bombs with ease. And yet, he’s had his own share of injury woes in his young career.
His 2015 was hampered by some nagging issues, relegating him to just 74 games, after appearing in 145 in 2014 and 116 in 2013.
He’s locked in to a huge deal that runs through the 2028 season, but the whispers of his desire to head elsewhere will likely grow louder each season the Marlins remain in the middle of the pack in the NL East. There’s no reason a core led by Stanton, Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon, and Marcell Ozuna couldn’t gel at the same time and help the Marlins reach October in the near future…and it looks to be their stated goal, now that they revamped the coaching staff with Mattingly and Bonds.
It goes without saying that the Marlins’ hopes of making noise in the National League will rely on healthy contributions from Fernandez AND Stanton…so they’re two obvious players to watch in the new season.
The Dodgers’ starting pitching staff
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ brain trust of Farhan Zaidi and Andrew Friedman took chances again this offseason. Rather than give Zack Greinke an expensive contract that would take him into his upper thirties, they let him depart for Arizona – and replaced him with some injury-risk pitchers such as Scott Kazmir and a returning Brett Anderson.
Well, it’s March and Anderson is already out indefinitely with back surgery and Kazmir has had some velocity issues at Spring Training (and seemed to run out of gas for the Houston Astros in 2015, posting a 4.17 ERA and 1.391 WHIP in 13 starts after the Astros acquired him in July). Lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who underwent surgery on his left labrum in May 2014 and has yet to return, is optimistic about his chances in 2016 – but he’s anything but a sure thing.
With the Dodgers as eager as ever to finally make it to the World Series, they’ll likely need some good luck on the pitching staff – and so far, it looks like it might be a struggle outside of Clayton Kershaw. Kenta Maeda could surprise after signing a deal to join the team this winter, but the jury is out on his ceiling (is he a front-line guy, or a back-end option?)
Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ top prospect Corey Seager (pegged by many to be a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2016) has been sidelined with a sprained left knee at spring training. In no rush to hurry him back to the practice field until he’s fully 100 percent, the Dodgers will proceed with caution…which is absolutely the right move, since they’ll need Seager to continue to blossom into the cornerstone player they (perhaps desperately) need him to be in 2016 and beyond.
L.A. has held on to Seager and fellow top prospect Julio Urias rather than deal them for a short-term fix in each of the past two seasons. They obviously think highly of Seager’s potential, and with good reason: in 27 games, he hit .337/425/.561, played solid shortstop and posted a 1.8 WAR. At just 21, he’s one of the brightest young talents in the game today, and the Dodgers would love to see him grow at the big-league level in 2016.
If he misses Opening Day, they’ll have to get creative with their infield alignment – or play Enrique Hernandez every day until Seager returns.