It’s early March and every single player in the league is coming back to Spring Training (or the World Baseball Classic) saying the same thing: “I’m in the best shape of my life!” Most of them will go on to a full season, working through the 2023 campaign with only minor wear and tear. For some however, the moment is fleeting, as fantasy managers know all too well the pain of injuries to top players.
Injuries are a part of the game that fantasy managers have to deal with every season, but prior injuries don’t always foreshadow future injuries. You’re only injury-prone until you’re not. Here are some undervalued hitters that, if they can manage to stay healthy, could bounce back in a BIG way this season.
Who would you rather have for a full season?
Any guesses as to which one of these is Jazz Chisholm Jr. and who the other two players are?
Player A is a viable top overall pick in fantasy drafts, Ronald Acuña Jr., in the first half of 2022, a pretty darn good 59-game sample from April to June. Player B is a viable top overall pick in fantasy drafts as well, and is ALSO Ronald Acuña Jr., his second half performance last year. Player C is Chisholm.
Of course it becomes dangerous to extrapolate data over the course of a full baseball season based on a small sample size, but Chisholm’s performance for his injury-shortened 2022 was arguably better than either half-season sample from the guy that managers are taking first overall. From 2021 to 2022, Chisholm reduced his strikeout percentage, increased his walk percentage, and boosted his hard-hit percentage to a career high 46.7% as he made marked improvement from his rookie campaign to his sophomore season.
Chisholm saw his 2022 campaign come to an end in late June. He was working toward a comeback near the All-Star Break but a CT scan in mid-July showed a stress fracture in his lower back. The Marlins decided to shut down their star for the rest of the year to guarantee his health over the offseason and heading into spring training. According to a 2020 medical study, players with Symptomatic Spondylolysis (the fancy medical jargon for lumbar stress fracture) are typically back in action after about eight weeks with a median return-to-play time of 51 days, and “did not show a significant decline in performance after returning to competition after their injury episode” (Gould et al. 2020).
The Marlins’ cautious approach to Chisholm’s recovery has allowed him plenty of time to get back to 100%. Back problems always seem to linger, but with the extra time to recover and heal Chisholm is less likely to suffer a similar injury or aggravation. With a return to health, Chisholm could smash his current draft value and cement himself as a first-round selection for years to come. Rumor has it he also may gain outfield eligibility in 2023, increasing his potential value even more.
Could the White Sox have had worse injury luck in 2022? Nearly all of their projected starters missed a significant chunk of games, with exception to José Abreu (who parlayed another solid season into a contract with the Astros this offseason). In 2023, reports are that Eloy Jiménez has dropped significant weight and is hoping to get more reps in the outfield. Though his defensive prowess is not what fantasy managers are looking for, the sleeker Eloy could build on what was a strong end to the 2022 campaign in September and October of last season.
Jimenez suffered a hamstring tear in late April of last season, missing significant time due to a setback in his rehab. He finally returned to action on July 6, slowly warming back up before exploding in August. Over the final two-plus months of the season, Jimenez batted .320 with 11 home runs, 38 RBI and 31 runs scored in 57 games from the beginning of August to the end of the year. Fantasy managers should be encouraged that Jimenez looked back to full strength in the second half.
Hamstrings are usually tricky injuries to deal with, but are much more concerning in speed-reliant players than in power guys like Jimenez. The fact that we saw the White Sox slugger play his best baseball in the second half of 2022 provides confidence for fantasy managers that Jimenez is back to health and can avoid another significant IL stint this season.
Earlier this offseason, Kevin O’Brien posted an outstanding piece on Eloy’s bounce-back potential. Currently being taken around guys like Adolis García and Kyle Schwarber in the early-middle rounds of drafts, Jimenez has the potential to rival first-round picks Yordan Alvarez and Aaron Judge in power numbers this season.
Wander Franco, SS
After missing nearly half of the 2022 season with a wrist injury, Wander Franco gave fantasy managers some hope with a solid cameo appearance in the final month of the season. Beginning on September 9, Franco posted a .322 batting average with a home run, three stolen bases, 12 runs and 10 RBI in just under 100 plate appearances. Franco has shown signs of living up to his 80-grade hit tool in his two big league seasons, though has not exceeded 350 plate appearances in either campaign. Entering his age-22 season, Franco could continue to develop his power and is one of the players with good-not-great speed that could benefit the most from the new base running rules.
When a non-medical professional sees a baseball player (hitters, especially) with a wrist injury, the knee-jerk response is to shun the player immediately, considering how involved wrists are when swinging a bat. However, recent history shows that there is hope for Franco to be unaffected by his 2022 hamate injury moving forward. In August 2019, Jose Ramirez suffered a similar injury and had surgery. Just a month later, Ramirez made his return to the field, announcing his presence with two home runs for seven RBI. I don’t expect Franco to replicate Ramirez’s superhuman healing abilities, but with his success in the final month of 2022, I’m not projecting any residual setbacks in his performance this year.
Despite the lull in what was one of the most celebrated prospect hype trains in recent memory, Franco is a prime candidate for a major breakout. He’s the type of player that, as a fantasy manager, I would rather be a year early on than a year late on. Currently being drafted among names like Dansby Swanson, Oneil Cruz and Tommy Edman, Franco has the potential to be a top-five player at the position this season if things go right.
Byron Buxton, OF
Would You Rather Round Two!
Okay, we can concede that Player A has better numbers nearly across the board. That’s Mike Trout since the beginning of the 2021 season. He missed considerable time in 2021 and came back to have the kind of season that nearly everyone expected from a perennial all-star. Player B is Byron Buxton since the beginning of 2021. Granted, he lost a significant chunk of time in each season, but his numbers aren’t far off from Trout (a consensus first or second-rounder).
At this point in his career, it feels like Buxton has burned multiple generations of fantasy managers. He hasn’t reached 400 plate appearances in a season since 2017. The Twins are just as aware (if not more aware) of this fact than fantasy managers are, and have acquired Michael A. Taylor to spell Buxton in center field, allowing him more rest days and potentially allowing the Twins to move him to DH more often. The batted ball metrics are there for Buxton, who ranked top-10 in Barrels per Plate Appearance Percentage (10th, 9.7%) and top-20 in Hard Hit Percentage (18th, 50.2%) last season according to Baseball Savant.
According to reports, Buxton played through A LOT of pain in 2022 while he battled patellar tendonitis. He finally had arthroscopic knee surgery in September after toughing it out for nearly 100 games to clear up his lingering knee issues. Buxton had a six-to-eight week recovery window leading into a normal offseason schedule. By all accounts at Minnesota’s spring training site, he is healthy leading into 2023. The Twins have certainly done their part, not only bringing in Taylor but hiring a new athletic trainer as well, and are hoping that the “fluke injuries” are behind Buxton.
Currently Buxton is being selected outside of the top six or seven rounds in most drafts, behind guys like Cedric Mullins, George Springer and Teoscar Hernández. If Buxton reaches 500 plate appearances for the first time since 2017, he could be a top-25 player in fantasy in 2023 – and I’m not sure you can say that about many other players taken in the seventh round or later.
Kris Bryant, OF
Remember back in 2016 when Kris Bryant was living his best life, fulfilling his destiny as the super-hyped Cubs third base prospect that he had been for the previous couple of years and led his team to the best regular season in baseball and a World Series title with an MVP season? Yeah, nobody outside of the Chicago Metropolitan area does either.
Bryant has not produced at the same level since that point and missed a large chunk of 2022, his first season on a massive new contract with the Colorado Rockies, with back issues and plantar fasciitis. He played in 42 games with excellent batting average (.306) and runs scored (28), but didn’t display the power boost that fantasy managers were hoping for, driving in just 14 RBI and hitting only five home runs, with just one at Coors Field.
Plantar fasciitis typically includes a six-to-eight week recovery timetable, but it depends largely on pain tolerance. Though Bryant has a long list of injuries throughout his career, this is his first stint of missed time due to a foot injury. Assuming that the rest of his body is healthy and ready to go, the foot should be healed to begin the season. Bryant had a platelet-rich plasma injection (like a cortisone shot with a longer healing process) in August and by all reports has had a normal offseason.
Bryant had an all-star season in 2021, dropping his strikeout percentage and increasing his walk percentage and hard-hit percentage from the year prior. Bryant finished 2021 as a top-20 outfielder (and top-10 third baseman), accounting for 86 runs, 73 RBI, 25 home runs and chipping in 10 stolen bases with a solid .265 batting average in 586 plate appearances. With an ATC projection of 20 home runs and a .271 average, Bryant could easily outperform expectations and be an excellent value outside of the top-100. He’s currently being drafted among outfielders Jake McCarthy and Taylor Ward, who both have bigger question marks in their game than the former MVP and four-time All-Star.
Brandon Lowe, 2B
In 2021, Brandon Lowe was one of the top second baseman in the league, mashing 39 home runs, 99 RBI, and 97 runs scored with a .247 batting average. He missed nearly half the 2022 season with a stress reaction in his back and likely wasn’t entirely healthy leading up to his stint on the injury list, batting just .211 in 31 games before heading to the IL.
He came back from his injury looking rejuvenated, at least for a little while, as he stroked a .340 batting average in his first 12 games after returning in mid-July but his production quickly tapered off as he batted just 11-for-70 (.157) in his final 21 games of the season. He was shut down in September, missing the final 24 games of the regular season.
In his limited 2022 sample size, Lowe saw his hard-hit percentage dip to a career-low 38.9% while his ground ball percentage jumped to 37.7%, his highest mark since his rookie year. Lowe also pulled the ball significantly less in 2022, indicating that perhaps his back issues slowed his bat speed.
Keep an eye on Lowe in spring training and look to see how often he’s able to create hard contact, especially to the pull side. If he’s able to get his bat speed back to where it was in 2021, that could signal a return to health and the power numbers that came with it two seasons ago. Like Chisholm, Lowe suffered from a stress fracture in his lower back. However it took the Rays much longer than it took the Marlins to shut down their second baseman and allow him time off to recover. According to reports, Lowe did not swing a bat from September until January, giving his body plenty of time to heal up before heading back to work at spring training.
Lowe is currently being drafted outside the top-10 rounds and could be an outstanding value at the keystone position for those who miss out on Chisholm and the other top-tier options at second base.
Adalberto Mondesi, SS/3B
I almost didn’t even include Adalberto Mondesi, because there’s no possible way he stays healthy, right? Since his debut season in 2016, Mondesi has played in more than 100 games just once (2019) and has never posted more than 450 plate appearances in the same year. Coming off of an ACL tear that occurred in April 2022, Mondesi signed with the Boston Red Sox and has once again become an enigma among fantasy circles.
Just 15 games into the 2022 season, Mondesi tore his ACL on a pickoff attempt. He had just seven hits in 50 at-bats but swiped five bags in five attempts before his season was lost. The good news for Mondesi is that his surgery occurred in early May and has since given him nearly an entire year to recover and rehabilitate his injury. Most athletes are back in action nine months after surgery. Studies have shown that MLB players returning from ACL surgery typically play the season after surgery, though the majority play significantly less. The good news for Mondesi is that he can’t really play less than he has in the past few seasons!
Mondesi has potentially the largest range of outcomes among all players in fantasy baseball entering 2023. He could be an absolute waste of a draft pick. He could return to his 2019-2020 form, hitting around .260, providing some power and stealing bases at an absurd clip. He could fall somewhere in the middle and be a sexier version of 2022 Jorge Mateo. Going on the fringes of the top 250 players drafted, he makes an interesting late-round flyer with a higher ceiling than those being taken around him (Jesse Winker, Justin Turner, CJ Abrams).
When deciding on which if any of these names to take in your drafts, keep in mind draft format as well as league and roster rules. A league with unlimited IL spaces or shallower leagues with more robust waiver wires are much better suited for taking on injury risks.
Look, I’m not a doctor. But I am an optimist! Here’s to a happy, healthy 2023 season!
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)