Redemption Arc: Three Players With Something to Prove in 2023
Major-league baseball players getting injured is one of the most frustrating experiences for a franchise’s front office and a team’s most dedicated fans. When a star player goes down on injury, the effects are felt on almost every level of that player’s respective team. The most glaring example of an injury drastically impacting a team was Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2022. In the offseason, Tatis fell off his motorcycle and broke his wrist, an injury that would sideline him for the better part of the 2022 season. Later in the year, Tatis tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, landing him a brutal 80-game suspension. The frustration was immediately felt. Many Padres fans speculated that if Tatis wasn’t injured on his motorcycle, he probably wouldn’t have been tested positive for PEDs. Fernando was away from the team and its doctors for some time, and he allegedly tested positive for the PEDs because of a ringworm medication containing a steroid that came up on his PED test. Whether or not this actually happened, it goes to show the impact an injury can have on a player and his career. Tatis certainly has a lot to prove in the 2023 season, where his reputation is on the line as one of the game’s superstars.
This article will examine two players who have spent the last couple of seasons sidelined by injury and are looking to prove or reestablish themselves as quality professional baseball players. Furthermore, this article will discuss one player who recently has been thrust into a starting role after the initial starter suffered an injury in a Spring Training game.
Chris Sale was on a hall-of-fame trajectory for his entire career before several significant IL stints over the last few seasons. Taking a look at his Baseball Savant page will impress even the most casual fans of baseball. In 2015, his percentile rankings were bright red pretty much across the board. His 2015 season was the start of a three-season streak of throwing over 200 innings, with his highest inning count amounting to 226.2 in 2016. This workload and Sale’s ability to dominate games solidified him among the game’s elite pitchers, and it seemed he would be a top-tier starter for the foreseeable future. When his Red Sox won the 2018 World Series, Sale threw just 158 innings. He answered this lower inning count with a career-best, and simply ridiculous, 38.4% strikeout rate. Sale was on top of the world, but his 2019 season would be the start of a decline that would last until the end of 2022.
2019 was extremely disappointing for Sale. Juiced ball or not, Sale put up the worst numbers of his career that season, pitching to a 4.40 ERA in just 147.1 innings. The strikeout stuff was there, but Sale surrendered a ton of hard contact, posting a measly 1.47 home runs per nine innings. The Red Sox would place Sale on the injured list with elbow inflammation, and he would eventually be transferred to the 60-day IL on September 1st, ending his season early. Sadly, Sale’s injury journey was just beginning. The entire 2020 season was lost due to Sale getting Tommy John surgery. The 2021 season saw Sale start only 9 games, where he pitched to a 3.16 ERA in 42.2 innings. He did not even qualify for Baseball Savant’s major percentile rankings due to his small sample size. Before Spring Training in 2022, Sale suffered a rib stress fracture, and he started the season on the 60-day IL. He made his way back to the mound in July of 2022. After throwing 5.2 innings, his 2022 season would end after he was struck by a line drive that fractured his finger. The cherry on top was that shortly thereafter, the Red Sox announced Sale had surgery on his right wrist to repair an injury from a bicycle accident. All of these injuries and complications severely damaged Sale’s reputation as an athlete. He went from being one of the most feared strikeout pitchers in the game to the guy who couldn’t stay healthy if he were covered in bubble wrap. The 2023 season is, perhaps, the most crucial season of Sale’s career. Followers of the game know how high his ceiling is, and Sale surely hopes to recreate some of his past success so he can recapture his elite status.
Michael Conforto has been an above-average outfielder for his entire career. He is considered by many to be among the league’s most underrated players. Conforto was drafted 10th overall in the first round by the Mets in 2014. Just three years later, he would show New York and the rest of baseball that he could hang with the best in the game. In 2017, Conforto broke out, displaying impressive power numbers with a .555 slugging percentage and above-average discipline with a respectable .384 on-base percentage. Most impressively, he had a 147 wRC+. Conforto was well on his way down the path of blossoming into an established big-league hitter. In 2019, Conforto played 151 games and had 648 plate appearances, more than enough playing time to further prove himself at the plate. He put up great numbers that season, as he clubbed 33 home runs and drove in 92 runs. His percentile rankings for the 2019 season back up his impressive performance. His best ranks came in the form of an 85th percentile in Max Exit Velocity, 83rd in Barrel%, 82nd in xSLG, and 90th in Walk Percentage. While his strikeout numbers were the weakest part of his game, Conforto offset that downside by producing well above average for the entire 2019 season. Even the 2020 shortened season was kind to Conforto. He slashed .322/.412/.515 with a 158 wRC+. He even played in 54 of the 60 games in the schedule that year. His 2021 season was slightly less productive, but Conforto was still headed into free agency as one of the most desired players and would certainly be paid what he deserved in the 2022 offseason.
In reality, Conforto would miss the entire 2022 season. After injuring his shoulder in an offseason workout, Conforto would be forced to get season-ending surgery. He was not on a team for the entire season either, spending the entirety of it as a free agent. Conforto’s focus would be on rehabbing his shoulder in order to pick up where he left off for the 2023 season. This decision ended up working out for Conforto. The San Francisco Giants signed him to a 2-year, $36 million deal. This signing was risky, but it has a large upside that should not be ignored. Conforto still has the potential to produce in a high capacity in this Giants lineup. With a career OPS of .824, the Giants are surely hoping to get a version of Conforto that can produce at that level. In fact, in his first 16 at bats in Spring Training, Conforto is hitting .313 with a 1.243 OPS and is currently on a three-game home-run streak. While this is certainly a flash in the pan, it can’t be overlooked as an extreme confidence booster for Conforto, as he plays his first games of baseball in over a year.
Miguel Rojas finds himself about to play a role for the Dodgers that he did not sign up for. The Dodgers planned on using Gavin Lux as their starting shortstop for the 2023 season. The young player was anticipated to have his best season yet as the full-time shortstop. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Lux tore his ACL and sprained his LCL, ending his 2023 season. Rojas is different from the other players on this list, as he is not the injured player, but someone who will see a drastic increase in playing time because of an injured player. Lux is just 25 years old. The 34-year-old Rojas has now been thrust into the spotlight at the most important position on the field on one of the league’s most competitive teams.
The Dodgers signed Rojas to a 2-year, $11 million deal. He was signed for his defense, as the veteran posted a career-best 98th percentile ranking for Outs Above Average in 2022. Rojas was set to be a utility man, as his defense, although inconsistently successful from year to year, could be utilized all over the field. He was clearly not signed for his offensive numbers. Rojas has a career wRC+ of 85 (15 points below league average) and just 39 home runs in 955 games played. However, the situation with Rojas becomes a bit more complex when considering what the Dodgers’ coaching staff has been able to do with fading veteran players. Last year, Andrew Heaney and Tyler Anderson both resurrected their careers. Both of those pitchers went on to be very valuable for their team, as they led the way to a 111-win season in Los Angeles. Is a career-saving season on the horizon for the 34-year-old Rojas? None of his 2022 percentile rankings point to one, but there is no denying the magic touch the Dodgers seem to have with these types of players. If Rojas does end up producing well at the plate, the Dodgers will have signed their starting shortstop for just $5.5 million per year. If Miguel performs as expected, the Dodgers can simply tap into their infinite source of money and acquire a player to fill the gap until Lux is ready to come back. In any case, Rojas will have a very interesting season. A huge fanbase will have their eyes on him as he tries to earn their respect with a formidable offensive season. Paired with great defense, a season like that would be an excellent way for Rojas to prove himself.
Every one of the players highlighted above has something to prove in their 2023 seasons. These players are all in their 30s, but they all still have a real chance of impressing the league with a good performance. It is hard not to root for players coming back from injury. If Sale and Conforto end up having stellar years, it will put them as the frontrunners for the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2023. In Rojas’ case, he is hoping some of the Dodgers’ coaching magic leads to a better year than he usually produces. Take notice of these players in 2023. They might be some of the most interesting stories of the upcoming season.
"Chris Sale in 2017" via Keith Allison licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0