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The Stretch-Run Injury Returns That Could Swing the MLB Playoff Race

From stars like Luis Severino to complementary players, every contender is poised to regain contributors currently on the IL. Here’s what help might be on the way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s the final week of August, and in previous years, that would mean bracing for the final flurry of MLB trades before the stretch run. In the two-wild-card era, August 31 has been the third-busiest trading day on the baseball calendar, behind only July 30 and July 31, as teams took advantage of the byzantine waiver trade structure to make final upgrades in advance of September and October games.

But this season, the first with a unified July 31 trade deadline, lacks that kind of late-season movement. Without waiver trades, and with free-agent signings and waiver claims generally limited in both quantity and quality at this point, the main way a team can improve now is to call up a top prospect—though that’s also a limited resource, available to only select teams like the Dodgers, who could elect to bring up infielder Gavin Lux if they need a boost—or call on an injured contributor returning to full health.

For every playoff contender, a number of currently injured players are projected to rejoin the roster in the coming weeks, and those players run the gamut from All-Stars to reliable relievers to complementary players who can help in the battle against the attrition of a long baseball season. So let’s zip around the remaining contenders to see what assistance might be on the way before October and look at each team with at least a 10 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, per FanGraphs’ playoff odds. (Sorry, Phillies fans; your team falls below that mark, and your injury luck, with an astounding seven pitchers on the 60-day injured list, has been as rotten as any club’s outside the Bronx.)

New York Yankees

The lengthiest update is the first, as the Yankees’ historic run of injuries continues. Even amid the turmoil, New York’s lineup has chugged along: The Yankees rank second in the majors in runs per game (just 0.005 runs per game behind Minnesota’s league-leading group) and in August have already set the majors’ single-month home run record with a week to spare. But in the event that surprising performers like Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and Cameron Maybin regress, New York has reinforcements on the way.

First baseman/designated hitter Luke Voit is three games into a rehab assignment as he recovers from a sports hernia, while fellow 1B/DH Edwin Encarnación has begun basic rehab work following a broken wrist, and is slated to return sometime in September. Center fielder Aaron Hicks, who went to the IL with an arm strain earlier this month, could begin throwing this week and start a rehab assignment soon after. The wild card is outfielder/DH Giancarlo Stanton, who has played just nine total games this season and is targeting a September return from his knee injury, though he has yet to ramp up his baseball activities beyond hitting off a tee and running on an anti-gravity treadmill; at this point, it’s unclear whether he will have enough time to return to game shape before October.

But the offense, again, has still performed to task even without those middle-of-the-order hitters. The pitching needs more help: Since the beginning of June, Yankees starters rank 27th in the majors with a 5.67 ERA (and 29th with a 5.36 FIP). Because New York failed to bolster its rotation at the trade deadline, help must come from inside the organization if the Yankees want to match, say, the Astros’ pitching this October—and two key impending returnees should provide immediate assistance in that regard. Reliever Dellin Betances and starter Luis Severino should both make their 2019 season debuts in the coming weeks, and even if Severino isn’t stretched out to assume a full starter’s workload—if, instead, he throws in shorter, high-impact bursts like a supercharged Chad Green—their presence would give manager Aaron Boone plenty of flexibility in recording 27 outs every game. A hypothetical group of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Green, Betances, and Severino in some capacity takes the “super bullpen” concept to a maximalist level.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays already have enough pitching to survive a wild-card game. Charlie Morton is a Cy Young contender, Ryan Yarbrough has allowed the lowest OPS in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and manager Kevin Cash can call on a deep bullpen. But if Tampa Bay wants to ensure a wild-card berth and advance through more rounds in the playoffs, it needs its other top starters back.

Unfortunately, the Rays’ injury outlook isn’t promising, even beyond the fact that contributors like Yandy Díaz and Brandon Lowe are out for the season. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who hasn’t pitched since July due to a minor elbow surgery, is still without a clear targeted date for his return, and thus seems unlikely to pitch again for Tampa Bay until late September; ditto for starter Yonny Chirinos, who isn’t at Snell’s level but has turned in a pleasant 2019 season nonetheless. Better news comes from breakout hurler Tyler Glasnow (1.86 ERA in eight starts), who has progressed to throwing live batting practice after four months off the mound with a forearm strain, and thus might return by early September—but even then, Glasnow looks slated to return as a reliever given the lack of time to stretch him back out as a starting man. The Rays’ definition of a reliever might be more flexible than most teams’ because of their prolific use of the opener, but they’d still surely prefer to have Glasnow available for 90-plus pitches every night, and for Snell and Chirinos to be available at all as they compete in a three-team race for two wild-card spots.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are in fine shape injury-wise, with only three players on the IL, and among those three only one is a definite postseason contributor. Center fielder Byron Buxton should return this week after starting a rehab assignment over the weekend, and Minnesota will be thrilled when he does. The Twins are 57-25 when Buxton plays (the full-season equivalent of 113 wins) and just 22-26 (the equivalent of 74 wins) when he doesn’t, and while that discrepancy overstates his value, Minnesota is undoubtedly a better team with Buxton manning the outfield.

Cleveland Indians

Cleveland was positioned for a September charge, with injured players set to supplement a resurgent roster, but disaster struck twice in recent days. First, starter Corey Kluber was shut down from throwing for two weeks after leaving a rehab start early, so he now might not return at all this year from the forearm fracture that halted his season on May 1. Then third baseman José Ramírez suffered a wrist fracture, which will in all likelihood end his season. Cleveland still has some promising on-field news—outfielder Jordan Luplow should soon rejoin the team, and pitcher Carlos Carrasco, in his return from an absence due to leukemia, struck out six of the 14 batters he faced in three minor league outings last week—but the club’s other injury misfires are enough reason for their playoff hopes to swoon.

Houston Astros

The Astros will coast into the playoffs; the matter now is ensuring that the roster is whole and healthy come October. To that concern, shortstop Carlos Correa is on the IL after experiencing lower back stiffness, but his injury isn’t expected to sideline him for long. New starter Aaron Sanchez and reliever Ryan Pressly pose greater uncertainty. Sanchez is on the IL because of pectoral discomfort, which manifested in a 2-3 mile per hour drop in fastball velocity in his last game, and he has a squishier timeline to return than Correa. And Pressly, who underwent knee surgery on August 23, is expected to miss four to six weeks from that date, which would place his return in the regular season’s final week at the earliest. Given Pressly’s bona fides as perhaps the most effective reliever in baseball since his trade to Houston last season, his potential loss rates are among the more meaningful of any in the majors this month; at the moment, the Astros have a dominant rotation but an unsettled bullpen beyond Roberto Osuna and Will Harris.

Oakland Athletics

The two most important injured Athletics will be back in Oakland shortly, even if the exact dates aren’t yet secure. Center fielder Ramón Laureano is in the midst of rehab activities, and while starter Sean Manaea hasn’t pitched in the majors this season after shoulder surgery, he’s thrown well in rehab games this summer, and struck out 53 batters in 36 1/3 innings. A newly injured player—right fielder Stephen Piscotty, who reached the IL over the weekend with a high ankle sprain—has a longer road back, but Laureano’s impending return makes Piscotty’s loss more palatable for the Oakland lineup.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves are the majors’ hottest team, and they have eight consecutive wins despite half the regular lineup missing. Shortstop Dansby Swanson rejoined the team on Monday, but the other involved players have rehabilitation timelines that could squeeze up against the end of the regular season. Center fielder Ender Inciarte strained a hamstring in the middle of August, and his projected four-to-six-week absence could take him toward the close of September; ditto right fielder Nick Markakis, who is expected to miss six to eight weeks after breaking a wrist in late July. And catcher Brian McCann, who joined his teammates on the IL last week with a knee sprain, will miss at least a few weeks. At least rookie outfielder Austin Riley, who had cooled after a scorching start to his MLB career, has begun a rehab assignment for a partial LCL tear in his knee, so he could help compensate for Inciarte’s and Markakis’s extended absences once he returns in early September.

Washington Nationals

Surprise! The Nationals need bullpen help. Closer Sean Doolittle was part of the problem before heading to the injured list this month, and he allowed 10 combined runs in his last five games—a stretch that could be attributed to the knee injury that has since sent him to the IL. Doolittle reportedly hopes to be activated as soon as he’s eligible, which means he could be back on the mound by the end of the month—and presumably back with his typical effectiveness. The other notable National on the IL is first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hasn’t hit much this year (.246/.311/.390, for a 79 wRC+) but at the very least would provide a useful platoon bat down the stretch as a right-handed hitter, because Washington uses lefty Matt Adams as its first baseman most days. Zimmerman is already a week into a rehab stint, so like Doolittle, he’ll be back in the majors soon, too.

New York Mets

The good news for the Mets is that outfielder Brandon Nimmo, currently six games into a rehab assignment, will soon return to bolster the lineup. The bad news is that every other important injured Met is living out a sort of Schrödinger’s cat experiment on the diamond: simultaneously ready to return, and not ready to return, at the same time. Second baseman Robinson Canó has begun taking batting practice as he rebounds from a torn hamstring, but just last Friday came the headline “Mets’ Robinson Canó Said He’s Unsure If He’ll Return This Year.” Infielder Jed Lowrie, who hasn’t played this season due to a litany of injuries, is a week into rehab games, but his return has been delayed all year by even more injuries. And first baseman/outfielder Dominic Smith spent most of the month in a walking boot with no clear timeline for his return, but the Mets management seems to think he’ll be back sometime in September.

St. Louis Cardinals

Outfielders José Martínez and Tyler O’Neill, who both landed on the IL this month with a shoulder sprain and wrist strain, respectively, are due back either by the end of August or the early part of September. Neither player has hit all that well this season, but as rosters expand on September 1, National League teams in particular can use all the dangerous pinch hitters and surplus position players they can fit on the overstuffed 40-man roster.

Chicago Cubs

Depth players like Derek Holland, Daniel Descalso, and Xavier Cedeño could return to the team next month, but the main question for Chicago is when catcher Willson Contreras will be back in the middle of the lineup. Due to a series of unfortunately timed events last month, the Cubs have gone without a strong catching unit for the past three weeks. Contreras went to the IL on July 15 with a strained foot, so the Cubs traded for Martín Maldonado that very day; when Contreras returned on July 24, Chicago figured Maldonado was expendable, so they traded the veteran backstop on deadline day. Except then, Contreras journeyed back to the IL on August 4, this time because of a strained hamstring, and at that point the Cubs surely wished they had Maldonado back.

Instead, they’ve been forced to split catching duties between Víctor Caratini, who is regarded as a poor defender and only an average hitter, and Jonathan Lucroy, who was released by the Angels and subsequently signed by the catching-starved Cubs after Conteras’s latest injury. Contreras—who ranks second among everyday catchers this season with a 128 wRC+—was expected to miss about a month, which would put him on track to return in early September, but he has reportedly not yet resumed baseball activities. As the Cubs fall behind the Cardinals in the NL Central race, they dearly hope their catcher can make a quicker comeback.

Milwaukee Brewers

Starter Brandon Woodruff was in the middle of a breakout season before straining his oblique in late July, at which point the Brewers announced their All-Star starter would miss six weeks. That timeline places Woodruff on track for an early-to-mid-September return, and given the precarious state of Milwaukee’s rotation—the Brewers recently designated Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacín for assignment—the club could use another capable starter as quickly as possible. Beyond Woodruff, more uncertainty surrounds fellow starters Jimmy Nelson and Brent Suter, who could return to the staff this season, albeit likely as relievers. Nelson pitched 14 ineffective innings for Milwaukee earlier this year after recovering from shoulder surgery in 2017 but before suffering an elbow injury in June; Suter has been out all season after a 2018 Tommy John surgery.

Los Angeles Dodgers

L.A. could compete for a World Series trophy with its current roster, injured players forgotten; that’s how deep and talented the Dodgers core appears. Even better for L.A. is that none of the injured players are expected to miss the rest of the season: A variety of contributors, from pitchers Rich Hill, Ross Stripling, and Dylan Floro to outfielder Alex Verdugo and infielder David Freese, all have return ETAs listed in early-to-mid September. The Dodgers’ greatest problem won’t be finding enough good players for the postseason, but rather figuring out which good players to leave off the playoff roster.