These returning stars will be as good as a blockbuster deal

Didn’t get who you wanted at the MLB trade deadline? Injured stars whose return will be as good as a blockbuster deal.

The Los Angeles Dodgers approached the 2022 MLB trade deadline with the confidence that they could compete for the best available players — but with the belief that they might not have to.

Their injured list, ironically enough, emboldened them.

The Dodgers took a flier on Joey Gallo, whom they hope to revive within an outfield mix that at times has seemed shallow. But they did very little on the pitching front, not adding a single arm to their rotation, the area outsiders identified as their most pressing need down the stretch. As part of his reasoning, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman rattled off a list of seven pitchers who are expected to return in the near future, several of whom boast either the track record or the talent — or both — to make a sizable impact on their postseason run.

“I think our pitching staff is really good and will most likely get considerably better,” Friedman said. “I feel really, really confident that we’ll have a really good 13-man pitching staff in October.”

Dustin May embodies most of that belief. The 24-year-old right-hander is nearly 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery and three rehab outings into his progression. His recovery, Friedman said, has been “extremely encouraging.” Before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, May was establishing himself as one of the best young pitchers in the sport, with a 2.74 ERA and 35 strikeouts in his first 23 innings of 2021 — thanks in large part to a ridiculous, upper-90s two-seamer that continually baffled the game’s best hitters.

Getting May back, the Dodgers believe, is equivalent to a blockbuster trade, except they didn’t have to give anything up in exchange. They also expect two of their most important relievers, Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol, to return at some point this month. The same can be said about Danny Duffy, who was putting together a stellar season out of the Kansas City Royals‘ rotation before suffering a flexor strain in July 2021. And then there’s Walker Buehler, their ace and also their wild card, who suffered his own flexor strain nearly eight weeks ago and might — might — return in September.

The Dodgers’ inactivity could prove prophetic or it could backfire. There’s really no telling at this point. But the knowledge of who might return — not to mention their major-league-leading 2.95 ERA — colored their pursuit of controllable, top-flight starting pitchers available at the deadline, such as Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas and Pablo Lopez, the latter of whom ended up not being traded. And L.A. wasn’t alone.

This year’s trade deadline was marked not just by the stars who were moved but by those who didn’t — J.D. Martinez, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, Gregory Soto, Nathan Eovaldi, Chad Kuhl and Martin Perez, to name a few. The extra wild-card spots this October probably made fringe teams more hesitant to part with win-now players, and thus drove up the asking prices. On the other side, though, there was the injured list — sadly brimming once again with star talent and making contenders feel as if their best solutions might reside in-house.

Beyond L.A., here is a look at more recovering players who could have the greatest impact on these next three months.

National League

Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves

Albies isn’t just a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman. He isn’t just an important power source in the lineup. He is in many ways the heart and soul of the Braves, which is why his loss on June 13, when he fractured his left foot, was so difficult to measure. The Braves won the World Series last year without Ronald Acuna Jr.; they have the talent to contend even without Albies, as they’ve shown while surging through these past two months. But Albies’ presence takes them to a different level. And it’s still unclear when he might return. We’ve reached the seven-week mark of a timetable that was initially estimated at eight-to-12 weeks, and there hasn’t been a lot of clarity on his status. Clearly his return will come on the back end of that, at the earliest.

Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

It had been nearly 13 months since deGrom toed the rubber in a major league game — and yet he still looked very much like Jacob deGrom this week. He threw five innings of one-run ball against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, reaching 102 mph with his fastball and 95 mph with his slider while displaying impressive, deGrom-like command of both pitches. Remember that the biggest reason for optimism in Flushing heading into this season was the prospect of having deGrom and Max Scherzer atop the rotation. Even without that dynamic, the Mets established themselves as legitimate championship contenders. Now deGrom is back, joining not just Scherzer but also Chris Bassitt, Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker to form a devastating starting staff.

Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals

You could argue there was no greater need among contenders heading into the trade deadline than the Cardinals and starting pitching. Acquiring Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana certainly helps, but nothing would help more than getting Flaherty back. At full strength, Flaherty is the type of bona fide, lights-out ace crucial to a pitch-to-contact rotation. But he has compiled only 24⅓ innings over the past eight months of baseball and is still in the early stages of his recovery from a shoulder strain. There’s no telling when, or if, Flaherty will return. The Cardinals can’t count on it at this point.

Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies

Harper was putting together another dominant offensive season, batting .318/.385/.599 with 15 home runs in 64 games before fracturing his left thumb in late June. Somehow, the Phillies won 15 of 25 games in July without him to temporarily grab a lead for the final playoff spot in the NL. And before the end of August, Harper, who had pins removed from his thumb Monday, should return to a team that looks stronger than the one he left. Prior to Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Phillies added Brandon Marsh to improve their center-field defense, Noah Syndergaard to help stabilize their rotation and David Robertson to fortify the back end of their bullpen. But getting Harper back in the middle of their lineup — and perhaps even in right field — will be the biggest boost.

Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

The Padres traded for arguably the greatest pure hitter since Ted Williams this week. A few weeks later, they’ll add arguably the most electrifying player in the sport. Tatis has spent the entire season rehabbing from surgery to his left wrist but has progressed to the point where he is now seeing live pitching. A rehab assignment will follow. And then Tatis will slot into a lineup featuring Manny Machado and the newly acquired Juan Soto, plus two other deadline additions in Josh Bell and Brandon Drury. The Padres entered August in prime position despite sharing a division with the Dodgers and sporting the fifth-lowest slugging percentage in the majors. Soto — and Bell and Drury — instantly place them among the game’s best teams. But Tatis’ return is also monumental.

American League

Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays’ injured list is long, but the big name is Franco, the 21-year-old shortstop who was just starting to tap into his superstar potential before suffering a fractured hamate bone on July 9. The timetable has him scheduled to return at some point around late August or early September, and the Rays — with 15 other players on the IL, most notably Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, Manuel Margot, Kevin Kiermaier, Mike Zunino and Andrew Kittredge — could certainly use him. Franco showed last year just how much of a factor he can be in October.

Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners

The Mariners, vying for their first trip to the postseason in more than 20 years, made one of the biggest splashes of the trade deadline by sending an impressive package of prospects to the Cincinnati Reds for starting pitcher Luis Castillo. But they didn’t make any moves on offense, largely because they see upside there. Julio Rodriguez and Ty France, who represented the team at the All-Star Game, are expected to return soon from their respective wrist injuries. And so is Haniger, who has been out since late April because of a high ankle sprain. Haniger has already played in a handful of rehab games and would give the Mariners a crucial, experienced power bat for the stretch run. The 31-year-old right-handed hitter boasted an .804 OPS with 39 home runs and 100 RBIs last season, and somehow the Mariners have been thriving without that production.

Lance McCullers Jr., Houston Astros

The success of the Astros’ rotation stands as one of the most surprising storylines of the season, from Justin Verlander leading the Cy Young race as a 39-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery to four inexpensive international acquisitions — Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javiersomehow thriving in the major leagues. That allowed the Astros to deal Jake Odorizzi to the Braves for lefty reliever Will Smith. Now McCullers is nearing his return. McCullers, out all year because of a flexor tendon injury, could be a week or two away from rejoining the Astros’ rotation, which could eventually push Javier into a bullpen role and set the Astros up for another World Series run.

Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays improved a needy bullpen prior to the trade deadline by acquiring Anthony Bass and Zach Pop from the Miami Marlins, but Pearson could be a wild card for them in October. The 25-year-old right-hander has been limited to five appearances this season because of a bout of mononucleosis and, more recently, a lat strain. But he is slowly working his way back, and the hope is that the heralded starting-pitching prospect can be available to the Blue Jays in a bullpen role down the stretch. His triple-digit fastball and his hellacious slider in short, high-leverage situations could be just what the Blue Jays need to get past the Yankees and Astros. But a lot of things have to go right before that becomes a reality.

Luis Severino, New York Yankees

Severino began a throwing program this week but was transferred to the 60-day IL, pushing his return back to mid-September. The decision surprised outsiders and angered Severino, who has been out since the middle of July because of a lat strain. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said the plan is for Severino to make a handful of regular-season starts and be fresh for the playoffs, and there’s still time for that. The Yankees’ rotation has been a pleasant surprise and is even better now with the addition of Montas. But a healthy Severino, with a 3.45 ERA and 95 strikeouts in his first 86 innings this season, would make them better equipped for October.

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