Imagine for a moment that you are given possession of a magic wand that can grant any player 162 games of perfect health in 2021.
There would, of course, be any number of worthy recipients of such a gift. What would they get? A season with no pandemic-shortened schedule, no trips to the injured list and no nagging, performance-sapping maladies — just pure, uninterrupted playing time and a chance to shine.
Here is a look at 15 players we would put at the front of the line, with a focus on those who haven’t been able to put together a full, healthy season in a while, if ever.
Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Angels
Everyone wants this to be the year Ohtani truly shows what he can do as a two-way star in the Majors. Remember that first, tantalizing taste? Over roughly the first two months of the 2018 season, Ohtani posted a 3.10 ERA and 30.5% strikeout rate in nine starts, while batting .289/.372/.535 with six homers in 129 plate appearances. But injuries have mostly kept him off the mound ever since, while cutting into his production at the plate. Ohtani is back to putting on a spectacular show this spring, and we’d like to book tickets to it for the next six months.
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres
It’s a bit silly to include someone who just turned 22 — younger than most rookies — and already has established himself as one of the sport’s most talented, energizing and marketable players. But injuries held Tatis to 84 games as a rookie before the pandemic limited his opportunities in 2020. Yet those two seasons combined give us an idea of what full-season Tatis might look like: .301/.374/.582 (154 OPS+) with 39 homers, 98 RBIs, 27 steals and 7.0 Baseball-Reference WAR in 143 games. Sign us up.
Tyler Glasnow, SP, Rays
It took some time and a trade from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay for the 6-foot-8 right-hander to figure things out in the Majors. Unfortunately, a forearm strain stymied Glasnow’s sensational start in 2019 (1.86 ERA through eight outings), and last year offered no chance to boost his playing time. So despite debuting in July 2016, the 27-year-old still has only 315 career innings under his belt, with just one season above 62. The ingredients are there to challenge for a Cy Young Award — they just need time.
Byron Buxton, CF, Twins
Going back to his debut in June 2015, Buxton has played in only 53% of the Twins’ games. Some of that time was spent in the Minors, as a result of offensive struggles, but Buxton also has made numerous trips to the injured list. In his only season with more than 92 games played (2017), Buxton’s tremendous defense and baserunning made him a 5-WAR star. He has since made strides with the bat (117 OPS+ in 2019-20) and at 27, seems primed to finally put it all together if his health cooperates.
Giancarlo Stanton, DH/OF, Yankees
Stanton is here representing the Yankees, though we also could have included Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sánchez, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. The 2017 NL MVP played 158 games in his debut season in the Bronx but just 41 since then. Despite that, he recorded the highest exit velocity in the Majors in both years. Stanton’s 2020 postseason (six homers, 13 RBIs in seven games) reminded the baseball world that when he’s feeling good, he can do things with that bat that nobody else can. Now is the time for Yankees fans to get the full Stanton Experience.
Jordan Hicks, RP, Cardinals
Other Cardinals pitchers would qualify here, too. (The electric Alex Reyes finally could have a big role in ‘20). But Hicks is the one with the mind-boggling, 100-plus mph sinker that creates highlights every time he steps on the mound. In just 102 MLB relief appearances, he’s thrown more pitches that reached triple digits than anyone besides Aroldis Chapman, while also developing a filthy slider. Tommy John surgery interrupted Hicks’ first season as the Cardinals’ closer midway through 2019, but the 24-year-old is now back on the mound, topping 101 mph in his eventful Grapefruit League debut.
Lance McCullers Jr., SP, Astros
The 27-year-old righty has been a consistently stellar performer when on the mound, resulting in an above-average career ERA+ of 110, and a rate of 10 K’s per nine innings. But he also has spent time on the injured list in each of the past five seasons and has never topped 22 starts. McCullers, who lost all of 2019 to Tommy John surgery, is set to reach free agency at season’s end, so the time is right for him to show what he can do.
Joey Gallo, RF, Rangers
Stanton’s power is unmatched, but Gallo’s is about as close as anyone’s. Following back-to-back 40-homer campaigns, Gallo seemed to be emerging as a legitimate MVP candidate in ‘19 (1.074 OPS, 17 homers through June 1), only to have oblique and wrist injuries interfere. Last season was rough, but Gallo is still only 27 and is crushing the ball again this spring. That MVP-caliber campaign might still be in there, along with plenty of fireworks.
Franchy Cordero, OF, Red Sox
Admittedly, 162 games is not a realistic goal here, thanks to a positive COVID test early this spring and competition for Boston’s outfield at-bats. Still, we’ll take what we can get. Since debuting in 2017, Cordero has flashed some eye-popping tools, but he’s played in only 95 total MLB games around several injuries. After two trades in a seven-month span, Cordero will have another shot to gain consistent playing time and convert his power-speed combo into actual production.
Adalberto Mondesi, SS, Royals
Mondesi reached the Majors at 20, but he has struggled to gain traction due to inconsistency and a couple of significant shoulder injuries. Now 25, he’s taken less than two full season’s worth of MLB plate appearances (1,176) while never reaching the 450-mark in any one year. Despite that, he’s led MLB in triples (10, 2019) and steals (24, ‘20), thanks to his game-changing speed. Mondesi slashed .376/.424/.706 with six homers and 16 steals over his final 22 games last year, perhaps setting the stage for a long-awaited breakout.
Mitch Haniger, RF, Mariners
We know what Haniger can do when his body doesn’t break down. In 2018, he played 157 games for Seattle, made the All-Star team, finished 11th in the AL MVP voting and cracked the 6-WAR mark. Unfortunately, injury woes have marred the rest of his career, with some particularly nasty setbacks keeping him out of action since June 6, 2019. Haniger feels he’s found the answer to his physical problems, and he’s back in action this spring. A return to form would be a great comeback story.
Johnny Cueto, SP, Giants
What this selection comes down to is that baseball is more fun when Cueto is on the mound. That’s because nobody does more on the mound than the shimmying, hitching, timing-disrupting Cueto and his collection of funky deliveries. Now 35, Cueto has made just 25 starts over the past three years, but heading into his first full season since Tommy John surgery, he recently said, “I feel really good. I feel like a kid.” Sounds like a recipe for some fun and, perhaps a Cueto renaissance.
AJ Pollock, LF, Dodgers
Here’s a trivia question: Who tied Mookie Betts (16) as the home run leader of the mighty 2020 Dodgers? It wasn’t Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger or Max Muncy. It was Pollock, who rounded back into form after a tough first year in L.A., slugging .566 in 55 games. Like Haniger, Pollock only once put it together for 162 games, notching a 6.9 WAR for the 2015 D-backs. He averaged just a half-season (81) in the following four years, but his short-season production in ‘20 suggests that another All-Star campaign is still possible.
Yordan Alvarez, DH, Astros
Alvarez played only two games in 2020 after a COVID-19 diagnosis and surgery on both knees. Even so, he still managed to homer and drive in four runs. This after he slashed .313/.412/.655 with 27 homers in just 87 games to snag 2019 AL Rookie of the Year honors. His 173 OPS+ tied for the best by a rookie with at least 300 plate appearances in the modern era. Feeling “really good” again this spring, Alvarez can now answer the question: “Can he really hit like that over a full season?”
Garrett Richards, SP, Red Sox
Set to turn 33 in May, Richards is entering his 11th consecutive season appearing in the Majors. Despite that, and pitching primarily as a starter, he’s barely cleared the 800-career inning mark. After making 58 starts with the 2014-15 Angels, an avalanche of injuries have helped hold him to just 41 over the past five seasons. After all that, Richards still throws 95, with a bat-missing breaking ball. The innings will be there in Boston if he can stay on the mound.