From the inaugural winners in 2005, Jason Giambi and Ken Griffey, Jr., to last year’s winners, Matt Harvey and Prince Fielder, the list of players that have won the Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Year Award reads like an All-Star ballot. With pitchers and catchers ready to report in the next month, this year’s group of candidates is no different.
While most of these players missed all or a major part of the 2015 season due to injury, others simply had a sub-par season when compared to their typical standards. Each bounce-back candidate should provide your Fantasy team with great value attached to their draft pick as they vie for the AL and NL Comeback Player of the Year Awards.
American League Comeback Player of the Year Candidates:
Yu Darvish burst onto the scene in 2012, finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting with a 16-9 record along with a 3.90 ERA and 221 strikeouts. He only got better in year two, finishing second in the vote for the AL Cy Young with a 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 277 strikeouts. The upward trend continued in 2014, when Darvish threw his first complete game shutout and reached the 500-strikeout mark in fewer innings pitched than any starting pitcher in MLB history.
The Texas Rangers’ ace was primed to be a Top-5 Fantasy pitcher in 2015, but Darvish sadly tore the UCL in his right throwing elbow and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. After sitting out the entire 2015 season, Darvish looks ready to lead the Rangers pitching staff once again.
Much like Harvey’s return from Tommy John, expect Darvish to be on par with his career averages and net your Fantasy team 200-plus strikeouts, 13-plus wins and a sub-3.30 ERA. The addition of Cole Hamels should also help Darvish, as he will likely slot into the number two hole in the pitching rotation, allowing him to avoid other team’s aces early on in the season.
Look for Darvish to take home some hardware as the 2016 AL Comeback Player of the Year, just like his Rangers’ teammate Fielder did in 2015.
Another pitcher that was primed for stardom in 2015 was Alex Cobb of the Tampa Bay Rays. Cobb was also one of the almost 30 pitchers that missed all or part of 2015 due to Tommy John surgery.
The Rays’ ace was coming off almost identical 2013 and 2014 seasons (2013: 11 wins, 2.76 ERA, 1.15 WHIP; 2014: 10 wins, 2.87 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) when a May MRI revealed a partial UCL tear in his pitching elbow. One Tommy John surgery and 12 months later, Cobb is again healthy and primed for a big comeback in 2016.
On draft day, don’t shy away from pitchers like Cobb coming off Tommy John surgery, as most revert back to their old selves following a year off. Expect a sub-3.00 ERA, 10-plus wins and a strikeout per inning from the righty, who will be in the discussion for Comeback Player of the Year all season.
Honorable Mention: Jacoby Ellsbury
Ellsbury seemed like he couldn’t get completely healthy in 2015 and put up one of the worst seasons of his career. I like him as a dark horse for the AL Comeback Player of the Year, coming off a season in which he hit just .257 with seven home runs, 66 runs scored and 33 RBIs. If the Yankee outfielder can even match the numbers he put up in his first season in the Bronx (.271, 16 home runs, 71 runs scored, 70 RBIs and 39 stolen bases), he will be in the conversation for the award.
Ellsbury will likely be in the bargain bin this season, and I say you take a shot on him in the middle rounds of your draft. While Francisco Liriano is the only person to win the MLB Comeback Player of the Year award multiple times (2010 AL, 2013 NL), look for Ellsbury to potentially add his name to that short list (he previously won in 2011 with the Boston Red Sox).
National League Comeback Player of the Year Candidates:
The National League has two pitchers and one position player that stand out as Comeback Player of the Year Award candidates for 2016. Again, health was the major concern for each of these former All Stars in 2015, but following a full offseason to heal, each of them will likely put up elite Fantasy numbers again this year.
The man I see as the early favorite is the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright.
After seeing him return from what was thought to be a season-ending Achilles injury to pitch in the playoffs, Wainwright put to rest any concerns about his health moving forward. Since his last major injury (Tommy John surgery), which caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, Waino’s numbers have progressively improved. The veteran right-hander had a 3.94 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 2012, 2.94 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 2013, and 2.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 2014. In a small sample size in 2015, he continued in the right direction with a 1.61 ERA and 1.04 WHIP.
With the Cardinals’ ace back at 100 percent, I expect him to continue to dominate hitters and be awarded the NL Comeback Player of the Year award at season’s end.
Another pitcher that should be in the mix for the award is Marlins’ ace Jose Fernandez. While he’s only 23 years old, the righty is coming off not one, but two injury-shortened seasons. In each of those seasons, Fernandez stuck out more than a batter per inning and compiled a sub-3.00 ERA. During his only full season, at the ripe age of 21, the could-be perennial Cy Young candidate boasted a 2.19 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP along with 12 wins and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings.
Just imagine how good this kid could be if he can avoid the injury bug. But we really don’t know if we’re looking at the next Mark Prior (remember him?) or Clayton Kershaw. I’ll put my money on Kershaw and say that Fernandez could win the NL Comeback Player of the Year along with the Cy Young this year.
Speaking of Kershaw, his Dodger teammate Yasiel Puig could very well have a season worthy of the Comeback Player of the Year award. Following two seasons in which the slugger hit a combined 35 home runs and batted over .300, he played in just 79 games last season due to lingering hamstring issues. As a result, the 25-year-old Cuban tallied career lows in batting average (.255), home runs (11) and RBIs (38). That, combined with off-field issues, has sent Puig’s ADP into a free fall.
With a new coaching staff in Los Angeles and a seemingly healthy body, Puig should outperform his draft position and bounce back to his previous form. If any position player is to win the NL Comeback Player of the Year award, Puig is atop that list.