Leap year: 10 players poised to bounce back in '16
By Paul Casella
Whether it was a result of injuries or simply not playing up to expectations, the 2015 season did not go quite as planned for a number of players.
The good news for those players -- and their ballclubs -- is that the calendar is ready to flip to 2016, meaning an entirely new season awaits. With that in mind, let's take a look at some players who hope to follow the blueprint laid out last season by Prince Fielder and Matt Harvey, the Comeback Player of the Year Award winners in the American League and National League, respectively.
The following is a list of the 10 players expected to see the greatest improvement in WAR from last season, based on FanGraphs and Steamer's 2016 projections. In other words, this ranking is simply the result of subtracting a player's actual 2015 WAR from his projected '16 WAR. In addition, this ranking considered only players who had at least one previous season with a 3.0 WAR or higher. This prevents prospects who made their debut midseason or other young players poised for breakout campaigns from being included.
Similar to many of the pitchers on this list, the key for Holland will be staying fully healthy for the entire season. The 29-year-old southpaw has missed most of the past two seasons, being limited to only 16 appearances due to knee and shoulder issues. He struggled to a 4.91 ERA over 10 starts in 2015, his most recent injury-shortened campaign. The Rangers, however, have said they aren't worried about any lasting impact from his previous injuries, as they hope that Holland can return to being the pitcher who finished with a 3.42 ERA in 33 starts in '13, his last full season.
Ryu has certainly established himself as a front-line Major League starter when healthy, but he enters 2016 with plenty of question marks surrounding his health. After living up to the hype with a 3.00 ERA over 30 starts in his 2013 rookie season, Ryu missed time on two occasions in 2014 due to shoulder tenderness. He then missed the entire '15 season after being shut down last spring with shoulder discomfort, and the lefty underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his shoulder on May 21. Ryu, who turns 29 in March, has said he expects to be fully healthy and ready for Spring Training, something that would be a welcome sight for a Dodgers team that lost Zack Greinke via free agency and later walked away from signing Hisashi Iwakuma due to concerns about his physical.
Last season was a forgettable one for Puig, who was plagued by hamstring injuries en route to posting career-low numbers across the board in just 79 games. He hit only .255/.322/.436 in his limited action, a far cry from the electrifying .319/.391/.534 line he posted in just 104 games as a rookie in 2013. The Dodgers are hoping Puig can return to full health next year and rediscover that form in the process, though he currently has MLB's investigation into his role in a bar fight looming over his head.
Wainwright was expected to miss the rest of the 2015 season when he suffered a torn left Achilles in late April, but the staff ace made a surprising return in the season's final week. Though Wainwright did not make a start following his comeback -- instead making six relief appearances between the regular season and postseason -- his return at least proved that he should be fully ready by next season. Wainwright finished in the top three in NL Cy Young Award voting in both 2013 and '14, and he had a 1.44 ERA in 25 innings last season before suffering the freak injury as he left the batter's box.
Fernandez's name has surfaced in a number of trade rumors this offseason, but for the time being, the 23-year-old ace is expected to return to the Marlins next year. Fernandez has been dominant during his brief time in the Majors, logging a 2.40 ERA over 47 career starts. The problem is that those 47 starts have come over the span of three seasons. He was limited to only eight starts in 2014 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, which kept him out until July 2 this past season. He hit the ground running, posting a 2.30 ERA in his first seven starts before missing another month due to a biceps strain. The Marlins are hoping they get a chance to finally see what Fernandez can do with another fully healthy season in 2016.
5(t). Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays 2015 WAR: 0.5 Projected 2016 WAR: 3.4 Change: 2.9
Stroman is another pitcher who made an unexpected, albeit welcome, return following an early-season injury. The Jays entered 2015 hoping for a breakout year from the talented young righty, but Stroman's season was cut short when he suffered a torn ACL during fielding practice in March. He was initially ruled out for the season, but the righty rejoined the club in September and went on to win all four of his regular-season starts while posting a 1.67 ERA.
Instead of building on his breakout 2014, Rendon spent the majority of last season just trying to get on the field. After hitting .287/.351/.473 with 21 homers, 17 stolen bases, 83 RBIs and a league-leading 111 runs scored in '14, Rendon suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee early last spring. His return from the MCL sprain was delayed by an oblique injury that he sustained during a rehab outing. Then, after finally making his debut on June 4, he played only 18 games before a strained quad cost him another month. All told, Rendon played only 80 games last season, but he enters 2016 fully healthy and ready to return to his natural position at third base.
3. Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox 2015 WAR: -2.0 Projected 2016 WAR: 1.8 Change: 3.8
Sandoval's debut season with the Red Sox was an underwhelming one, to say the least. A postseason hero with the Giants, Sandoval hit .245/.292/.366 with just 10 home runs in his first year in Boston, all while playing below-average defense at the hot corner. That, of course, came after Sandoval signed a five-year, $95 million contract last offseason. His struggles certainly contributed to Boston's last-place finish in the AL East, but the Red Sox are hoping both he and the club can turn things around in 2016.
Darvish is near the top of this list, despite the fact that he's not expected to be ready by Opening Day. In fact, the Rangers aren't expecting to have their ace back until at least May, as Darvish continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery. Even if Darvish is in the rotation for only five months, however, that figures to be more than enough time for the 29-year-old righty to make an impact. He has a 3.27 ERA through his first three big league seasons, all while racking up 680 strikeouts in only 545 1/3 innings.
It's no secret that the Red Sox were interested in moving Ramirez this winter, but it appears -- for now at least -- that he will begin the year as the club's first baseman. The former shortstop moved to the outfield in 2015 after signing a four-year, $88 million deal to join the Sox, but he is now expected to transition to first base. That switch to the outfield may have contributed to his woeful season in Boston, as his production dipped significantly following a shoulder injury he suffered after crashing into the wall in early May. He later had issues with his other shoulder, and Ramirez played his final game on Aug. 26. It's easy to forget that Ramirez actually hit 10 home runs in just 21 games last April before hitting only nine more the rest of the season. For the Red Sox, a bounce-back season from either Ramirez or Sandoval -- or potentially both -- could go a long way in their quest to return to the postseason.
Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.