We’ve grown accustomed to seeing headline after headline indicating that a pitcher is slated to undergo Tommy John surgery in today’s game. The procedure has become so commonplace, in fact, that it’s no longer surprising to see teams guarantee multi-year deals to rehabbing pitchers who’ll be sidelined for a full season of that contract as they work back from the injury. Such deals have produced varying levels of success in the past. Nathan Eovaldi’s two-year deal with the Rays worked out great; Drew Smyly didn’t pitch for the Cubs and posted a 6.24 after being traded to the Rangers.
Heading into the 2022 season, there are a handful of notable pitchers who were either signed under just that circumstance or are now playing for a contract on the heels of a Tommy John surgery that, hopefully, is more or less in the rearview mirror. A strong rebound will position any of this bunch either as a prominent member of next winter’s free-agent crop or, in some cases, to have a lucrative 2023 club option picked up. Here’s a look at a handful of Tommy John recoveries that could have a notable impact on next year’s market.
Mike Clevinger: A marquee addition by the Padres at the 2020 trade deadline, Clevinger made only four regular-season starts and a one-inning postseason cameo before requiring Tommy John surgery in the 2020-21 offseason. San Diego, knowing he’d miss the entire 2021 season, signed him to a two-year, $11.5MM deal that paid him $2MM during his rehab season but will more heavily compensate him in 2022, now that he’s expected to be back to full strength. It was the second Tommy John procedure of Clevinger’s career, as he also had the surgery as a minor leaguer back in 2012.
There’s little questioning Clevinger’s talent, as the now-31-year-old righty was one of the most effective starters in all of baseball from 2017 until the time of his injury in 2020. In 489 1/3 innings over that stretch, Clevinger posted a 2.96 ERA while punching out 28% of his opponents against a 9% walk rate. Among big league pitchers with at least 400 innings thrown during that time, Clevinger ranked seventh in ERA and 14th in FIP (3.39). That said, he’s also only reached 130 innings in a big league season on one occasion, when he threw an even 200 frames in 2019.
That relatively limited workload, coupled with this being Clevinger’s second Tommy John procedure, will surely impact his free agency next winter to an extent. That said, a strong and healthy season out of the righty will still position him as one of the top arms on next winter’s market. Clevinger, teammate Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea and Noah Syndergaard are among the more prominent free agents still in their early 30s next winter (to say nothing of older veterans with contract options or opt-outs, such as Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton).
James Paxton: Paxton isn’t necessarily playing for a free-agent contract. He signed a complicated multi-year deal with the Red Sox that’ll pay him $6MM in 2022 before he can either trigger a $4MM player option or the team can exercise a pair of $13MM club options for the 2023-24 seasons. For luxury-tax purposes, that should be considered a two-year, $10MM deal, as the player option for 2023 is considered to be guaranteed money. Of course, there’s also the possibility that with a healthy season, the contract will effectively balloon to a contract that pays Paxton $32MM over a three-year term. The deal contains further incentives, as Paxton could boost those 2023-24 salaries by $250K apiece for reaching 12, 14, 16 and 18 starts.
It’s a heavily incentive-laden deal that speaks both to the considerable risk in signing Paxton and the considerable upside he’ll bring to Boston. A healthy Paxton is a high-quality big league starter, evidenced the career 3.50 ERA he carried into an injury-ruined 2020 season with the Yankees. Among the 149 big league starters to toss at least 200 innings from 2017-19, Paxton’s 30.1% strikeout rate ranked seventh, and his 7.3% walk rate was markedly better than league average. His 22.7 K-BB% was among the best in the game, as were his strong ratings in the eyes of fielding-independent metrics like FIP (3.26) and SIERA (3.45).
Since that 2019 season, however, Paxton has undergone back surgery, missed significant time with a forearm strain and eventually undergone Tommy John surgery. Earlier in his career, he’d dealt with lat, forearm and pectoral injuries, among a litany of smaller-scale issues.
There’s probably a scenario where Paxton pitches well enough to turn down his $4MM player option even if the Red Sox decline the effective two-year, $26MM option they hold over him. (We saw a comparable situation play out with Yusei Kikuchi earlier in the winter.) That said, the ideal scenario for Paxton and the Sox is that he pitches well enough to reestablish himself as a quality MLB hurler and boost those two club options to $14MM apiece in total value in the process.
Paxton underwent his Tommy John procedure in late April, so he’s not likely to be ready to help the Red Sox at the beginning of the season. By late May or June, however, he could represent a boost to a rotation that is not exactly shy of other injury concerns.
Justin Verlander: Even though he hasn’t pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery, Verlander still got a hefty $25MM guarantee from the Astros — plus a conditional $25MM player option that kicks in if he reaches 130 innings pitched. The two-time Cy Young winner and former AL MVP has a track record that speaks for itself; when we last saw Verlander in a full, healthy season, he was edging then-teammate Gerrit Cole for the 2019 AL Cy Young Award.
Verlander has said in the past that he hopes to pitch into his 40s, and he has a good chance at doing so if he can bounce back this coming season. He’ll turn 39 later this week, and if he goes out and looks anything like he did from 2015-20 — 1010 innings, 2.94 ERA, 29.7% strikeout rate, 6% walk rate — Verlander will likely turn down that $25MM option, or at least leverage it into a new multi-year arrangement with the ’Stros. He was just promised a $25MM guarantee despite having thrown only six innings since Opening Day 2020, so there’s little reason to accept that he’d take a year and $25MM on the heels of a healthy return effort at Minute Maid Park.
Noah Syndergaard: Perhaps it’s not quite fair to label Syndergaard as a Tommy John rehabber; after all, he did make it back to the mound with the Mets late in the 2021 season — albeit for only two innings. That said, this is Thor’s first full season back from that ligament replacement procedure, and he’ll be pitching for a big contract next winter from the moment he suits up in Orange County. Signed by the Angels to a one-year, $21MM contract, Syndergaard will be pitching with a team other than the Mets for the first time in his big league career.
It’s a hefty price to pay, particularly considering the fact that Syndergaard had rejected an $18.4MM qualifying offer, but his career to date is all the evidence needed to suggest that at his best, Syndergaard is plenty worth that gamble. He’s never walked more than 6.1% of his opponents in a given season and has never failed to strike out a batter per inning. Few pitchers can match Syndergaard’s blend of pure velocity, missed bats and impeccable command, and he manages all that while still turning in a ground-ball rate that’s well higher than the league average.
Syndergaard has always felt like he’s one step away from solidifying himself as a bona fide ace, and as Robbie Ray showed in winning the AL Cy Young Award this season, one dominant season for a player with this type of track record can result in a nine-figure payday if things break right. The market has already proven to value Syndergaard at more than $20MM per year, and given that he’d be 30 years old in 2023, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that he’s pitching for a $100MM contract this season.
Luis Severino: As with Syndergaard, Severino may not quite fit the criteria for this list. The 27-year-old (28 later this week, on the same day Verlander turns 39) returned to give the Yankees six innings out of the bullpen late in the 2021 season, and his protracted absence from the team’s pitching staff cannot be solely attributed to Tommy John surgery. Severino has also battled groin, shoulder and lat injuries along the way. That said, Severino really hasn’t pitched since undergoing Tommy John surgery in Feb. 2020, and it’s that operation that is the primary reason for his absence over the past two seasons.
Severino isn’t yet slated to hit the open market at season’s end — at least not before the Yankees make a call on a $15MM club option or a $2.75MM buyout. The resulting $12.25MM net decision would be a straightforward one for general manager Brian Cashman if Severino at all looks like his former self. From 2017-18, Severino gave the Yankees 384 2/3 innings of 3.18 ERA ball with outstanding strikeout and walk rates, prompting the team to sign him to a four-year contract extension that promised him $40MM.
That deal looked like a bargain for the team at the time but has since gone south, due largely to repeated injury woes. Severino made a combined 63 regular-season starts for the Yankees in 2017-18, looking every bit like a foundational piece to the pitching staff, but he’s combined for just 25 starts and another 18 relief appearances in the five seasons surrounding that brilliant run.
With a big season in 2022, Severino could still see that $15MM option picked up, and if he can remain healthy into 2023, he’d hit the open market heading into his age-30 season. There’s a long way to go before that scenario becomes reality, however.
Tommy Kahnle: Signed by the Dodgers to a two-year, $4.75MM contract last offseason, Kahnle was never expected to contribute in 2021 — hence the backloaded nature of his contract, which will pay him $3.45MM in 2022. The hard-throwing righty only managed one inning for the 2020 Yankees, meaning this coming season will be the first since 2019 in which he’ll potentially pitch anything resembling a full workload.
The 32-year-old Kahnle has been inconsistent but has dominated more often than he’s struggled. From 2016-20, he logged a combined 3.48 ERA, 32.9% strikeout rate and 9.9% walk rate while averaging 97.1 mph on his heater. That includes a disastrous but also fluky-looking 2018 campaign in which he was tattooed for a 6.56 ERA in 23 1/3 frames. From 2016-20, Kahnle’s 32.9% strikeout rate ranks 17th among the 155 relievers to have thrown at least 150 innings, while his 15.9% swinging-strike rate is tied for sixth.
Kahnle’s Tommy John surgery came way back on Aug. 5, 2020, so there should be no restrictions on him by the time the season gets underway. He’ll be heading into his age-33 season next winter, and a return to his vintage form should position him as one of the top relievers on a free-agent market that is lacking in big-name right-handed relievers.
Ken Giles: Like Kahnle, Giles was signed by the Mariners — two years, $7MM — knowing full well that he would not pitch in 2021. Unlike Kahnle, his contract includes a club option for the 2023 season, which is valued at $9.5MM (with a $500K buyout).
Many of the same superlatives that apply to Kahnle apply even more so to Giles. His 18% swinging-strike rate, for instance, tops Kahnle and sits third among the 155 relievers who totaled at least 150 frames from 2016-20. His 3.33 ERA in that time is a bit more toward the middle of the pack, but Giles misses bats, induces chases outside the zone and throws as hard as nearly any reliever in the sport. He’s had a pair of 4.00-something ERAs sprinkled in amid a series of pristine marks throughout his big league career. Those two blemishes have coincided with spikes in his average on balls in play and dips in his strand rate.
On the whole, Giles is a power arm who can pile up strikeouts in droves. He’s a sometimes forgotten piece of the puzzle when looking at the 2022 Mariners and their hopes of contending, but he’ll join a deep bullpen mix that also features Diego Castillo, 2021 breakout closer Paul Sewald, former Marlins stopped Drew Steckenrider (who enjoyed a tremendous rebound in 2021) and the underappreciated Casey Sadler, who notched a 0.67 ERA in 40 1/3 innings last year.
A healthy Giles would very likely see that $9.5MM club option for the 2023 season picked up, and at his best, he’s a bargain at that price. If Giles is pitching well but things go south for the Mariners, teams will come calling at the trade deadline. Of course, the Mariners are hoping to be squarely in the postseason mix, and they’re likely not done with their offseason shopping just yet.
Jose Leclerc: Armed with a fastball in the mid to upper 90s, Leclerc’s ability to return to form (or his lack thereof) will have major implications for the Rangers moving forward. His four-year, $14.75MM contract extension includes a $6MM club option for the 2023 season and a $6.25MM option for the 2024 season. A rebound effort makes that 2023 option a no-brainer for the Rangers to pick up as they hope to ride a hyper-aggressive offseason into their next competitive window.
Leclerc, 28, has fanned just shy of a third of the hitters he’s faced so far in his big league career and has only allowed a dozen homers in 189 Major League innings (0.57 HR/9). His 14.9% walk rate is far too high, but he looked to be making considerable strides in that department in 2019 when he posted a sub-2.00 ERA, a 38.1% strikeout rate and an 11.2% walk rate. He’ll be a highly intriguing lottery ticket on next year’s market if he pitches poorly enough that the Rangers buy that option out (or if they do so on the heels of another injury). If he rebounds, he’ll be a bargain piece of an on-the-rise Rangers club in 2023-24.