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Troy Tulowitzki could have been one of the greatest shortstops to ever play the game. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
In baseball, as in any other sport, nothing can halt a career in its tracks quite like injuries. Major League Baseball’s history is riddled with illustrative examples, up to and including just within the last decade.
Should 2013 be the cutoff for the beginning of the “last decade” rather than 2012? That would indeed make more mathematical sense. But since the shortened 2020 season gave us basically one less season to work with, we thought it fair to give ourselves an extra year.
We only considered players whose injury trouble began in the thick of what should have been their prime. With respect to injury hardships that David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Sale, Johan Santana and many others went through in their late 20s and early 30s, we set the cutoff here at players’ age-27 seasons.
There also had to be clear demarcation lines for when the injuries began and when the player’s performance began to suffer. It is a bummer that Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw have missed so much time with injuries of late, but they’ve continued to be productive when they have been healthy.
Otherwise, we’ll proceed in ascending order of how many wins above replacement these players produced before the injury bug came along.
Here are our picks for the 10 best MLB careers derailed by injuries since 2012.
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Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2012-15): 5.4 rWAR
Post-Injury (2016-20): 0.4 rWAR
Trevor Rosenthal spent much of his first two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals setting up for older, more established closers—first, for Jason Motte in 2012 and then Edward Mujica in 2013.
It wasn’t until Mujica started struggling toward the end of 2013 that the Redbirds figured out that, hey, maybe the guy with the 100 mph fastball ought to be the one to get the last three outs.
Rosenthal promptly took off, going 4-for-5 in save opportunities during the postseason and then ripping off 93 more across 2014 and 2015. For a pitcher in his age-24 and -25 seasons, the latter performance put Rosenthal in an all-time stratosphere unto himself.
However, the hard times came at Rosenthal even faster than one of his trademark heaters. He missed time with shoulder inflammation in 2016 and went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2017.
Rosenthal put a successful season together in 2020 after a catastrophic return in 2019, but more injury trouble has found him since then. The 32-year-old missed all of 2021 after having thoracic outlet surgery, and a teres major injury has stalled his latest comeback attempt.
When, or even if, he’ll be able to return to a major league mound is unclear.
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Pre-Injury (2009-11): 5.7 rWAR
Post-Injury (2012-21): 1.6 rWAR
Take away the names, and what the Texas Rangers ultimately got from trading Mark Teixeira to Atlanta in 2007 was a starting pitcher, the shortstop and the closer of future title-contending teams.
The closer was Neftalí Feliz, who burst onto the scene with a 1.74 ERA over 20 appearances as a 21-year-old rookie in 2009. He went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year in 2010, saving 40 games that year and 32 the next.
Suffice it to say that opposing hitters were never happy to see Feliz’s fastball. It regularly touched 100 mph, reaching as high as 104.1 mph in 2010.
Some will inevitably point to the fastball that Feliz couldn’t get by David Freese in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series as the moment when things started going wrong for the flamethrower. But the real turn was when the Rangers decided to convert him into a starter in 2012, which predictably ended with him blowing out his arm and needing Tommy John surgery.
That was basically that. Feliz’s fastball was close to three mph below its peak average when he returned as a reliever in 2013, and whatever success between then and 2017 was always fleeting. After briefly reappearing in the majors in 2021 after three years away, he was last seen pitching in Mexico for the independent Sultanes de Monterrey.
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Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2015-16): 7.4 rWAR
Post-Injury (2017-22): 7.7 rWAR
Noah Syndergaard was something of a sensation even before he debuted for the New York Mets in 2015, as it’s just not every day that 6’6″, 242-pound Thor lookalikes with triple-digit fastballs are rising through the minors.
Once Syndergaard finally arrived in the majors, it was as if he had always been there. He pitched to a 2.89 ERA across 2015 and 2016, punching out 10.4 batters per nine innings with the help of a 97.5 mph fastball that was beyond what any other starter was capable of.
It was in 2017 that things first started to unravel for Syndergaard, as he missed all but seven starts that year with a core injury. He missed more time with a finger injury and hand, foot and mouth disease in 2018.
As he slipped to a 4.28 ERA even as he made 32 starts in 2019, the shine had begun to wear off Syndergaard even before he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020. Now it’s all the way off in 2022.
The right-hander once again has an ERA in the 4.00s at 4.09, and a fastball that routinely used to hit triple digits has yet to hit even 97 mph this season. As he just turned 30 years old on Aug. 29, this may simply be who Syndergaard is now.
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Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2016-17): 9.4 rWAR
Post-Injury (2018-22): 3.2 rWAR
Michael Fulmer wasn’t the headliner in a July 2015 trade between the Detroit Tigers and Mets that sent Yoenis Céspedes to the latter, but he was on the map in his own right in a matter of months.
After making his debut in April 2016, Fulmer went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year and followed with an All-Star campaign in 2017. He posted a 3.45 ERA across the two seasons, and his 9.4 rWAR put him in the same territory where Félix Hernández, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale had also recently tread in their age-23-24 seasons.
Yet it was before 2017 even ended that Fulmer’s body began to break down. Elbow surgery put a stop to his campaign in August, and he immediately regressed to a 4.69 ERA in 2018 before once again having to call it quits in August, this time because of a knee injury.
The worst was still yet to come. After he had spent the 2018-19 offseason rehabbing his knee, Fulmer’s elbow quit on him before he had a chance to redeem himself. He had Tommy John surgery in March.
Fulmer was able to return as a starter in 2020, but disastrously so as he pitched to an 8.78 ERA in 10 outings. The 29-year-old has since found some stability in a relief role, yet with a fastball that, at 94.3 mph, is slower than the one he had in his heyday as a starter.
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Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2015-18): 10.8 rWAR
Post-Injury (2019-22): 2.0 rWAR
Wherever Luis Severino went early in his career, the name “Pedro Martínez” tended to follow. First, as a comp for Severino’s extraordinary upside. And later, as a mentor as Severino was realizing his stardom with the New York Yankees in 2017 and 2018.
He was an All-Star and a vote-getter for the American League Cy Young Award both years, ultimately posting a 3.18 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. With an average fastball of 97.6 mph, he became the velocity companion that Syndergaard hadn’t had in 2015 and 2016.
Severino was still only 25 when the injury bug started taking bites out of him. First, in the form of a lat strain in 2019 that the Yankees later admitted to having mishandled. And then in 2020, with Tommy John surgery.
It seemed as if Severino was finally healthy at the outset of 2022, but he lasted just 16 starts before injuring his shoulder again. He’s been out since July 13.
As he’s still only 28 years old, the right-hander perhaps has a chance of salvaging his career. But a total of 23 appearances over four years and a fastball that now sits at 96.1 mph don’t bode well, at least for the notion that success is still out there for Severino as a starter.
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AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Pre-Injury (2012-15): 11.8 rWAR
Post-Injury (2016-21): Minus-1.7 rWAR
Matt Harvey was in the big leagues barely two years after the Mets drafted him in 2010, and seemingly no time at all elapsed between his arrival and his ascent as a superstar.
He pitched to a 2.39 ERA over 36 starts between 2012 and 2013, and he even took the ball for the National League All-Star squad at Citi Field in the latter. He put on an impressive display with his upper-90s fastball any time he pitched, and he certainly didn’t shy away from the spotlight off the field.
As for what happened next, there’s room to quibble about which year marks the end of Harvey’s “pre-injury” era. We chose 2015 because even though he had Tommy John surgery in 2013, his return in 2015 was a rousing success to the tune of a 2.71 ERA over 189.1 innings, plus 26.2 more in the playoffs.
But was that too much, too soon? It seemed that way when Harvey immediately struggled in 2016 and eventually had another surgery, this time for thoracic outlet syndrome.
Harvey, now 33, recovered from that only to pitch to a 6.15 ERA between 2017 and 2021. More recently, he was suspended for 60 games this May after admitting to having distributed drugs of abuse as part of the investigation into the death of former Los Angeles Angels teammate Tyler Skaggs.
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Kent C. Horner/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2006-11): 17.1 rWAR
Post-Injury (2012-20): 4.4 rWAR
Matt Kemp wasn’t always consistent early in his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he at least tended to keep his power and speed in good working order. Between 2008 and 2010, especially, he clubbed 72 home runs and stole 88 bases.
Kemp was still only 26 years old when it all came together for him in 2011. He missed out on a 40-40 season by just one home run while also driving in 126 runs and playing Gold Glove defense. The Dodgers’ response was to immediately sign him to a $160 million contract.
Alas, the first two seasons that Kemp played after signing his big deal proved to be disastrous.
A hamstring injury cost him much of the 2012 season, after which he underwent shoulder surgery to repair damage he had suffered in a crash into an outfield wall in August. That subsequently hampered his power production in 2013, during which he also suffered a nasty ankle injury that kept him out of the Dodgers’ first postseason in four years.
Kemp’s power made a comeback between 2014 and 2016, but his athleticism never did as he morphed into a station-to-station baserunner who could no longer hack it in center field. He was basically a replacement-level player for the last eight years of his career.
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AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Pre-Injury WAR (2015-17): 18.3 rWAR
Post-Injury WAR (2018-22): 10.9 rWAR
It took just three years for Kris Bryant to go from being the Chicago Cubs’ No. 2 pick in 2013 to the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 to the NL MVP and a World Series champion in 2016.
Though he missed out on a third straight All-Star selection in 2017, Bryant was also good enough that year to earn more MVP votes. Altogether, he joined Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews as the only third basemen to ever post a 140 OPS+ and over 90 home runs in their first three seasons.
Then in his age-26 season in 2018, Bryant developed shoulder discomfort that limited him to 102 games and basically killed his power. He hit only 13 home runs all season.
He hasn’t been the same player since then, particularly on the power front. His actual slugging percentage is down from .527 between 2015 and 2017 to .479 since then, with an even steeper drop in his expected slugging from .508 to .441.
The seven-year, $182 million gamble that the Colorado Rockies took on Bryant thus looked like a bad idea even at the time. Even more so now that back and foot injuries have sidelined him for all but 42 games and sent his athleticism the way of his power. Where it was once in the 88th percentile in 2016, his sprint speed has been in the 50th percentile this season.
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Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2006-11): 26.6 rWAR
Post-Injury (2012-19): 17.9 rWAR
To be sure, Troy Tulowitzki wasn’t always healthy at the outset of his career with the Rockies. But he did stay on the field enough to average 132 games between 2007 and 2011, during which time he put himself on a path to all-time greatness.
Those five seasons saw Tulowitzki hit .295 and club 121 home runs with an average of 5.4 rWAR per year. By the end of the ’11 season, he ranked 13th all time in rWAR among shortstops through their age-26 seasons.
It was in 2012 that the wheels started to come off for Tulowitzki. A groin injury cost him all but 47 games that year and ultimately set the tone for a series of lower-half injuries that plagued him through his age-32 season in 2017.
It was a testament to Tulowitzki’s ability and determination that he was able to have tremendous spurts of productivity even after the injuries started to pile up. He was an All-Star annually between 2013 and 2015, even hitting .340 with 21 homers over a 91-game sample in 2014.
All the same, he played in just 594 more games after 2011, with just five of those occurring after he attempted to come back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for all of the 2018 campaign. He was only 34 when he played his last game in 2019.
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Mark Brown/Getty Images
Pre-Injury (2013-19): 31.8 rWAR
Post-Injury (2020-22): 4.2 rWAR
Christian Yelich was a good yet generally unspectacular player when the Milwaukee Brewers acquired him from the Miami Marlins in January 2018. He could hit, run and field, but his power had a frustratingly low ceiling.
That trend initially persisted in Milwaukee, but not for long. After breaking for the All-Star Game in 2018, he went on a 195-game run in which he blasted 69 home runs to go along with 40 stolen bases and a .342/.436/.705 slash line.
Yelich won the National League MVP for ’18 and might well have made it two in a row in ’19 if he’d been able to see his race with Cody Bellinger—who, it must be noted, began falling out of stardom even before his fateful shoulder injury in 2020—through to the finish. Alas, his season ended by way of a foul ball that broke his kneecap on Sept. 10.
The Brewers remained confident enough in Yelich to sign him to a $215 million extension the following March. Yet whether it’s because of the knee, his recurring back issues or some combination of the two, he just hasn’t been the same player in the last three years.
Yelich, now 30, still puts a charge into the ball every now and again, but on the whole he’s hit just 33 home runs over his last 305 games. With his speed likewise not what it once was, waiting for him to reclaim his superstardom is not recommended.