On their way: 7 injured MLB stars who could reshape baseball's World Series march

Gabe Lacques

The late-August trade deadline is no more, but fortunately for Major League Baseball playoff contenders, a cherished trope from years past will truly come into play as teams head for the homestretch and the postseason.

Yep, a handful of players returning from injury will be more impactful than the proverbial trade acquisition.

With division races tightening up and wild-card battles gaining definition, a handful of stars are on the mend from injuries, many of them months-long, impactful absences. Their returns could be even more important – on who gets in the playoffs, and who advances within commissioner Rob Manfred’s expansive bracket.

A glimpse at seven players who can upset the balance of power, in order of potential impact:

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Bryce Harper, Phillies

Out since: June 25, when he suffered a fractured left thumb that required surgery.

Next step: Harper took more than 50 swings at Citizens Bank Park on Monday and could begin a rehab assignment next week.

Big picture: The reigning NL MVP was having another trophy-worthy year (.318/.386/.599, 15 homers) when a Blake Snell pitch fractured his thumb. Most significantly, the Phillies finally found their sea legs without him and moved firmly into wild card position. Can they threaten Atlanta, which leads them by six games, for home field advantage? Probably not, but a red-hot Harper in September and October would give Philly plenty to dream on.

Bryce Harper celebrates a home run against the Angels on June 5.

Wander Franco, Rays

Out since: July 9, when he fractured the hamate bone in his right wrist and underwent surgery to remove it.

Next step: Franco began a rehab assignment Tuesday and could be activated this weekend.

Big picture: The Rays have been starved for offense, but particularly at shortstop, where Taylor Walls has batted .176 with a .271 OBP and a 67 adjusted OPS. Franco, an MVP-caliber talent in his first full season, will provide a significant upgrade when he gets rolling and, combined with the returns of second baseman Brandon Lowe and outfielder Harold Ramirez, gives them a more than serviceable offensive look. A productive Franco and a rotation fronted by Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen will make the Rays a tough out in the wild card round – and perhaps beyond.

Dustin May, Dodgers

Out since: May 1, 2021, when he suffered an elbow injury that required reconstructive Tommy John surgery.

Next step: Will start Saturday against the Marlins, his first major league outing since walking off the mound in Milwaukee more than 15 months ago.

Big picture: A successful May return now lands somewhere between luxury and necessity for the Dodgers, his situation gaining urgency when the club announced ace Walker Buehler will undergo season-ending elbow surgery. Now, May almost certainly figures prominently in the October plans of the best team in baseball, though how that presents itself remains an open question. Starter? Multi-inning reliever? Perhaps a deluxe “opener” who might take down three or so innings before handing off to the bullpen? Regardless, May is ready to ramp it up – he made five rehab starts at Class AAA, finishing with a 70-pitch outing that included 10 strikeouts and an immaculate inning.

Dustin May, who last pitched in May 2021, has a 2.93 ERA in 113.2 big-league innings.

Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees

Out since: July 22, when left Achilles tendinitis took him out of the lineup.

Next step: Stanton continues working out at Yankee Stadium and should be dispatched for a rehab assignment by the end of this week.

Big picture: The Yankees’ ugly August has resembled a systemwide collapse, but it’s worth noting that they were 65-30 (.684) when Stanton was injured and 7-15 (.318) since, scoring three or fewer runs in 10 of their past 12 games. His .498 slugging percentage is second only to Aaron Judge on the squad. Perhaps Stanton’s prodigious power had a way of covering for Yankee imperfections more than we realized.

Ozzie Albies, Braves

Out since: June 13, when he broke his left foot.

Next step: Albies has joined the team and has played catch, along with other light activities, though he’s not expected to return until September.

Big picture: With Orlando Arcia suffering a significant hamstring injury, the Braves’ near-term depth at second base is even thinner. Yet they’re probably locked into the No. 1 wild card spot regardless. Albies’ return – and how soon he can ramp back up to All-Star caliber production – will be a significant storyline to track as the Braves prepare to defend their World Series title.

Jack Flaherty, Cardinals

Out since: June 26, when he strained an already-balky right shoulder that’s limited him to just eight innings this season.

Next step: Flaherty made his second rehab start, this one for Class AA Springfield, on Tuesday, throwing 54 pitches and striking out four over three scoreless innings. The club placed him on the 60-day injured list in July and while he’s eligible to return, he figures to need several more rehab starts before any thought of returning to the big club.

Big picture: The Cardinals have seized the NL Central lead without him, thanks to stalwarts like Adam Wainwright and upstarts like Andre Pallante. Now, the rotation has been fortified by trades for lefties Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery. But a healthy Flaherty would give St. Louis a more imposing October look. The runway for Flaherty to regain that form is tightening.

Jack Flaherty pitches against the Brewers in June.

Mike Soroka, Braves

Out since: Aug. 3, 2020, when an Achilles tendon tear began a two-year injury odyssey, including three Achilles surgeries, shoulder inflammation and, for good measure, a knee contusion when he was hit by a comebacker during a live batting practice session.

Next step: Soroka made his first minor league rehab start Tuesday, a momentous occasion given the setbacks he’s suffered since his last major league outing. The results were encouraging: Eight strikeouts, no walks and one hit in four scoreless innings for Class A Rome. Soroka’s extended absence means he’ll likely require close to the full 30 days allotted for minor league rehab stints.

Big picture: Soroka left the mound as the Braves ace but will return to a loaded rotation, with Charlie Morton joining the organization, Spencer Strider emerging as a possible Rookie of the Year and Kyle Wright reaching his long-discussed potential. World Series hero Ian Anderson aims to return after working out recent struggles in the minor leagues. Can Soroka help this group? That’s like asking if the Battery is a great venue to live, work and play. His career 2.86 ERA and 1.16 WHIP would be a significant boon, particularly given the depth needed to transition from a wild card round into an NLDS.