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What’s the latest on MLB’s injured aces? Checking in on Gerrit Cole, Kodai Senga, Justin Steele and more

One of the unfortunate trends leading up to and running through the beginning of the 2024 MLB season was the rampant string of injuries to some of the game’s most prominent pitchers, arms their teams were counting on to carry them through this season. Each additional bit of bad news was met with a collective sigh of defeat and disappointment, but the ailments varied significantly in the degree to which they were expected to impact this season.

Now that we’re about a quarter of the way through the regular season, let’s check in on 10 of the most prominent pitcher injuries from earlier in the year — ranging from a few season-ending surgeries to some optimistic rehabs-in-progress to a couple of surprisingly quick returns to the mound — and where things stand for the pitchers and their teams.

The injury: A hurricane of well-deserved hype surrounded Strider this spring, as he appeared primed for another monster year atop Atlanta’s rotation. But after laboring through two starts to open the season, Strider was reportedly dealing with elbow discomfort that turned out to be rooted in a bone fragment that had formed in his UCL and got worse once the regular season began. He underwent elbow surgery April 13.

The return: Since the ligament was in relatively decent shape, Strider opted for an internal brace procedure rather than a full Tommy John surgery — which would’ve been the second of his career — theoretically allowing for a somewhat shorter recovery timeline while still wiping out the rest of his 2024. The hope is that Strider will be able to return sometime in the first few months of 2025, rather than beyond next year’s All-Star break. Granted, we’re months away from having any concrete idea of Strider’s timeline.

The impact: While offseason acquisitions Chris Sale and Reynaldo Lopez have been virtually everything Atlanta could’ve hoped for, there are still questions about the depth beyond them and the two mainstays in Max Fried and Charlie Morton — questions that loom much larger because of Strider’s absence.

In the event that any one of the top four guys suffers a serious injury or unexpected regression — a realistic concern considering Sale’s injury history, Morton’s age and the fact that Lopez hasn’t managed a starter’s workload in five years — the postseason rotation picture becomes murky rather quickly. Who would start a potential Game 4: Bryce Elder? Darius Vines? 21-year-old AJ Smith-Shawver or fellow prospect Hurston Waldrep? These might qualify as first-world problems, but that’s the standard the Braves have set recently; it’s not unreasonable to talk about the October rotation in May. Strider himself said the Braves can win the World Series without him, and he might be right, but the path to another title is undeniably more daunting.

The injury: Another spring training casualty, Giolito suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow before throwing a regular-season pitch for the team with which he signed a two-year, $38.5 million deal in January, earned in large part for the durability the right-hander provided even amid fluctuating performances in recent seasons. Like Strider, Giolito avoided what would’ve been his second Tommy John surgery and underwent an internal brace repair to his UCL that could allow for a quicker return to action.

The return: As with Strider, the hope here is a return closer to the start of the 2025 season. With Giolito’s surgery taking place a full month earlier than Strider’s, such a goal would seem to be even more attainable. Still, it’s far too early to assume anything about when he’ll be back on the mound. Giolito’s injury also impacts his contract status, as it seems far more likely now that he’ll pick up his $18 million player option with Boston for 2025, whereas if he had excelled in 2024, he might’ve tested the open market again.

The impact: Take a look at Boston’s exceptionally impressive starting pitching stats, and it’s difficult to believe this is the same team that lost its big-ticket rotation addition to season-ending surgery and traded away Chris Sale before Opening Day. Yet this unit — fueled by an ascendent anchor in Brayan Bello, the criminally underrated Kutter Crawford and a massive step forward from Tanner Houck — has kept Boston afloat in the AL postseason picture amidst a slew of injuries to several key pieces beyond Giolito.

Credit to new GM Craig Breslow and new pitching coach Andrew Bailey for navigating circumstances — at least, so far — such that getting zero innings from the arm brought in explicitly to fortify the rotation didn’t completely derail Boston’s season. The collective positive strides made by this staff also make the prospect of Giolito rejoining the group in 2025 all the more exciting.

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The injury: After trade rumors swirled around Bieber all winter as the former Cy Young Award winner entered the final year of his contract, Cleveland’s decision to keep the right-hander appeared prudent when he arrived in spring training looking particularly sharp. Then the elbow issues that haunted Bieber for much of 2023 resurfaced after just two regular-season starts, and the 28-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery for the first time in his career on April 12.

The return: Perhaps the more pressing question regarding Bieber’s return is not when but with whom? It’s extremely unfortunate and entirely unceremonious that this could be how his celebrated tenure in Cleveland ends, but the injury also might make it more likely that Bieber works out a deal to stay with the Guardians, rather than if he had pitched the whole season and cashed in elsewhere this winter. Tyler Mahle represents the most recent example of a pitcher who underwent Tommy John surgery in the middle of his walk year, and he signed a two-year deal with Texas for $22 million guaranteed in December, despite not being expected back until the second half of this season. How Bieber’s free agency plays out — or if he works out an extension with Cleveland before reaching the open market — will be one of the more fascinating storylines of the offseason.

The impact: Even beyond Bieber’s early exit, it has been a trying season so far for the Guardians pitching staff. Triston McKenzie is openly pitching through elbow issues of his own with notably diminished velocity, and hard-throwing sophomore Gavin Williams has yet to throw a pitch as he works his way back from elbow soreness. Meanwhile, youngsters Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen have struggled to replicate the high-level run prevention they demonstrated as rookies, putting a big burden on Cleveland’s offense and bullpen to perform at an elite level while the starters try to find their footing. The Guardians’ place in the standings indicates that they’ve been able to do just that, but the rotation will need to step up eventually if Cleveland wants to stay in the postseason mix.

After a wave of pitcher injuries to begin the 2024 season, Spencer Strider is out for the season, Justin Steele has made his way back, and fans are still waiting to see Gerrit Cole and Kodai Senga. (Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports)

The injury: Few pitchers in the league offered more promise than Perez after his sensational rookie season as a 20-year-old. But it’s no secret that pitchers who throw 100 mph at such a young age have a troublingly high rate of elbow injuries early in their careers, and Perez became the latest gifted hurler to suffer such a fate. He underwent Tommy John surgery on April 8 without appearing in a game this season.

The return: As Miami descends into a deep rebuild, there will be no rush whatsoever to get the prolific Perez back on the mound sooner than he needs to be. As a fan, it’d be fantastic to see him back pitching at some point in 2025. But let’s keep things in perspective regarding Perez’s unbelievably quick ascent to the big leagues; even if his next big-league start isn’t until Opening Day 2026, he’ll still be just 22 years old.

The impact: While we can hope for a bright future ahead for Perez whenever he returns, his injury certainly contributed to the downtrodden vibes for the Marlins entering this season, which have since transformed into a full-fledged rebuilding effort beginning with the trade of Luis Arraez to San Diego. It’s quite possible that new GM Peter Bendix would’ve steered the organization in this direction regardless of Perez’s health — it’s not like Miami’s horrific start to the season was entirely due to the Perez’s absence — but the prized pitcher going down certainly made 2024 less of a priority from a competitive standpoint.

The injury: Just a couple of weeks into spring training, the Mets announced that last year’s NL Rookie of the Year runner-up would begin the season on the injured list due to a moderate posterior capsule strain in his right shoulder.

The return: Although Senga threw a live batting practice session on April 29, it’s unclear when the 31-year-old right-hander is expected to rejoin the Mets rotation, as neither manager Carlos Mendoza nor pitching coach Jeremy Hefner was willing to offer any sort of timeline earlier this week.

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The impact: While free-agent signings Luis Severino and Sean Manaea have shown reasonably well, it’s clear that this Mets rotation is considerably thinner than intended, and Senga’s absence continues to underscore that. The steady innings provided by the underrated Jose Butto and the recent call-up of prospect Christian Scott have provided a much-needed boost to the staff, but this is a unit that lacks an ace-type arm capable of stifling any opponent on the right day. That’s what Senga is, so the pressure is on New York to continue to tread water while he’s out. If they can’t, the Mets might be pivoting to sell mode before Senga is a factor again this season.

The injury: Perhaps the most stunning injury news of the spring, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner was shut down from throwing due to elbow inflammation on March 13, after Cole reported that his arm was struggling to bounce back between outings early in spring training. It provided a sobering reminder that even those arms whose massive yearly workloads portray an air of invincibility can be vulnerable to elbow injuries.

The return: Cole’s placement on the 60-day IL on Opening Day had him slated for a potential return in late May, but that never seemed like an especially realistic timeline. The good news is Cole hasn’t reported any setbacks during his gradual buildup of throwing over the past month, and he threw a bullpen session that went according to plan earlier this week. Although Cole and the Yankees haven’t shared the next steps in his rehab process, a return at some point in June doesn’t seem out of the picture.

The impact: For as eager as we all are to see Cole back on the bump, he shouldn’t feel compelled to rush the rehab process, considering how much the rest of the rotation has stepped up in his absence. Lefties Carlos Rodon and Nestor Cortes have each looked much more like themselves, compared to their poor performances from a year ago, and new addition Marcus Stroman has fit right in and provided exactly the kind of stability the Yankees sought when they signed him. I’m curious to see what this rotation will look like if Luis Gil and Clarke Schmidt continue to throw the ball as well as they have; who gets the boot once Cole comes back? Ultimately, that’s a good problem to have — and New York has to feel great about how it has managed without its ace.

The injury: The four-year, $80M deal given to Rodriguez in December was the most lucrative contract handed out amidst a busy winter for the defending NL champs. But a week before Opening Day, the left-hander exited a spring training start early due to discomfort, which turned out to be a lat strain that has since prevented him from making his debut with his new team.

The return: Manager Torey Lovullo indicated recently that Rodriguez is slated to begin a throwing program in the near future, but even without any further setbacks, we’re at least a few weeks away from E-Rod joining Arizona’s rotation.

The impact: It has been a slow start for the Snakes, and at least some of that can be attributed to Rodriguez’s absence, considering the inconsistent showings from less experienced starters such as Tommy Henry, Slade Cecconi and Ryne Nelson. These struggles were only exacerbated when Merrill Kelly joined Rodriguez on the IL in late April due to a shoulder strain, prompting further concern about the depth of the rotation. Fellow free-agent signee Jordan Montgomery has begun to provide some stability since he made his Snakes debut, but there are still a ton of innings to cover while Rodriguez and Kelly work their way back — a particularly challenging reality considering how much Arizona’s bullpen has struggled due in part to another significant injury, with closer Paul Sewald missing the first five weeks due to an oblique strain. All of which is to say: Not having E-Rod certainly isn’t the only reason Arizona’s pitching has yet to find its stride, but this staff could use some reinforcements sooner rather than later.

The injury: After two spring training outings, Williams was diagnosed with two stress fractures in his back, removing him from Milwaukee’s bullpen plans for the first half of the season just weeks before Opening Day.

The return: The first timeline communicated in March had Williams expected to miss three months. Brewers GM Matt Arnold intimated last month that a return around the All-Star break seemed realistic.

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The impact: While there’s no replacing a closer as good as Williams, it wasn’t just Williams who contributed to the Brewers ranking second in bullpen ERA in 2023, and Milwaukee was reasonably well-equipped to fill the back-end innings vacated by the two-time All-Star. They might not have the name recognition of the former Rookie of the Year, but Trevor Megilll, Joel Payamps and Abner Uribe were all excellent a year ago and have stepped up as substitute closers so far in 2024. Uribe and Payamps got the early nods in save situations, while Megill has handled the ninth inning more consistently in recent weeks.

Gigantic rookie southpaw Bryan Hudson is a fresher face who has also been tremendous in relief as first-place Milwaukee mixes and matches its way to victory without the luxury of handing the ball to one of the best closers on the planet for the final few outs. No one was quite sure what to expect of this new-look Brewers roster entering this season, but it’s exciting to think that Williams could be rejoining this squad in the heat of a division race, rather than the rebuild some originally envisioned.

The injury: One day after pitchers and catchers reported to Florida, the Orioles announced that Bradish, one of the bigger breakout stars of 2023, would begin the season on the IL due to an elbow sprain, setting the tone for the tidal wave of league-wide pitcher injury news that would follow over the next two months. Fortunately for Bradish, a PRP injection and substantial rest were prescribed, rather than imminent surgery, paving the way for a somewhat surprisingly speedy return to the Orioles rotation on May 2.

The return: Bradish made his first rehab start in the minors on April 16 and rejoined the Baltimore rotation a few weeks later, with 4 2/3 strong frames against the Yankees. The sinker that he increasingly relied on as last season progressed has been an even bigger focal point through his first three starts in 2024, and the velocity looks to be more than back; Bradish has already touched 98.1 mph, harder than any pitch he threw in 2023. His command has been uncharacteristically shaky so far, but Orioles fans have to feel ecstatic about how Bradish’s pure stuff has looked, considering the collective sense of dread surrounding the right-hander’s diagnosis in February.

The impact: The acquisition of Corbin Burnes was exciting on its own, but it proved especially prescient in light of Bradish’s absence to start the season. But an even bigger development in Baltimore’s rotation while Bradish was out was the reemergence of lefty Cole Irvin as not just a viable starting pitcher but also a good one. Irvin’s first year as an Oriole was a considerable disappointment, so it’s great to see him back on track and looking like the mid-rotation stalwart he was in Oakland. With Bradish back and barely looking rusty, Baltimore’s rotation could be even more of a strength than projected.

The injury: It had been 10 years (Jeff Samardzija in 2014) since the Cubs tabbed a homegrown pitcher as their Opening Day starter before the lefty Steele got the nod to open this season. He cruised through the first few frames of his start against Texas before straining his left hamstring fielding a bunt in the fifth inning, putting him on the shelf for all of April.

The return: Steele returned May 6 with 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Padres before getting roughed up by Pittsburgh (6 ER in 4 IP) in his second start. His vaunted four-seam/slider combo appears fully intact from a velocity/movement standpoint, but it might take him a while to round back into All-Star form. Fortunately, the Cubs rotation doesn’t look like it will be as heavily dependent on Steele’s success as it was a year ago.

The impact: Losing their Opening Day starter to injury certainly threw a wrench into Chicago’s rotation plans. But Steele’s unexpected IL stint — as well as Jameson Taillon’s slow return from a back injury suffered in spring training — further opened the door for right-hander Javier Assad to prove his worth as a starting pitcher after bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen in 2023. To call that a silver lining might be an understatement; Assad (1.49 ERA in 48.1 IP) has been one of the best starters in the league, with his rookie sensation teammate Shota Imanaga (0.96 ERA in 46.2 IP) one of the very few qualified starters outpacing him in the run prevention department. With Steele now back in the fold, Chicago suddenly boasts one of the better rotations in the National League — certainly not something we would’ve anticipated when Steele first got injured.

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