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Seven second-half returns that could shape MLB’s playoff picture

The trade deadline isn’t the only way for several contending teams to get a shot in the arm down the stretch of this season.

Starting pitcher Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on August 04, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

We’re just on the other side of the trade deadline, when the best teams in baseball looked to shore up their squads for the race to October. And this year didn’t disappoint, with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer headed to the AL West, the Dodgers, Rays and Orioles all finding themselves a starting pitcher and the Angels and Cubs announcing that they were all the way in. (While the the Twins and Yankees, uh, not so much.)

But, much as we love some good #mysteryteam drama, blockbuster deals aren’t the only things that can reshape rosters this time of year. All around the league, there are a number of contenders with big names set to come back from long injury absences at some point in the next few weeks — ready to wreak havoc on the playoff chase. Some of them are right around the corner. Some of them you may have forgotten about. Either way, you’re almost guaranteed to remember their names come October.

Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

We’ll start with the obvious choice. The Angels have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table in recent weeks, holding on to Shohei Ohtani while shipping out half of their top prospects in trades for Lucas Giolito, Randal Grichuk and C.J. Cron. Their biggest late-summer acquisition, though, will be off the IL: Trout, out since early July after fracturing the hamate bone in his wrist, recently started swinging a bat again, and it sounds like he should be back in L.A.’s lineup at some point in August. The superstar wasn’t quite his vintage self at the plate even before he got hurt — striking out more than ever and hitting just .263 — but he’s still Mike Trout, and his return could be the shot in the arm the Angels need to leapfrog the AL East gang and snag that elusive Wild Card spot.

Max Fried, SP, Atlanta Braves

Fried made his long-awaited return from an elbow injury on Friday afternoon, and it didn’t take long for him to remind Atlanta what they’d been missing:

Fried struck out eight over six shutout innings against the Chicago Cubs, and he’s continued to look like a Cy Young candidate whenever he’s healthy enough to take the mound.

Of course, with the best record in baseball and a Death Star of a lineup, it’s not like the Braves needed the help — in the regular season. Come October, though, there were reasons to feel a little sketchy about Atlanta’s pitching depth, concerns that the return of a peak Fried (and Kyle Wright, also set to return before the end of the year after a shoulder injury) should help alleviate.

Trevor Story, SS, Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have managed to hang right in the AL Wild Card race despite several injuries to their rotation and some truly abysmal production from both middle infield spots. A certain lanky lefty’s return will help with the former, and for the latter, and All-Star is on his way to Fenway soon:

Out since undergoing surgery on his elbow over the winter, Story is back and swinging a very hot bat on his tune-up assignment in the Minors. His first year in Boston is remembered as a dud, but he was just starting to turn it on when he was waylaid by injury in August — and his return could patch the biggest hole in the Red Sox’ lineup.

Brandon Woodruff, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

A team built to win through its formidable starting rotation has managed to stay afloat in the NL Central with the likes of Colin Rea, Julio Teheran and Adrian Houser taking the ball every fifth day. It’s a credit to Craig Counsell and the Brewers’ staff that they’ve managed to pull that off, but luckily, some reinforcements are on their way: After going down with a shoulder injury less than two starts into his 2023 season, Woodruff is set to make his return to Milwaukee’s rotation this weekend.

The righty is among the best in the game when he’s on, and with Corbin Burnes also starting to look like his Cy Young self over the last month (plus Freddy Peralta’s wipeout stuff and Devin Williams looming in the bullpen), Milwaukee is going to be a team no one wants to face down the stretch — and into October.

Hunter Greene, SP, Cincinnati Reds

I’m as disappointed as anyone that the Reds lost the game of trade deadline musical chairs, failing to grab a starter while their fellow contenders loaded up. But while they certainly should have been more aggressive this week, they will be getting a big rotation upgrade regardless when Greene makes his return.

The flamethrowing righty was just starting to pull it all together when he went down with a hip injury in mid-June, posting a 2.31 ERA over his last four starts with 31 Ks in just 23 innings. He’s battled inconsistency throughout his time in Cincy, but when he’s commanding his fastball, he’s as tough to hit as anyone. With Graham Ashcraft finally looking like himself again, that would give the Reds two frontline guys with which to enter the home stretch. (Plus lefty Nick Lodolo, also on the mend, although he was struggling mightily before he landed on the IL.)

Walker Buehler, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Remember him? The Dodgers are smarting a bit after falling short of acquiring Eduardo Rodriguez at the trade deadline. Despite landing Lance Lynn from the White Sox, L.A.’s rash of rotation injuries — and the inexperience of rookies like Emmet Sheehan and Bobby Miller — leave them very much still in need of one more rotation option. Luckily for them, they just so happen to have a Cy Young candidate on the mend:

After more than 12 months sidelined due to Tommy John surgery, it’d be unreasonable to expect Buehler to immediately pick up where he left off. Still, even 70% of the Peak Buehler would be a god-send to this rotation, with Clayton Kershaw’s shoulder still a question mark and Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin scuffling a bit.

John Means, SP, Baltimore Orioles

The Dodgers aren’t the only ones with a Tommy John rehab very much worth monitoring. Means isn’t as much of a household name as Buehler, but he’s established himself as among the game’s most underrated pitchers, with a 124 ERA+ from 2019 to 2022 despite pitching in the rugged AL East (for O’s teams that were quite a bit less talented than this current iteration). The lefty went under the knife after making just two starts last season, but he’s nearing a return, with the team expecting him to begin a rehab assignment for their complex-level team at some point early this month. He should also be back by the end of August or beginning of September, giving Baltimore even more rotation depth behind Kyle Bradish, Jack Flaherty and Co.