Injured MLB stars can be big draws in minors, but lately they’re staying away

With his team in a tailspin and time ticking away to stop the swoon, Mike Trout roamed the outfield before the Angels’ Aug. 11 game at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. He traced the trajectory of a fly ball hit in his direction, feeling for the center field wall before reaching the warning track and catching the baseball with his injured glove hand.

Trout repeated the drill for about five minutes before running the bases at what appeared to be full speed. He swung a bat out of public view, but told a few reporters afterward he felt fine while facing pitches from a machine.

“It’s a tough state for me right now, not being out there. I’m doing whatever I can to help the team, whether it’s in meetings or just being as supportive as I can. It’s really frustrating for me right now,” Trout said a few days later, before he watched the Angels fall a season-worst three games below .500.

What was notable about Trout’s rehab work was not what he was doing — it was where he was doing it: With the major league club. In past years, this might be the kind of rehab work conducted at a minor-league affiliate, as Trout worked his way back to playing shape with managed appearances in minor-league games at the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees or the Double-A Rocket City Trash Pandas.

Minor-league cities buzz with anticipation and stadiums sell out within hours of a team announcing a prominent major leaguer’s impending arrival. In May, Jose Altuve’s first rehab game drew a stadium-record 7,785 fans to Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas. He played twice more in Triple A before transferring to Double-A Corpus Christi, where a similarly festive atmosphere greeted him.

“It’s a more relaxed environment down here where spectators can interact with the players and I know (fans) love seeing them when they come back as big leaguers,” said longtime Corpus Christi broadcaster Michael Coffin. “I think it’s particularly great for the other players on the team, the other minor-league guys, the other Double-A Astros, when a guy like Jose Altuve comes back down and they can see what he does in the clubhouse and how he goes about his business and how hard he still works given his God-given talent and what he’s been able to do on the biggest stage.”

Minor-league rehab assignments like Altuve’s have long seemed mandatory, representing the final step on an injured player’s road back to a major-league lineup. Yet for position players in particular, the biggest names are increasingly eschewing the minor league assignment and doing their work with the major league club. Trout never mentioned going on a minor-league rehab assignment. In fact, Angels manager Phil Nevin said the team instead discussed effectively bringing one to him: Calling in minor-league pitchers and some rehabbing major-league arms to throw the star simulated games. The Philadelphia Phillies used a similar strategy with Bryce Harper, who underwent Tommy John surgery on Nov. 20 and returned 160 days later without playing in a minor-league game.

“(Minor-league) rehabs for these guys are not fun,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long told The Athletic’s Matt Gelb in April. “They’re not fun. All of the people and chaos; it’s a circus. This environment is much more conducive, especially to a superstar player, than it is going on a rehab. It just is.”

At the same time, advancements in sports performance and technology have made it easier for players to get their work in while remaining with their major-league teammates.

“We (sent players on rehab assignments) because we were being overprotective of a guy coming back too soon,” first-year Astros general manager Dana Brown said. “But now with all the weight training and everything that goes into it, you can almost simulate games and it becomes a timing thing. In terms of your wind … we’ll get days off even when they come back just so they could catch that wind. There’s still some time off that we’ll give. But guys going on those long rehab stints, unless they’re young, you don’t really do it.”

While a league official said data actually showed a small increase in total minor-league rehab assignments from 2022 to 2023 — the percentage of players coming off the injured list who go on rehab assignments is typically above half  — the fact that several star players have foregone them all together this season seems to represent a new trend in at least one slice of the player population.

Last month, Altuve took the unusual step of insisting publicly he didn’t want a minor-league rehab stint after a 23-day absence due to an oblique injury. The Astros honored Altuve’s request and inserted their eight-time All-Star back into the starting lineup for a July 26 game against the Rangers.

Jose Altuve, shown here while on the injured list on July 20, remained with the Astros this summer. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

“If it’s a younger player, I think you may have to give him a rehab stint,” Brown said. “If it’s a veteran player who’s on his game and his timing is right, I want to bring that guy back and get them rolling.”

On the day Altuve returned, his team trailed Texas by one game in the American League West standings, context that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Few seasons are salvaged or playoff berths secured due to playing a superstar’s substitute, and pennant-race pressure plays a role in star players bypassing minor-league rehab games altogether.

New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge missed nearly eight weeks with an injured right toe yet only took some simulated at-bats at the team’s spring training complex in Tampa before returning to the major-league lineup and trying to drag his club out of last place. Texas shortstop Corey Seager returned from a sprained thumb without a rehab assignment and struck a home run in his first at-bat back on Aug. 2. Teammate Jonah Heim tore a tendon sheath in his left wrist on July 26. The switch-hitting catcher returned on Aug. 13, hitting exclusively left-handed and without spending a day in the minor leagues.

If they want to realize their minuscule playoff hopes, the Angels need Trout, even if he’s still somewhat compromised. Ditto for the Yankees and Judge. Both men have said they aren’t at risk of re-injury and are just battling pain tolerance. Any at-bats they can provide — even in those conditions — are likely better than whatever their backups could offer. And with veterans, and particularly stars, teams are more inclined to trust the player.

“It depends on the person,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian said. “It just depends on the person, what they’ve been doing. There’s certain technology now, with different machines, where you can actually get a look at some pitching stuff, movement, tracking. It just depends on the player.”

Some star players have long avoided rehabs, believing them to be a less efficient way to prepare than staying with the team and playing in sim games. Clayton Kershaw, for instance, hasn’t pitched in a minor-league game in years.

“I think no matter what, there’s no way to simulate pitching in a big-league game,” Kershaw said. “If your stuff is good in the minor leagues, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be good here and vice versa. There’s no way to do it except kick the rust off and go out there and do it.”

Still, there are some who want the greater certainty of the rehab assignment. Players heal at their own pace and have individual preferences for how to return, and the length of the absence matters. Boston shortstop Trevor Story, for example, spent 17 days on a rehab assignment that stretched from July into August after undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing his team’s first 112 games.

“Jumping right into it is something you’ve kind of got to balance a little bit. Every injury is different, but for me coming off surgery, feeling that out for the first little bit of process in the minor leagues, I felt good about the arm bouncing back every other day, so kind of crossed that off the list,” Story said. “So after that, it was like all right, let’s go do this with the big club.”

Even if teams believe players could benefit from minor-league games, the collective bargaining agreement affords players far more authority. Players must approve any minor-league rehab assignment and are able to dictate a timeline for how long they remain there. The CBA allows a 20-day maximum for position players and 30 days for pitchers. Ostensibly, players could negotiate with teams for less time.

Brown declared four years of major-league service time as his line of demarcation for deciding who requires rehab assignments. That both Yordan Alvarez and Bo Bichette have embarked on one this season aligns somewhat with Brown’s philosophy, though he urged that all moves should be analyzed on an individual basis. And the physical component is not always the only factor. Some players, like the Tigers’ Riley Greene, have routines that they want to get back into before facing major league competition.

“For me, it was just mental, really. I feel like you lose a lot in a way. I have certain things I do when I get in the box, on deck, before I even go up. I have a routine. Once you get out of it, it’s kind of hard to get back. It just takes a little bit to get back. Timing, things like that,” said Greene, a second-year player who played three minor-league rehab games this season after sustaining a stress fracture in his left fibula.

“It’s good, I think, just to get your timing back, just to feel things you maybe forgot,” Greene said. “I personally liked it because I could get back into my routine. When it comes to being hurt and then coming back, it’s tough to get those feelings back, in my opinion.”

Alvarez is in his fourth full major-league season but has demonstrated an uncanny ability to return at full strength after lengthy absences. This year, he didn’t swing a bat for the first four weeks of spring training, played in just two Grapefruit League games and posted a .931 OPS across the first 22 regular-season games he started.

Houston still sent Alvarez on a three-game minor-league rehab assignment in July. He missed a month and a half due to a strained oblique and, after an absence of that length, Brown found it prudent to test Alvarez in the minor leagues.

Altuve’s first rehab assignment this season came after fracturing his right thumb in the World Baseball Classic in March and missing the season’s first two months. Even then, Altuve appeared in just five minor-league games. He finished 2-for-22 before returning to the major-league lineup. He slashed .265/.371/.479 in his subsequent 143 plate appearances, inviting wonder whether the detour down to the minor leagues was even necessary.

“I think it’s more a case of ‘Do they feel like they’re fully healthy?’ If they’re fully healthy, we talk to them more about timing than anything,” Brown said. “If the timing is right, we will say ‘OK let’s go. It’s time to go. You’re ready.’ And they’re actually ready to get thrown into the fire, to be honest.”

The Athletic’s Andy McCullough, Jen McCaffrey, Fabian Ardaya and Cody Stavenhagen contributed to this report.

(Top photo of Trout on a rehab assignment with the Inland Empire 66ers in 2017: Larry Goren / Four Seam Images via AP Images)

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