Major League Baseball has reached Memorial Day with more than $300 million worth of players on the injured list, either because of COVID-19, significant injuries or day-to-day wear and tear.
Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer of the New York Mets, Fernando Tatis and Mike Clevenger of the San Diego Padres, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Aroldis Chapman and Giancarlo Stanton of the New York Yankees, Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants, Steven Matz of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals are among the players currently out with various ailments.
The losses may be the result of lingering pandemic effects, an offseason lockout during which players couldn’t organize to train or workout, and spring training shortened by several weeks.
“All of the above,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said this past weekend. “I mean, 2020 and the 60-game season is a year everyone is still recovering from.”
The stars are out of alignment.
The Mets alone are responsible for $67.3 million charged toward their luxury tax payroll to Scherzer ($43.3 million) and deGrom ($24 million), both of whom are out indefinitely—Scherzer with a torn oblique and deGrom with another in a series of arm and shoulder injuries.
Their payroll is currently at $259.2 million, the highest in MLB this season, nearly $40 million over the $230 million first-tier luxury tax threshold.
The Yankees, with a payroll of $247.7 million—third highest—have $74.8 million of that currently allocated to nine players on the IL. The Dodgers, at No. 2 and $257.2 million, are not unscathed, with $41.9 million going to eight injured players. Kershaw, with a recurring back injury, leads LA’s list at $17 million.
The Dodgers took a chance on Kershaw. He missed nearly the final four months of the 2021 season, including the playoffs, because of a left elbow injury.
Once again, he’s trying to work his way back.
“It’s not fun,” he said. “I’m going to be dealing with this [back injury] like forever.”
Despite all the injuries, the three teams with MLB’s highest player payrolls are all leading their respective divisions as May turns into June and heads toward the July 19 All-Star Game in Los Angeles.
On the flip side of this injury issue, there’s Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, who doesn’t miss many games.
Through May 27, Freeman has started all 44 games for the Dodgers at first base. Only one other player, shortstop Trea Turner, has played in every game for LA this season. Freeman was signed as a free agent this spring after missing only seven games for the Atlanta Braves since the 2017 season.
Steve Garvey, an All-Star first baseman for the Dodgers during the 1970s and early ’80s, holds the current National League record for consecutive games played, reaching 1,207 games in 1983. But Garvey’s streak is not in danger.
“I think we’re the author of our own destiny,” Garvey said when reached by phone on Thursday. “We control the things we can control and the variables you don’t worry about. Every player can control getting into shape or being ready. That’s purely measuring your skills and professionalism.”
That’s Freeman, who thus far has been worth every cent of the six-year, $162 million contract the Dodgers will pay him, $25.8 million against the luxury tax threshold this year.
To play every day, “you have to have a passion for the game and earn your position, and Freeman has done that,” Garvey said.
The Braves didn’t see it that way, allowing Freeman to leave via free agency, just like the Dodgers did with Garvey, when the Padres signed him after the 1982 season. Both were 32 at the time. Atlanta balked at giving Freeman that coveted sixth year, despite his stamina and that he helped them win the World Series last fall for only the fourth time in the history of the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta franchise.
Instead, the Braves opted to obtain Matt Olson in a trade with the Oakland A’s, subsequently paying him $168 million over eight years.
Through May 26, Freeman has a slash line of .312/.399/.500 and a 152 OPS-plus. He’s leading MLB in doubles with 17. Olson is slashing along at .251/.370/.449 with a 125 OPS-plus. The 28-year-old has also started all the Braves’ games at first.
When it comes to his load management, Freeman told Roberts not to worry about him, and that he expects to play every day. The term refers to giving a player rest from time to time. The last times he missed dozens of games was 2017 was when his left wrist was broken by a pitch and he asked if he could play with a splint. He had a serious bout with the coronavirus in 2020, but still played in all 60 games of that COVID-abbreviated season.
“It’s all mindset,” Freeman said. “My mindset is to show up to work every day and play. Unless there’s a broken bone, I’ll be out there. That’s how I view it.”
Baseball was different when Garvey was playing; Cal Ripken Jr. set the MLB record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games, and Pete Rose recorded 4,256 hits in 3,562 games over the course of 24 seasons—both MLB records. Garvey played through the flu, bone bruises, stitches under his chin and on one occasion, a stomach virus that didn’t keep him from hitting the walk-off homer that won Game 4 of the 1984 NL Championship Series for the Padres over the Chicago Cubs.
“Can you imagine if I had talked to Tommy Lasorda about load management?” said Garvey, who played for the late Hall-of-Fame Dodgers manager in both the big leagues and minors. “He would have told me to take my load and get back out there.”
Durability like Freeman’s is less common in this era of baseball. Last season, only four players played in all 162 games: Freeman’s former Atlanta teammates Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson, plus Whit Merrifield and Marcus Semien over in the American League. Freeman missed only two games in 2021 after the NL East race was over.
“I don’t feel great every single day, either,” Freeman said. “But I just love the game of baseball and it’s my responsibility to be out there every single day.”
Roberts appreciates the effort, particularly as multiple injuries swirl all around him and he has to worry about the load management of others.
(This story has corrected the spelling of Brandon Belt’s name in the second paragraph.)