Big news came through the pipeline for the New York Mets on Thursday morning when it was announced that outfielder Michael Conforto, who has been out since August 24 with a shoulder injury, would be activated from the disabled list and bat leadoff in the Mets' contest with the Washington Nationals.
This is excellent news for the Mets, as Conforto is a major part of their offense. His return is also well ahead of schedule. He was originally expected to be out until May, but his early activation can only be a morale boost to a team that had such horrific injury problems a year ago.
If Conforto returns playing at the level he was at when he hurt himself last summer—he was in the midst of a breakout year with a .279/.384/.555 slash line to go with 27 home runs and 68 RBI—he could be a key component of a run to return to the playoffs after last year's disappointment. But Mickey Callaway would do well not to lean on him too much too soon.
Conforto's injury was scary-looking. Batting against Robbie Ray of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Conforto took an awkward swing and audibly cried out in pain, crumpling to the ground inside the batter's box. The eventual diagnosis was a dislocated shoulder and, more ominously, a torn posterior capsule.
Specific references to capsule injuries are relatively new to the common vernacular of the game, but if you know it, you probably know that, for pitchers at least, it can be a career-altering—and career-ending—event. The most prominent man to suffer one was former Mets pitcher and two-time Cy Young Award-winner Johan Santana, who was never the same after surgery to repair his anterior capsule in 2011, ultimately seeing his glittering career come to a premature end when the injury recurred three years later.
There isn't nearly as much history on hitters with capsule injuries as there are pitchers, so there's no way of knowing whether Conforto will be affected in the same way Santana and the myriad number of other pitchers that have seen their careers evaporate were. But one thing is clear: unlike injuries to the elbows and knees, which have been solved down to the minute details, shoulders are the sports medicine equivalent of the brain in general medicine. There are still many things we don't know about how to solve its problems.
Proceed with caution
That Conforto has recovered quicker than expected is a good sign and it's entirely possible that as a position player he will be better off than pitchers to whom shoulders and arms are obviously far more important.
But given the uncertainty of any shoulder injury, the Mets should be very cautious with Conforto in the early goings of this season. If he were to reinjure himself, it would not only be a blow on the field but to the locker room as well. After a 2017 season so shot through with injuries, to lose Conforto again could easily create a "here we go again" feeling that could erode team morale quickly.
Fortunately for Callaway, he has the options to allow his budding star to ease his way back in. The Mets are carrying four other outfielders who can make a case to be playing every day in Flushing. Juan Lagares is a Gold Glove winner, Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce are the lineup's power sources, and Brandon Nimmo is moving away from being a top prospect and toward being a productive major league hitter.
There's no need to force Conforto into a ton of games—especially considering the question of how to fit him into the team's defensive alignment. He played all three outfield positions last year and according to Baseball Reference's metrics, he was average defensively at the corners but a detriment in center field. But Bruce needs to be in right field and Cespedes is likewise an unnatural fit in center. The most natural defensive fit in the middle is Lagares but with the trio of Bruce, Cespedes, and Conforto forming the heart of the lineup, he won't be seeing every-day starts unless someone gets injured.
Callaway has called it a good problem to have, and it gives him a ton of leeway to let Conforto ease his way back into the lineup without overtaxing his shoulder. Until the team gets an idea of how the aftermath of the injury will affect the player long-term, it's best to err on the side of caution, especially with a future franchise cornerstone.