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Josh Naylor is healthier entering 2023

This story was excerpted from Mandy Bell’s Guardians Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

There was so much speculation about Josh Naylor’s condition last season.

He was fresh off one of the most gruesome baseball injuries that I have ever witnessed. On June 27, 2021, the 25-year-old was in right field and collided with second baseman Ernie Clement. Naylor flew through the air and felt a snap in his lower right leg upon crashing to the ground. His screams were so loud as he rolled in the grass, writhing in pain, that he could nearly be heard in the Target Field press box above the home plate.

Naylor missed the rest of the season and started the first couple weeks of 2022 in Triple-A to ease into game action. He had been cleared by doctors to play again, but the road to recovery during the previous nine months was so grueling that he wasn’t at 100 percent, and he and the team knew that.

It didn’t matter. Anyone who watched a single highlight from the Guardians’ season last year knows the passion (is that a strong enough word?) Naylor has for the game. Sometimes he expresses it with yells; other times, headbutts. Despite being seen limping, hobbling or moving slowly a handful of times throughout the year, Naylor insisted upon being in the lineup.

“It wasn’t easy,” Naylor said. “It wasn’t necessarily fun all the time, but I just tried to put my teammates first and remember that this is the big picture, I’m doing it for them. … You want to be an everyday player, you want to be out there as much as you can to win for your teammates. And if you’re in pain doing it, then you’re in pain doing it; it is what it is.”

While dealing with lingering aches and pains, there was also speculation about Naylor’s physical condition. Did his rehab program prevent him from entering the 2022 season in optimal shape? The Guardians wanted to limit him to first base instead of bouncing him back and forth with the right field to make sure he wasn’t taking on too much too soon. Could he have handled it after the limited workouts he was able to do in the winter?

As Naylor explained it, that winter included 90 straight days of leg-only workouts. He was so fixated on trying to simply walk and run in time for the season that he had little time left to dedicate to other conditioning work. Now, with more rest and recovery for his leg, Naylor has spent the offseason doing all kinds of workouts, which can only benefit him moving forward.

“I had one or two upper-body workouts that were whole [rehab] offseason,” Naylor said. “So yeah, being able to mix things up this year, work on running stuff, work agility, and then going to the gym and doing upper back workouts versus doing legs so often — I feel more complete this offseason.”

The Guardians desperately needed a first baseman last year, so it made sense to have Naylor play that position more often than right field. Now, they have Josh Bell to handle some games at first, which will require Naylor to move back to right at times if Cleveland wants his bat in the lineup.

“I expected to go back out there this year, and I’m excited for it,” Naylor said. “I love playing the outfield. It’s honestly a really cool position. And having the honor to play besides [Myles] Straw and [Steven Kwan] and learn from those guys is something I want to do every day.”

Naylor is convinced he’ll enter Spring Training in much better shape than he did a year ago — just months after his injury. And even with his recovering leg, he gave Cleveland pivotal moments throughout their unexpectedly successful season, most notably a big night in Chicago in which he plated eight runs starting in the eighth inning, including a walk-off homer celebration that nearly concussed manager Terry Francona .

If he can do that in a suboptimal state, it could be fun to see what a fully healthy Naylor can bring to the table in 2023.

“I try to be like that every day,” Naylor said. “I love baseball, I love playing this game. I love those moments cause you dream of them as a kid. … You want to have that opportunity in the big leagues versus the best players ever. Being in the big leagues is a blessing.”