During the buildup to the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season, there is plenty of rhapsodizing about the promise of a fresh start and the countless unknowns every MLB team faces. It takes 25 men to make up a full roster, but you’ll often find the lion’s share of payroll going to a few star players. With such a fortune comes great responsibility for baseball’s best.
During the 2013 campaign, all time greats who never doubted their ability to dominate baseball often found themselves adrift on the mound or at the plate. While one bad year can be chalked up to injury or bad luck, recurring disappointments point to a trend. Elite athletes can’t stomach that type of decline. Here are seven MLB stars who desperately need a bounce-back campaign in 2014.
1. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Ryan Braun’s fall from grace was epic in so many ways. Following a failed performance-enhancing drug test after his 2011 season, Braun escaped punishment and declared his innocence, going so far to demonize the official who mishandled his test sample. Then it turned out Major League Baseball had even more proof Braun was doping in connection to the Biogenesis scandal. The disgraced slugger was forced to sit out the rest of the 2013 season as part of a 65-game suspension from baseball.
The bounceback campaign for Braun is crucial because he needs to prove that his skill and power are not dependent on his PED use. While nearly everyone agrees Braun’s talent is immense, putting aside the avalanche of negative publicity and outright venom from baseball fans won’t be easy. To top it off, Braun will likely be quite rusty after spending so much time away from the world’s best pitchers.
2. Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
When healthy, Mark Teixeira brings power from both sides of the plate, high RBI totals, Gold Glove skills at first, high intensity, and consummate professionalism to the ballpark. The Yankees sorely missed Teixeira in 2013 following the wrist injury he sustained during the World Baseball Classic that forced him to have surgery in July.
As one of the Yankees’ $20-million-dollar men, Teixieira needs to get back on track in New York. The doctor who performed the surgery told the switch-hitting slugger it may take until July until he stops feeling any tightness in his wrist. Always confident, Teixeira told WFAN Radio he expects to have “a great season” in 2014.
3. Josh Johnson, San Diego Padres
The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays appeared to have a mighty pitching staff with R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson on board. It didn’t turn out that way for any of the celebrated hurlers, but the once-mighty Johnson posted a horrendous 6.20 ERA in a mere 81 innings in 2013. How bad did that lower the Josh Johnson stock? Put it this way — the Phillies signed A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal for $16 million; Johnson got $8 million for 2014 from the San Diego Padres.
Switching the scenery back to the National League (especially in spacious Petco Park) should be a good thing for Johnson, whose duels with Roy Halladay and other top pitchers were highlights of the 2009 and 2010 seasons. If he wants to re-establish his place in Major League Baseball, Johnson needs a bounce-back 2014.
4. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
Injury and general disappointment surrounded Albert Pujols’ second season with the Los Angeles Angels, but the organization is petrified by the idea it’s part of a downward trend for the slugger. In just his third year of a 10-year, $240-million deal, Pujols needs to light up the scoreboard early and often in 2014.
Pujols declared his injured left foot fully recovered at the start of Spring Training in 2014, which is a good sign for the Angels and bad news for MLB pitchers. If Phat Albert is free of injury in 2014, he can let his extraordinary ability take control for a bounce-back season.
5. C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees
Sabathia is among the game’s highest paid players, so his subpar 2013 campaign caught plenty of attention among Yankee brass, fans, and observers of the game alike. His 4.78 ERA was easily his career worst, not to mention his 112 earned runs that led the American League. The latter stat is evidence the Yankees refuse to take C.C. Sabathia out of the rotation in the belief he will find his way.
MLB observers and ex-pitchers cited a significant change in arm slot for Sabathia in 2013. This shift caused him to struggle with his command throughout the year. Sure enough, his 2.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2013 was a far cry from his league-leading 4.48 K/BB ratio in 2012, when he went 15-6 with a 3.38 ERA. C.C. needs to make a major mechanical adjustment to find his elite form again in 2014.
6. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Earning about $21 million per year through 2017, Cain has high expectations in San Francisco. His 4.00 ERA in the 2013 season didn’t live up to them. Looking at his numbers, it’s difficult to notice a major difference in anything other than ERA. His home-run-per-nine was a career worst at 1.1, but only 0.2 HR/9 IP off the pace of his 2012 season.
A few home runs can make a huge difference in the score, so it’s clear Cain struggled in keeping the ball in the park when men were on base. If he can buckle down in tight spots, he’s likely to regain the Cy Young-caliber form that won him his huge contract.
7. Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
If the Yankees and Angels seem to have many players in need of bounce-back years, that’s because they have numerous large contracts that demand a high level of performance. At a salary of $25 million in 2013, Hamilton produced 21 home runs and hit .250 with a .307 on-base percentage for the Angels. That’s production worthy of a player earning around half that amount, not the man who was named to the All-Star team in each of the five previous seasons for the Rangers.
Hamilton will once again join Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the heart of the Angels lineup. On paper, that’s a fearsome crew for pitchers to handle, but it will take a bounce-back year from Hamilton to make it a reality on the field. The future of the Angels may depend on how well Hamilton and Pujols can respond to their off years at the plate.