- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Chris Davis had 1,005 plate appearances in his first four seasons in the big leagues, and so he was at a crossroads in his career in 2012. He had just turned 26 years old and had 441 strikeouts and 253 hits, and if he had struggled again, he may have cemented a reputation for being a not-quite-ready for prime time player.
But Davis stepped up and had a good season, posting an .827 OPS and hitting 33 homers among 53 extra-base hits; he had some big moments to help the Orioles make the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Every year, there are always players facing a similar challenge, of defining themselves -- or redefining.
Here are nine players in that position in 2013, among others:
Everybody remembers the days of Hanley Ramirez as one of the sport's most dynamic, well-rounded stars, because they weren't that long ago. In 2007, Ramirez -- then 23 years old -- hit .332, with a .386 on-base percentage, 29 homers and 51 stolen bases.
But his OPS has declined:
There are major questions about Ramirez on defense as well. Some talent evaluators -- including many within the Marlins' organization -- had determined two years ago that Ramirez was no longer suited to be a shortstop, so Miami signed Jose Reyes and shifted to Ramirez to third base. But that transition did not go well, as these FanGraphs numbers show. After being traded to the Dodgers, he eventually was shifted back to shortstop, but didn't really play the position that well, again.
So as spring training opens, there are myriad questions about Ramirez: Can he play shortstop for a playoff contender? Does he need to go back to third base? Does he need to find another position? Can he ever be a high-impact hitter again?
The uncertainty about Ramirez is part of the reason that preseason metrics being run by rival teams don't reflect well on the Dodgers. But Ramirez -- now 29 years old -- has time to change that, and he'll need to soon, because he has two years remaining on his current contract.
The speedy outfielder gets a fresh start with the Indians, a chance to reset and use new voices in attempting some adjustments. Over the past three seasons, Stubbs has 539 strikeouts and a precipitous decline in his OPS:
Stubbs is 28 years old and the athleticism is still there: He has 110 stolen bases in his career, and is a good outfielder. Terry Francona, the Indians' new manager, undoubtedly posed questions about Stubbs to those he knows before Cleveland traded for the outfielder, and Francona will go into spring training with an open mind. Stubbs has the chance to reverse the direction of his career.
Since he recovered from cancer and stepped up to shut out the Colorado Rockies into the sixth inning of Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, Lester has always been viewed as a front-line starting pitcher -- a big, strong left-hander whom you can build your staff around. But Lester's performance has been in decline since midway through the 2011 season:
First half, 2011: 3.31 ERA
Second half, 2011: 3.72 ERA
First half, 2012: 4.49 ERA
Second half, 2012: 5.23 ERA
Lester acknowledged that he drifted late in 2011, and it's no secret that the whole Boston team was enveloped in a fog of dysfunction in 2012; the Red Sox players were miserable, in a miserable atmosphere. Now John Farrell, an important voice in Lester's career, is back in Boston as the manager, and Lester gets a great chance to pick up the pieces of a terrible 2012 season, at age 29.
If he has another season along the lines of what he did last summer, on the other hand, it will dramatically reshape how evaluators think of him.
He's only 27 years old and yet it seems as though he has been around forever, because we knew about him long before he played in the big leagues -- as the most talented high school hitter in the country before he was drafted, and then later, as the minor leaguer who hit an umpire with a bat.
But he now has reached a time in his career when it's extremely important for him to take advantage of the at-bats the Phillies will give him, starting in spring training. Rival evaluators will want to see that he's going to get serious about his physical condition, about taking care of his body.
If he struggles this year, he'll be looked at as a fringe player.
Justin Masterson | RHP, Indians
He seemed to take a big step forward in 2011, lowering his ERA to 3.21. But after monumental struggles last year, with a 4.93 ERA, some executives believe the 27-year-old Masterson is best suited to be a reliever, because of the major disparity between his performance against left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. (Lefties had an .825 OPS against him in 2012, righties .613.) With Francona now serving as his manager, he'll get a mulligan for his ugly 2012, and could get back on track -- or he could hurt his chances of continuing as a starting pitcher.
He was an All-Star at age 25, in a 2008 season in which he went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA. Since then, he has had a whole lot of ups and downs: In 2012, he led the National League in walks, racking up 105 in 182 2/3 innings. He had a 4.14 ERA in those 32 starts - really struggling on the road, with a 5.60 ERA.
He'll be eligible for free agency in the fall of 2013, so he's got a whole lot at stake.
The first baseman had a .919 OPS in only 96 games at age 23, and for years, the Dodgers waited for him to build on that, but the production growth didn't happen. Now he'll get a change of scenery, and drop right into the middle of what should be a good Tampa Bay lineup, with Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria hitting ahead of him. Loney turns 28 in May, and this could be his last shot at being an everyday player in the big leagues.
With Rasmus, it always has been about potential -- about a swing and an approach at the plate and an athleticism that all seemingly made him destined for stardom. He was a first-round pick of the Cardinals in 2005 and was in the big leagues at age 22.
But some members of the St. Louis organization grew frustrated with him, and he was traded to Toronto, where he has had very mixed results. Rasmus played 151 games last season, with 625 plate appearances -- and posted a .689 OPS. His batting average of .221 ranked 136th out of 143 qualified hitters.
The Blue Jays believe in his talent and he is slated to be a regular again because of that potential. The context for Toronto has changed, however -- the Blue Jays have positioned themselves to make a serious run at the AL East title this year, and it's hard to imagine that they'll be as patient if Rasmus struggles again.
Yunel Escobar | SS, Rays
He has bounced from Atlanta to Toronto to the Marlins to the Rays, despite what is widely regarded as an above-average skill set for a major league shortstop: He can field, he can hit. But he also is known for being careless, for making mistakes and for being a selfish teammate; stories about Escobar will follow him around.
Now he joins a team that has a reputation for having a very tolerant clubhouse culture (as the Braves and Blue Jays have had, by the way), and so he'll be playing with a great opportunity to recast his reputation, and with a great opportunity to play for a successful team. How he handles this will alter the direction of his career.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Brewers are OK with going into the regular season with young starting pitching, writes Tom Haudricourt.
2. Jim Leyland wouldn't anoint Bruce Rondon as his closer.
3. The Royals claimed a catcher on waivers.
4. The Cubs finished a free-agent deal.
5. The Rays may still be looking for a bat.
6. Jon Daniels knows that signing Elvis Andrus will be a challenge.
7. The Rangers signed Jeff Baker, writes Drew Davison.
8. The Astros' third-base competition is wide open.
9. The Rockies' Josh Rutledge is ready to challenge for a job.
10. Andre Ethier shrugged off all the trade rumors.
11. The Mets are very reluctant to give up their first-round pick to sign Michael Bourn.
• There is really sad news about the young daughter of a Mets catcher.
• Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard accept the new bullpen reality for the Nats, writes Amanda Comak.
• The Red Sox are hoping that their young arms will pay off.
• Ryan Lawrence writes that you shouldn't believe everything you've heard about the Phillies.
• Joe Mauer made it clear why he intends to stay with the Twins. He completely controls the situation.
• Brandon Phillips got a marriage proposal, as Mark Billing writes.
• Fritz Peterson has no regrets 40 years after his wife swap, writes Joe Capozzi.
• A.J. Ellis says he's fully recovered from knee surgery.
• There is some intrigue about the Indians this spring, writes Paul Hoynes.
• Rick Hahn has proven to be a great listener, writes Mark Gonzales.
• The White Sox believe their starting pitching will make them contenders, writes Darryl Van Schouwen.
• Ryan Braun has enjoyed a more quiet offseason, writes Todd Rosiak.
• The WBC needs the U.S. to go all-in, writes Richard Griffin. It'll never happen, unless there's a major restructuring of how the event is played out.
• The Miami area is a focus for MLB as it investigates PED use, write Mike Fish and T.J. Quinn.
• The actions of Jeffrey Loria draw some scrutiny.
• Terry Ryan sees himself in the same boat as manager Ron Gardenhire, writes Jim Souhan.
• Brandon Beachy is getting better.
• Yoenis Cespedes hopes to resolve his legal issues, writes Susan Slusser.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney looks at nine players facing make-or-break seasons in 2013.