Thursday, February 21, 2013
10 make-or-break players this spring
By Jim Bowden
No longer a Ranger, Michael Young must prove he's got something left in the tank for Philly.
Baseball is a results-oriented business. Players who do not produce do not last long. Some young players, however, are afforded more time and multiple chances to establish themselves because of the potential they’ve shown or their formidable physical skills. Others are veterans clinging to roster spots -- trying to prove they’re not washed up -- or injured players trying to re-establish themselves as starters.
For the following 10 players, spring is the start of a make-or-break season. If they succeed, they stave off critics and age for another season. If they don’t, this could be their last in the major leagues.
1. Michael Young | 3B | Veteran trying to prove he’s not in decline
At 36, Young is coming off his worst offensive year in more than a decade, hitting just .277/.312/.370 with 27 doubles and eight home runs. The Rangers couldn’t promise him a full-time role in 2013, so Young waived his trade veto rights to become Philadelphia’s everyday third baseman. Young served primarily as the Rangers’ DH and super-utility player, but his range has diminished, and some scouts question if he still has the first-step quickness needed to be adequate at third base. Young is still a clubhouse leader and is just one year removed from leading the AL with 213 hits. To many baseball evaluators' eyes, it looked as if his bat was slowing down. The Phillies are hoping that’s not the case.
Chamberlain came with high expectations when the Yankees selected him with the 41st pick overall in the 2006 draft. He has bounced back and forth between the bullpen and rotation throughout his career, amassing a decent 21-13 record, 3.73 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. At 27, Chamberlain should be ready for his prime years. I saw him pitch in September and was extremely impressed with his velocity and stuff in the strike zone. In fact, in his last 11 appearances he didn’t give up a run and only once did he allow more than one hit. He has a chance re-establish himself as one of the top setup relievers in the AL before he hits free agency next winter.
3. Justin Smoak | 1B | Former top prospect must prove he can stick
Smoak, 26, was the Rangers’ first-round selection and 11th player taken overall in the 2008 draft. The Rangers traded him to acquire Cliff Lee and his three seasons in the majors since then have been mediocre at best. He hasn’t hit better than .234, hasn’t hit more than 19 home runs and hasn’t driven in more than 55. Those types of numbers don’t keep first basemen employed long, even if they are above-average defenders like Smoak. Either he does it now or Jesus Montero will be at first, Mike Zunino will be behind the plate and Smoak will become a reclamation project for a team like Tampa Bay.
4. Luis Cruz | 3B | Older prospect’s window is now
Cruz had cups of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers from 2008 to 2010. However in 2012 he took advantage of an extended opportunity with the Dodgers and hit .297/.322/.431 with 20 doubles and six homers in 283 at-bats. Manager Don Mattingly has penciled him in as the everyday third baseman because Hanley Ramirez will at least start the year as the Dodgers’ shortstop. Cruz, 29, must hit right out of the gate to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. Otherwise Ramirez will move back to third and Dee Gordon could end up back at shortstop.
5. Jemile Weeks | 2B | Must break out of extended soph slump
Weeks was the Athletics’ first-round pick and 12th overall in the 2008 draft. His rookie season in 2011 was special, hitting .303/.340/.421 with 26 doubles, eight triples and 22 stolen bases while scoring 50 runs in just 97 games. But he regressed badly in 2012. His defense is below average at second base, and his quick feet must compensate for a below-average arm. The A’s have plenty of competition for him in camp, including Jed Lowrie, Scott Sizemore, Adam Rosales and Andy Parrino.
6. Brian Roberts | 2B | Injured player trying to re-establish himself
Please stop laughing. Yes, the human disabled list is trying to make a comeback after spending more time on the DL than any player in baseball over the last three seasons. At 35, Roberts hopes he’ll regain the form he had in 2004-09, when he averaged 630 plate appearances and scored more than 100 runs four times, stealing at least 20 bases every season. The two-time All-Star’s career OBP of .351 combined with his speed made him one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. Another injury-plagued season could be his last.
Plouffe was the Twins’ first-round pick and 20th player taken overall in the 2004 draft. Although it took him eight years to have an impact, he certainly made noise in 2012. They moved him to third base where he hit .253/.325/.546 with 10 doubles and 19 homers in the first half. However, he dropped off a cliff in the second half, hitting just .223 with five more homers. Top prospect Miguel Sano is still a couple of years away, but Plouffe is running out of time to prove he’s legit.
Francisco has tremendous power from the left side, but two big questions remain: Will he make enough contact to make the power usable, and can he develop enough defensively to be the Braves long-term answer at third base? He’s competing with newly acquired Chris Johnson, a competition that in all likelihood will lead to a platoon. If Francisco falters, general manager Frank Wren will not hesitate to inquire about the Padres’ Chase Headley or talk to any other team that has a possible long-term solution for the Braves.
The 25-year-old Brown was the Phillies' 20th-round selection in the 2006 draft. He possessed raw speed to go with power and length in his swing. He developed into a legitimate prospect who most scouts believe is good enough to hit 15-20 home runs and steal 20 bases per season. He has been given some opportunities with the Phillies the last three seasons but never played in more than 56 games a season. The Phillies keep acquiring outfielders, so his opportunity will be limited. He must make the most of it.
10. Ian Stewart | 3B | Last chance for former top prospect
Stewart, 27, was the Rockies’ first-round pick and 10th player selected overall in the 2003 draft. His raw power always had scouts drooling while everyone waited to see if he was going to hit enough and play well enough at third base. A decade later, he’s still struggling to prove he’s an everyday player. Over his six-year career, his slash line is a rather pedestrian .232/.319/.417. At 28, Stewart must make adjustments and prove he can hit or prepare to step aside for either Josh Vitters or Javier Baez.