The phrase “something to prove” gets thrown around a lot in sports. Essentially, when we say that, we’re pointing at players who overachieved or underachieved, and need to do *something* to show that either they still have something left in the tank, or that their success wasn’t a fluke. Needless to say, there are several players that have quite a bit to prove this season.
Jose Abreu. Six years, $68 million, and question marks everywhere in between. No one really knows what to expect from Chicago’s new Cuban import, who will take over as the White Sox every day first baseman this season. Abreu’s had a decent spring, homering three times in 16 games, but we really can’t put much faith in those numbers. What kind of production will the Sox get from the heir apparent to Paul Konerko? We don’t know, but he’ll need to do a lot to make the South Side forget about one of their favorite heroes.
Matt Carpenter. The Cardinals are putting a lot of faith in Carpenter following a breakout, MVP+level 2013, trading former World Series MVP David Freese to the Angels and shifting Carpenter to third base. Carpenter is now 28-years old and has a shiny new six-year contract in hand, despite playing in just 278 career games. Was 2013 the high water mark of his career, or is the best yet to come? We’ll see, but the Cardinals hope it’s the latter.
Chris Davis. Davis went from a strikeout prone hitter with a ton of power that couldn’t hold a job to an MVP candidate, and all it took was a trade from the Rangers to the Orioles. In 330 games with the Orioles, Davis has smashed 88 homers. He’s also struck out 409 times, so let’s not pretend that he’s suddenly dropped that part of his game. But while Davis was a fine player in 2012, he was an *incredible* player in 2013 – well, at least the first half of 2013. Baltimore is paying Davis $10.4 million this year, and they need to determine whether or not he’s an MVP candidate worth a long-term deal, or a guy who simply got hot for a few months and isn’t a long-term building block.
Josh Donaldson. Donaldson reminds me of Carpenter – a guy who comes out of absolutely nowhere to have an MVP-caliber season. After showing a good glove and decent pop in 75 games in 2012, Donaldson exploded in 2013, homering 24 times, more than doubling his walk rate, slicing his strikeout rate, and turning in an elite performance with his glove. At 28, Donaldson is no spring chicken, and his play this year is what will set him apart from being a future cornerstone in the mold of a (hopefully healthy) Eric Chavez, or another guy that Billy Beane sells high on.
Evan Gattis. Gattis is the new Braves backstop (at least for now) following the departure of Brian McCann this winter. Gattis became a sort of folk hero in Atlanta in 2013 after the former janitor hit a dozen homers over the first two months of the year, getting playing time both behind the plate and in the outfield. As the season went along, Gattis’ production fell off, and his plate discipline became nearly nonexistent. With the talented, yet still raw, Christian Bethancourt nipping at Gattis’ heels in AAA, Gattis will need to have himself a big year to ensure that he still has a regular job in 2015.
Derek Jeter. The captain is calling it quits after this season, and he’s coming off a 2013 that was the worst year of his career. Jeter struggled in his recovery from a broken ankle all season, playing in just 17 games and hitting a pathetic .190/.288/.254 when he was actually on the field. Reports from this spring have indicated that Jeter looks absolutely done. So, is he going to go out with a roar, or a whimper? And if it’s the latter, how long can Joe Girardi continue to trot him out there every day while the Yankees are trying to win a World Series?
Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers season is just two games old, and the narratives surrounding Puig are nauseating. So what better way to silence the critics by putting together a magnificent sophomore campaign? If Puig has a second straight great year in 2014, all of the talk about whether or not he’s a clubhouse cancer, a disgrace to the game, or whatever negative superlative you want to attach to him should disappear. If he ends up struggling, which is obviously not out of the realm of possibility, the narratives might end up overwhelming the Dodgers season. No big deal.
Max Scherzer. When Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million extension from the Tigers last week, it was a bold move. Does he really think he’ll get more money than that in the free agent market? Well, he *is* the reigning AL Cy Young winner, and he *has* improved dramatically in each of the last two seasons. But this *is* Max Scherzer, a guy who had been horribly inconsistent throughout his career heading into 2013. Who’s to say that Scherzer won’t suddenly become homer-prone again, and his ERA will jump by a run and give teams pause about giving him $24 million per year? On the other side of the coin, if Scherzer somehow repeats that Cy Young caliber season in 2014, he could be in line for Justin Verlander/Felix Hernandez money – that’s not a bad deal for him at all.
Grady Sizemore. The Red Sox are putting a lot of faith in a guy that hasn’t played in the majors since 2011, and hasn’t qualified for a batting title since 2009. Sizemore is 31-years old, and Boston seems comfortable with him as their Opening Day center fielder. If he somehow stays healthy and provides an even average level of performance, he’ll set himself up for a nice payday next winter while the Red Sox likely transition their center field job to Jackie Bradley Jr. If he gets hurt or struggles…well, what the hell was the point of the last six weeks then?
Stephen Strasburg. I’ll close with Strasburg, a guy who has been a sexy pick to win the NL Cy Young award in each year since 2012. It seems crazy to say this, but the 25-year old Strasburg really hasn’t reached the highs of his stunning 2010 rookie season, which ended with Tommy John surgery. Even last year, when Strasburg stayed healthy and pitched 183 innings, there was the sense that his year was a disappointment. After all, he “only” struck out 191 batters (9.39 batters per nine innings) and had “just” a 3.00 ERA. Really, what more can Strasburg do to live up to the hype? Well, he can go out, dominate the National League, and win the Cy Young award. Anything else will just add to the story that he’s been a disappointment.