NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08: Jason Heyward #22 of the Atlanta Braves watches his RBI single in the top of the third inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on September 8, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
This is not a list. Okay, it's a list, but it's not a ranking. There's no number one, no number five, no number ten. Why six players? Because it's my list and I decided to fill it with six players.
It's not a set of predictions. Or projections. Or guesses about what will happen this season.
It's just my thoughts about six players with interesting stories. Six players coming into the season with hopes and dreams and expectations. Sure, all players come into the season with hopes and dreams and expectations. But these six players have something else. A healing injury. A new team. A new position. A new contract. A great season in 2011 out of the blue. A not-great season in 2011 out of the blue.
Sure, lots of players have that something else. Or another something else. If you made a list like this, it might have six different players. Your list might include Ryan Braun. Or Carl Crawford. Or Adam Dunn. Or Johan Santana. Or Buster Posey. Or Josh Hamilton. And I want to hear about that in the comments. Tell us who would be on your list.
But this is my list. My story about six players with the most to prove this season.
In alphabetical order:
Braves to the post-season in 2010 for the first time since 2005.
Heyward was a star from the get-go. Young, athletic, powerful, and fast. Five tools. An Atlanta-area native bringing joy to Atlanta-area baseball fans. It was a love story.
And then he got hurt. By the end of April 2011, his right shoulder was aching and his power was all but gone. An MRI revealed inflammation in the shoulder. He tried to play through it but couldn't. Or wouldn't. And at least one of his teammates didn't like that. And not just any teammate. But the one who's played his whole career with the Braves and is destined for the Hall of Fame. Heyward came back, but his struggles at the plate continued.
By season's end, Heyward had hit 14 home runs, compiled a slash of .227/.319/.389, and a 95 OPS+. The Braves missed the playoffs by one game after a quiet but devastating September collapse.
Heyward's heard the whispers. He knows there are those who question his physical and mental toughness. He says he ready to face the challenges in the 2012 season.
Tigers. He's been a catcher, a third baseman, an outfielder and a designated hitter. He started as a catcher, but lost that position when the Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez as a free agent before the 2004 season. Inge then shifted to third base, but lost that position when the Tigers traded for Miguel Cabrera before the 2008 season. He regained third base when Cabrera shifted to first, and held it for two more seasons, before losing it, again, in 2011. Inge didn't take these moves quietly, however, which angered many fans.
Inge didn't just lose third base last season because of another player. He lost it because his offensive production dipped far below his already paltry career stats (.235/305./.388 with an 83 OPS+). In mid-July, the Tigers cut Inge with $7 million remaining on his contract. When no teams showed interest, Inge reported to the Toledo Mudhens, the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate. By August he was back with Detroit, and by October he was getting hit after hit for the Tigers in the postseason. In doing so, Inge accomplished a rare feat.
Then the Tigers signed Prince Fielder, so Miguel Cabrera is back at the hot corner and Inge is without a position, again. Or is he? Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski marveled this week at how Inge has taken to playing second base this spring. "You'd think he'd played there the last 10 years," Dombrowski said. Will Inge beat out Ramon Santiago and Ryan Rayburn for the starting second base job? Who knows. But Inge is in a contract year. And if history is any guide, he's got a lot to prove this season.
Johnson's problem, of course, has been staying healthy enough to pitch a full season. Since he pitched thirty-one games for the Marlins his rookie season (2006), Johnson's pitched a full season only once, in 2008, and close to a full season, in 2009. He's had Tommy John surgery, and on-again-off-again shoulder problems which kept him out most of 2011.
The Marlins have a new name, a new stadium, and several new high-priced players, including starter Mark Buehrle. But for the Marlins to make a serious run at the National League East title or one of the two wild cards, they need a healthy Johnson. A healthy, strong, dominating Johnson. He knows it. The team knows it. Now he has to prove it true.
No, Matt Kemp is coming off a spectacular season for the Dodgers. A near-Triple Crown season in which he led the National League in home runs (39) and RBI (126) and had the third-highest batting average (.324) behind Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun. The Dodgers rewarded Kemp with an eight-year/$160 million contract. He's the centerpiece around which the Dodgers -- and their new owners -- intend to rebuild.
Can Kemp repeat his 2011 production? He posted career highs in nearly every statistical category, failing to top only his 2007 batting average (.342). Kemp says he isn't letting up. As the Dodgers assembled at their spring-training facility in Glendale, Arizona, Kemp said he was going for 50/50 this season; fifty home runs and fifty stolen bases. It's never been done. But it sure is a nice goal to have.
Phillies offered Ryan Madson $44 million to be their closer for the next four seasons? Yeah, so does he.
In one of the strangest moves of the offseason, the Phillies purportedly made the offer to Madson, then got cold feet, and signed Jonathan Papelbon for $50 million over four years. That all happened in November, leaving Madson on the free-agent market until January, when he signed a one-year deal (plus a mutual option) with the Reds for $8.5 million.
Now, $8.5 million isn't chump change, even with $2 million deferred, but it's not $44 million either. And instead of a four-year job security, Madson might be a free agent again after the 2012 season, and he'll be looking to lock down a long-term deal.
Madson is a very good relief pitcher. In 2011, he posted a 2.37 ERA (2.25 FIP), 1.15 WHIP and a 9.2 strikeout rate over sixty innings. He throws a nasty change-up that freezes lefties and righties in equal measure. And he converted 32 out of 34 save opportunities. This season, Madson just has to work on his balance. Because there's a mighty big chip on his shoulder.
At one point or another, all these thngs have been said about Rasmus. After two-and-one-half years of good but inconsistent play as the center fielder for the Cardinals, he wore out his welome and was shipped off to Toronto in a multi-player deal last season. The change of scenery was expected to revitalize Rasmus, but that didn't happen. A wrist injury sapped him of power and kept him off of the field. In 140 plate appearances with the Blue Jays, he batted only .173/.201/.316 with three home runs.
Rasmus is only 25 years old, so there's time for him to turn it around and become an impact player. But that time is now. With the addition of the second wild card, the Blue Jays have a glimmer of hope in the always-tough American League East. They will need a full season of Rasmus producing like he did in 2010, when he hit .276/.361/.498 with 23 home runs. The Blue Jays need that Rasmus and Rasmus needs that Rasmus, lest he become another shoulda-coulda-woulda player.
Tell us what you think. Who's on your list of players with the most to prove this season.