Mark Reynolds of the Baltimore Orioles fouls off a pitch against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
What happens when a veteran hitter who was once very good gets off to a bad start? How long can his team stick with him?
Last week, Grant Brisbee wrote this feature here at Baseball Nation about four young hitters off to good starts and how they're all "totally better now and everything." Of course, there was some humor intended.
But that got me to thinking -- what about the converse? What about veteran hitters off to bad starts? Will any of them recover to their career norms?
This piece is going to be more serious than Grant's. But then, that's just me. (Also, small-sample-size warning, though we're getting to the point where the sample sizes aren't all that small any more.)
You could call this sort of thing "Adam Dunn syndrome". When Dunn got off to a horrific start in 2011, many said, "He'll come out of it." He never did last year, having one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball history. The possible good news for hitters like the ones I'm about to tell you about is that Dunn is off to a pretty good start in 2012, now hitting .246/.348/.509 with 13 RBI in 66 plate appearances (after a similar number of PA in 2011, Dunn was hitting .145/.288/.291).
Here are four hitters, three of them former, off to terrible starts. Will any of them recover?
Part of the reason I thought about doing this was Byrd's horrific start -- 3-for-43, all singles. Byrd's decline from being a decent everyday player didn't just start on Opening Day 2012, though; he was hit in the face by the Red Sox' Alfredo Aceves on May 21, 2011 at Fenway Park. He was hitting .308/.346/.419 at the time; after hitting well for a month after his return from the beaning, he declined precipitously.
Overall, since that return he's hitting just .230/.275/.338. And now, he's returning to the scene of the beaning to become a teammate of Aceves and Team Turmoil in Boston. He's expected to start in center field temporarily until Jacoby Ellsbury returns, but that could still be several weeks away.
Byrd is 34 and in the last year of a three-year deal signed with the Cubs before the 2010 season. He's probably not 3-for-43 bad, but the chances of him returning to the .759 OPS level he had in his career before 2011 are pretty small.
So far ... not so good. Ramirez is hitting .158/.222/.263 with just one home run in his first 63 plate appearances.
This is nothing unusual for Ramirez. He hit at about that level (.168/.232/.285) for two entire months in 2010, before going on the disabled list with wrist issues. He came back and hit .287/.333/.556 for over 300 PA the rest of that year. 2006, same thing: first 71 PA, .180/.296/.344. His 2006 wound up as one of his best overall years, with a .912 OPS and career highs in home runs and RBI.
The difference now for Ramirez is that he can no longer blame cold Chicago weather for his poor April, since he has an indoor stadium as his home park; also, he's almost 34. He could still recover and have a decent season, but it won't be as easy as it once was.
The Reds third baseman is hitting .170/.228/.226. He spent much of 2011 injured, playing in only 65 games, and didn't hit much then, either: .242/.279/.397. He just turned 37 and his last really good season was in 2006 with the Cardinals, although he hit reasonably well (and finished 14th in MVP voting) for Cincinnati in 2010, when the Reds won the NL Central.
Dusty Baker, a manager known to be partial to veteran players, keeps trotting Rolen out there every day. Maybe Dusty still thinks it's 2006, or 2002, but though Rolen has had a fine career, it appears to be nearing its end. The Reds have a perfectly good replacement sitting on their bench in Todd Frazier; eventually, they're going to have to acknowledge reality and sit Rolen, who is in the last year of a two-year contract. It could very well be Rolen's final major league season.
It's arguable whether the Orioles third baseman was ever really that good a player, considering he has struck out in 38.4 percent of all his major league at-bats. Still, he's hit 158 career home runs, had three seasons of 30 or more homers, and posted an above-average 119 OPS+ in 2011.
This year, so far, he's been awful: .125/.250/.208 in 56 plate appearances with no home runs. He's struck out 22 times in 48 at-bats, an even higher percentage than usual. Reynolds is making $7.5 million this season, and as you can imagine, the Orioles would love to deal him. They're probably going to have to wait for a Byrd-type situation, where a team suffers a third-base injury and are desperate for a replacement.
Four players, all of whom were once very-good-to-excellent. At least three of them could be reaching the end of the line; it's perhaps time for their teams to consider other options.