Every spring there are a crop of veteran players who arrive at Spring Training with something to prove. Typically these are former All-Stars who have fallen due to injury or poor performance or players who have switched teams and are trying to make an impact. Here, then are the veterans in each of those scenarios who have the most to prove along with a prospect who is not only looking to win a job but to prove that his once outstanding potential is still there.
The Fallen Star: Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
Lincecum's fall from back-to-back Cy Young award winner to the worst qualified starting pitcher in baseball last year was stunning. Given just how drastic his change in performance was last year, it would be tempting to write it off as a fluke, but the collapse suggested some underlying physical problems. When one breaks down Lincecum's 2012 performance, the biggest issues are the drops in his velocity and his struggles with control, which in concert suggest an injury. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA player forecast system lists Rich Harden, Rich Hill, and Erik Bedard as Lincecum's three most comparable players heading into the 2013 season ? three pitchers whose careers were derailed by arm injuries.
Lincecum worked hard to build up strength in the offseason, but his spring is already off to a poor start. Though he seemed to have an extra tick or two on his fastball in his spring debut, those pitches came in a short outing with poor results that saw him exhaust his pitch count before completing his scheduled two innings. His second start, scheduled for this past Saturday, was scratched due to a reoccurrence of the middle-finger blister that first popped up during May of last year.
For Lincecum, the stakes couldn't be higher. He's not only expected to be a key part of the starting rotation for the defending world champions in a division threatening to be overtaken by the nouveau richeDodgers, but he'll be a free agent after the season. Given his performance prior to 2012 and his $22 million salary for the 2013 (the result of a contract signed last January), Lincecum was expected to become one of the best-paid pitchers in baseball history in the next year. However, another season like 2012 could not only cost the Giants a return trip to the playoffs, but could cost Lincecum more than $100 million relative to his perceived value just a year ago. With that in mind, there may not be another player in baseball under more pressure to perform this year.
The Broken Man: Carl Crawford, LF, Dodgers
Crawford already has his money, but he seems to have traded it for his health. His wrist and elbow injuries robbed him of first his ability to produce and then his ability to play, limiting him to just 31 games in the second year of the seven-year, $142 million contract he signed with the Red Sox in December 2010. Boston soured completely on Crawford so they (somewhat miraculously) dumped the last five years of that contract on the Dodgers last August. For Crawford, that hardly alleviates the pressure on him to recover the All-Star form that landed him that contract in the first place.
Like Lincecum, however, things are not yet looking up for Crawford. The left-fielder has already experienced some nerve irritation in his left forearm stemming from the Tommy John surgery he had on his left elbow last August. That has thus far kept him out of game action and has made a return trip to the disabled list to start the season a strong possibility. That means that Crawford, who hasn't seen game action since August 19, won't get a proper Spring Training. He could be well behind where he had hoped to be even once he is finally healthy enough to take over left field in Los Angeles. At this point, it's unclear when he will ever play. Given how much of a struggle simply staying on the field is proving to be for Crawford, any remaining hopes of the now-31-year-old regaining his late-twenties form seem farfetched.
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The Shady Investment: Melky Cabrera, LF, Blue Jays
Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton signed the two richest free agent contracts of this past offseason, but the free agent signee with the most to prove this spring is Melky Cabrera. The disgraced Cabrera, who signed a modest, two-year, $16 million contract with the Blue Jays, will be scrutinized after going from All-Star to steroid bust in 2012. Cabrera hit .322/.360/.489 (136 OPS+) for the Royals and Giants over the past two seasons, but that performance was a huge step up from his previous level with the Yankees and Braves (.267/.329/.380, 86 OPS+).
The explanation given for Cabrera's sudden surge was that he had a wake-up call after being non-tendered by the Braves after the 2010 season. Once he tested positive for increased testosterone levels last season, the legitimacy of Cabrera's turnaround was diminished.
How large of a role did Cabrera's doping play in his performance over the last two seasons? The Blue Jays decided it was worth $16 million to find out. Cabrera's signing is a continuation of the Jays' pattern of taking relatively low-cost gambles on the upside of unwanted players. It paid off last year with Edwin Encarnacion, but has yet to with Colby Rasmus. The pressure here remains firmly on Cabrera. If his production collapses, the Jays can replace him in left field with Rajai Davis or center field prospect Anthony Gose, and it will permanently brand Cabrera's 2011 and 2012 seasons as drug-fueled flukes.
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The Underappreciated Talent: Justin Upton, LF, Braves
Justin Upton knows a thing or two about having to prove himself. The top pick in the 2005 draft, a major leaguer a year and a half later at age 19, an All-Star at 21, and the recipient of a $51.25 million contract at 22, Upton has spent his early twenties just trying to live up to his own hype. Upton ultimately failed to satisfy the Diamondbacks, who sold low on him after a 2012 season in which his power was sapped by an April thumb injury.
Now a Brave, Upton remains plagued by the additional doubts that his fourth-place finish in the National League MVP voting in 2011 was largely fueled by the Diamondbacks' home ballpark (where he hit .333/.411/.622 that season compared to .246/.328/.439 on the road). The new outfielder enters his age-25 season still trying to prove that he can blossom into the superstar he's long been expected to be. Now he has an added chip on his shoulder to boot. He'll do so while playing in the same outfield as his older brother B.J., who, entering his age-28 season and a new $75.25 million contract with Atlanta, has failed to live up to similar hype, and Jason Heyward, a player with every bit as much potential who, despite being two years younger than Justin, seems closer to realizing it.
The Busted Prospect: Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves
Teheran wasn't the top pitching prospect in baseball coming into the 2012 season, but he was the top pitching prospect who hadn't already started a playoff game (see Moore, Matt). Teheran went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA in Triple-A as a 20-year-old in 2011, living up to his top-ten prospect status entering that season despite underwhelming in a handful of major league appearances. Then, in his first Spring Training outing exactly one year ago, he gave up six home runs in two innings to the Detroit Tigers, a bad omen for a shockingly dismal season that saw Teheran's Triple-A ERA swell up to 5.08. His major league opportunities shrunk accordingly. Despite all that, rotation attrition has the Braves hoping Teheran can seize the fifth-starter's job this spring and give them solid work in the major league rotation. Teheran probably has a spot in the rotation until Brandon Beachy is ready to return from his Tommy John rehab in the second half of the season.
One reason for Teheran's struggles last year may have been the mechanical changes the organization ordered after noticing he was tipping his pitches. Whether that tweak or his struggles themselves were the cause, Teheran's mechanics lacked consistency all season. This resulted in fluctuations in his velocity and the command of all three of his pitches, which certainly didn't help his attempts to gain consistency with his curveball, a necessary third pitch to compliment his outstanding fastball/changeup combination. However, Teheran seemed to turn things around in winter ball after a pow-wow with Pedro Martinez, a pitcher to whom he has unfairly been compared in the past, and has looked sharp thus far this spring.
In two spring outings, Teheran has allowed just one hit (a wind-blown home run by Bryce Harper) and a walk while striking out seven in five innings, but most of that (three innings and five strikeouts) came against a Nationals lineup that included just two regulars (Harper and Danny Espinosa). His real test will come when the hitters return from the World Baseball Classic and he's forced to turn over a real major league lineup two or three times. In the meantime, he and his coaches will continue to work on his mechanics and his curve in an attempt to prove that he's still the same pitcher that was, until last year, considered a future stud.