Weaver, Volquez, Hunter among AL's bust candidates for 2015
Who's going to bust out as a star this year, and who's simply going to bust? Before the start of the regular season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are picking ten players who appear to be headed for breakout seasons and ten players likely to be disappointments. Be sure to bookmark these articles so you can tell them how wrong they were in September. Here are your 2015 AL busts.
Torii Hunter, RF, Twins
Hunter, a five-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner, will turn 40 in July, and it seems rather obvious that the one-year, $10 million contract he signed to return to the Twins will be the last of his career. Hunter's play in the field, which was always a bit overrated, has declined dramatically over the last two years, and as a result, he was dangerously close to replacement level last year despite a still-solid batting line of .286/.319/.446 (110 OPS+). With Joe Mauer's move to first base forcing Kennys Vargas to be the designated hitter, Hunter will continue to play rightfield and undermine his bat with his glove. Moving from Comerica Park, a favorable ballpark for righthanded power hitters, to Target Field should eat up the remainder of his value.
Steve Pearce, DH, Orioles
This one isn't too hard to figure. A player with a career .238/.318/.377 line in 847 major league plate appearances suddenly hits .293/.373/.556 over 383 PA in a single season in his age-31 season. He does it with the help of an isolated slugging figure more than 100 points above his previous career average, thanks in part to his fly balls leaving the yard at more than twice the league-average rate. The chances of that player repeating that performance? They're miniscule.
It's not that Pearce is as bad as his previous line made him look. He's a career .287/.364/.497 hitter in Triple A and had never been given as many as 200 PA in a single major league season before last year. Still, a significant correction is coming, and it might not be long before he's losing playing time to Delmon Young.
Alfredo Simon, SP, Tigers
Simon had made a total of 19 major league starts, none since 2011, before spending the entire year in the Reds' rotation last year at the age of 33. He ended up taking 32 turns, throwing 196 1/3 innings and going 15-10 with a 3.44 ERA and making his first All-Star team. The fact that he had the endurance to accomplish that was impressive, but when you break down his '14 season, it screams fluke.
Simon made the All-Star team because he went 12-3 with a 2.70 ERA in his first 18 starts, benefiting greatly from a .234 BABIP in that span. After the break, his BABIP corrected to .313, and he plunged to 3-7 with a 4.52 ERA. I'm not sure I need to go any further, but I will. Simon struck out just 5.8 men per nine innings last year, which he got away with for the first half of the year thanks in large part to the Reds' outstanding team defense (third-best in the majors in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last year). He won't be as fortunate in Detroit: The Tigers were fourth-worst in PADE last year, and Simon doesn't induce enough ground balls to take full advantage of Jose Iglesias's return. Add in potential fatigue after throwing over 100 more innings than the previous season and 60 more than in any season since 2004, and Simon may be the best bet of any of these five players to go bust in '15.
Edinson Volquez, SP, Royals
Speaking of strikeout rates, Volquez's 6.5 strikeout-per-nine ratio last year was the lowest mark of his career outside of an eight-start cup of coffee in 2006 and marked a full strikeout-per-inning drop from '13. Despite that, he managed to go 13-7 with a 3.04 ERA for miracle-working Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, but he won't have Searage around to guide him through this season in Kansas City.
The Royals do play excellent defense, but so did the Pirates, and Kansas City's fielders can't defend against the base on balls, which was always Volquez's bugaboo. He got his walk rate down to 3.3 per nine last year under Searage, but still led the league in wild pitches and ranked fourth in hit batsmen. Look for his walk rate to creep back toward his career average of 4.5 per nine, his luck on balls in play to even out (his .269 BABIP last year was a career-low), and for his first full season in the designated-hitter league—after posting a career 4.21 ERA in the NL—to be a rough one.
Honorable mention here goes to fellow Royals righty Chris Young, who went 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA for the Mariners last year but struck out just 5.9 men per nine innings and posted the second-highest fielding independent mark among qualified pitchers in the majors at 5.02 in his first healthy season since 2012. Young didn't merit his own entry because he'll likely open the season as the long man in the Royals' bullpen. Volquez, on the other hand, is being charged with replacing James Shields, which will only throw his probable struggles into greater relief.
Jered Weaver, SP, Angels
Weaver led the AL in wins last season for the second time in three years, which went a long way toward masking the fact that he has continued to decline over that span. His ERA and FIP have both increased in each of the last three seasons, the latter reaching 4.19 last year. His strikeout-to-walk ratio, despite holding steady from 2012 to '13, has been on a downward trajectory since '10, dropping to 2.60 last year. Last season also saw the extreme fly-ball pitcher allow a career high in home runs (27) and post his highest walk rate since '09 (2.7 per nine).
All of this has corresponded with a dramatic drop in Weaver's fastball velocity that started a few years ago. In his first five seasons, Weaver threw 90-91 miles per hour, but he lost a tick in 2012, and in '13, his average fastball dropped to 87.3 mph, per BrooksBaseball.net. That held steady last year, but given the negative trends across his board, the idea that the loss in velocity hasn't hurt him is misleading at best.
Meanwhile, in Weaver's last spring start, his fastball only hit 85 twice and averaged just below 83 mph. Sure, it's still early in the spring, but Weaver's spring velocity has typically been representative of his regular-season average. Now entering his age-32 season, it's entirely possible that this will be the year that the bottom drops out for Weaver, which could mean big trouble for the Angels.