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The Strike Zone

Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp among big names with something to prove this spring

It was that kind of year for Josh Hamilton in 2013, hitting (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) It was that kind of year for Josh Hamilton in 2013, as he posted a .250/.307/.432 line. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The 2013 baseball season was not kind to some of the game's biggest stars, be it due to injury, poor performance, or some particularly ugly chickens coming home to roost. For some of those stars, their 2013 was so rough that they have disappeared from the major leagues entirely, as is the case for the retired Roy Halladay, the suspended Alex Rodriguez, the still-unsigned Johan Santana, or Kevin Youkilis, who will spend the 2014 season playing for Japan's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Most, however, are in Florida and Arizona right now hoping to wipe 2013 from everyone's memory, including their own. Of that latter group, here are five of the biggest names with the most to prove this spring and this season.

Ryan Braun, RF, Brewers

Braun has many fences to mend and much crow to eat following his season-ending suspension for performance-enhancing drug use in July. Braun is not alone in having violated the league's PED policy and was just one of 15 players suspended last year in connection with the Biogenesis clinic, but he was both undeniably the best of those 15 players and the only one to have successfully appealed and overturned a previous positive test. Braun's appeal unfairly shifted the blame to sample collector Dino Laurenzi Jr., accusing Laurenzi of mishandling his sample in October 2011, only to have Braun admit last August that he did indeed take "a cream and a lozenge" that likely triggered the positive test. Braun has reportedly made amends with Laurenzi, but has more work to do with his fellow players both on the Brewers and around the league, many of whom felt betrayed by his deception and reported smear campaign against Laurenzi.

Braun's misdeeds are only part of what he has to overcome this spring, however. Even before his suspension, Braun missed 26 games last year with a nerve injury in his right hand and saw his slugging percentage drop nearly 100 points from the previous two seasons. On top of that, he's also moving from left field to right field this spring in the wake of the Brewers' trade of Norichika Aoki and just turned 30 in November. Braun was one of the best and most reliable players in baseball in his twenties, but his thirties could prove to be very different.

Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds

Among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched over the last three seasons, only Clayton Kershaw boasts a higher ERA+ or a lower unadjusted ERA than Johnny Cueto's 154 and 2.61. However, Cueto has thrown 263 1/3 fewer innings than Kershaw over that span due to what have become chronic shoulder problems that limited him to 156 innings in 2011 and just 60 2/3 innings in 2013. In fact, since straining his oblique just six pitches into his Game 1 start in the 2012 Division Series against the Giants, Cueto has proven unable to make more than three consecutive regular season starts without aggravating the latissimus dorsi injury that sent him to the disabled list three times last year.

Cueto did throw a solid two innings in his spring debut on Thursday, but he'll bear watching as his pitch counts increase. Last spring, he progressed nicely in his first four starts, reaching six innings in the last of those, but was lit up in his fifth, failing to make it out of the second inning. Cueto shrugged off that performance at the time, but it looks ominous in retrospect.

Josh Hamilton, RF, Angels

From 2010 to 2012, Josh Hamilton hit .313/.370/.583 while averaging 33 home runs and 107 RBI for the Rangers, starting the All-Star Game all three years, winning two Silver Sluggers, and the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player award. In December 2012, he signed with the Angels for $133 million over five years, a contract with an average annual value of $25 million, the highest ever given to a hitter not named Alex Rodriguez. Then, in Year One, he hit .250/.307/.432 with 21 homers and 79 RBI while the Angels failed to win 80 games for the first time in a decade. The good news is that Hamilton bounced back from a similarly poor 2009 season to win that MVP award in 2010. The bad news is that Hamilton's lousy 2009 season was largely the fault of injuries (he played in just 89 games, had mid-season surgery to repair a sports hernia and missed most of September with a back injury) and he was just 29 in 2010. Last year, Hamilton was largely healthy (he played in 151 games, his most since 2008), meaning injury can't be used as an excuse for his performance, and he'll be 33 in May. Pay particular attention to Hamilton's performance against off-speed pitches and pitches low and away this spring, as those were his bugaboos both last year and during his slump in 2012.

Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers

Kemp arguably has more to prove this spring than any other player on this list because, while the Dodgers would benefit greatly from his return to his MVP-quality 2011 form, L.A. filled its outfield and went to the National League Championship Series without Kemp last year and is prepared to do the same this year. A healthy Kemp is a better player than Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and even Yasiel Puig (at least at this early stage of Puig's career), but Kemp will have to prove that he can still be that player in order to force his way back into the Dodgers' starting outfield.

Hamstring injuries cost Kemp 52 games in 2012, a shoulder injury required surgery that October, and he hit the disabled list three times last year with injuries to the other hamstring, the same shoulder (his left, non-throwing shoulder), and his left ankle. October brought two more surgeries, another on the left shoulder and one on the left ankle, and Kemp has only just begun light running and has no timetable for returning to game action as a result of the latter. The injury to the talus bone in Kemp's ankle, on which he had microfracture surgery in October, could yet prove career-ending, which is why he and the Dodgers are taking things so slowly, and why he's on the outside looking in at the team's starting outfield. He should open the season on the disabled list, in part because the Dodgers' season starts early in Australia, but his progress from jogging to running to playing in games this spring could tell us a lot about what to expect from him once the Dodgers return to the northern hemisphere.

B.J. Upton, CF, Braves

B.J. Upton wasn't the worst player in baseball in 2013, but he was close, falling nearly two wins below replacement level per Baseball-Reference.com's stats, hitting .184/.268/.289, striking out 151 times in 391 at-bats, and doing all of that in the first year of a new $75.25 million, five-year contract. Despite his contract, Upton played his way out of the lineup by season's end, and though he did trump fellow Braves disaster Dan Uggla (a comparatively robust .179/.309/.362)  by making the postseason roster, Upton topped off his season by going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in his only postseason appearance. The Braves still owe Upton $59.8 million over the next four years and hope that offseason work with hitting coach Greg Walker has fixed what ailed the perpetually frustrating 29-year-old, but it seems safe to say that their expectations for Upton have changed dramatically.
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