Yesterday I looked at five established stars hoping to prove this spring that they can return to their previous levels of production in 2014 and beyond. Today, let's turn our attention to five younger players who lack the track records and, with one exception, the guaranteed, multi-year contracts of those star players, yet face similar pressure to fulfill previous expectations this spring.
Unlike the next four players on this list, Castro has the security of being owed $49 million over the next six years, but his access to that money is currently tied up in a court battle in his native Dominican Republic. That lawsuit has been cited as one reason for Castro's dismal performance last year, the first year of that contract. However, with shortstop prospect Javier Baez bearing down on the major leagues (he raked in half-a-season at Double-A last year and was ranked among the top-five prospects in baseball this winter for both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus), Castro could have to fight for his job as early as the second half of the coming season, regardless of his contract.
The good news for Castro is that he is the second-youngest player on this list (he turns 24 toward the end of the month) and the most accomplished, having made two All-Star teams and led the National League in hits in 2011. That performance feels like decades ago after last year, however. In 2013, Castro hit .245/.284/.347, all career lows, striking out a career-high 129 times and giving back the gains he made in the field in 2012. At the plate, Castro has regressed in each of the last two years at time in his career when he should be maturing, adjusting, and improving with regularity. If the Cubs don't see a change in that trend this year, they may attempt to make Castro and his contract some other team's problem. Out for a week with a strained hamstring, creating extra exposure for Baez, Castro isn't off to the best start in camp.
Though he was the Mets' first-round pick in 2008, Davis was never as highly regarded or successful as Castro, but he has proven equally frustrating for the Mets, who thought they had a young, power-hitting first baseman who would stabilize that position for most of this decade. After a solid rookie season in 2010, Davis' sophomore season was ended by an early May ankle sprain. Since his return, he has hit just .219 over parts of two seasons. Perhaps most alarmingly, Davis's power went missing for much of 2013, a season which saw him demoted to Triple-A in early June and miss most of September due to an abdominal strain. Davis, who will turn 27 later this month, was on the trading block all winter, and though he opened camp as a Met, there is no guarantee that he will still be one by Opening Day. The Mets are making him fight to get his first-base job back, and the Pirates and Brewers lurk as potential landing spots for him if Lucas Duda gives the Mets the confidence to sell low.
Like Davis, Middlebrooks was a welcome source of power and an apparent long-term solution at a key position as a 23-year-old rookie, but injuries and poor performance have since called his standing on the team into doubt. For Middlebrooks, that rookie season was just two years ago, but a wrist injury ended it early, and he hit just .227/.271/.425 as a sophomore last year, losing his third-base job first to Jose Iglesias during the regular season, then, after Iglesias was traded, to top prospect Xander Bogaerts in the postseason. Middlebrooks didn't start a single game in the World Series, and though he is penciled in as the defending champions' starting third baseman this spring, former teammate Stephen Drew continues to lurk on the free-agent market as a possible alternative, with the rookie Bogaerts, the team's projected shortstop, again moving to the hot corner.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Royals
The second overall pick in the 2007 draft, Moustakas was expected to be a key part of the Royals' return to contention, but last year they did it without his help, winning 86 games, their highest total since 1989, despite Moustakas hitting a pathetic .233/.287/.364 as their full-time third baseman. After 372 games at third base for Kansas City, Moustakas, expected to be a middle-of-the-order slugger and one of the big bats in the Royals' lineup, has hit just .244/.296/.385. Now 25 and arbitration-eligible after the season, Moustakas will get one more chance to prove he's not a bust. But as the team improves around him, the Royals can't allow Moustakas' unfulfilled promise keep them from snapping the longest playoff drought in baseball at 28 years and counting.
Profar just turned 21 in late February, and given his age and the mere 94 major-league games under his belt, it may seem unfair to include him on this list with the four frustrating players above. However, none of the above is likely facing as much pressure as Profar. Set aside the hype of having been universally rated the top prospect in baseball prior to last season, if you can. The pressure is on Profar because of the blockbuster trade the Rangers made this offseason to clear room for him in their infield. By trading All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit for All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder, the Rangers took on an additional $76 million worth of payroll for a player who, over the last seven years, has been worth 8.6 wins less than Kinsler, according to Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement. The only way that trade makes sense is by factoring in an All-Star quality future for Profar, one that begins this year. Profar is fully expected to mature into a player as good or better than Kinsler, a five-tool threat who plays with maturity, a good head for the game, and sharp instincts who can contribute solid averages, high on-base percentages, roughly 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases a year, and excellent defense. However, in 2013, his first significant major-league exposure, Profar hit a mere .234/.308/.336 with six home runs in 324 plate appearances and was thrown out in four of his six steal attempts. Profar's struggles last year can be largely blamed on his lack of a position. Called up as an injury replacement for Kinsler in late-May, he didn't make more than two consecutive starts at the same position after Kinsler's return in early June until Elvis Andrus got hurt in early September. In between, he made starts at five positions (second, short, third, left field and designated hitter), and after five games at shortstop in Andrus' stead, he was back on the merry-go-round. This year, however, there will be no excuses. He is the Rangers' starting second baseman, and their hopes of returning to the postseason rest heavily on his shoulders.