As sports fans, we are naturally drawn to the stories of players who endure setbacks only to find redemption with an unexpected return to success on the field. Mariano Rivera and Francisco Liriano proved that true once again last season, turning in performances that drew in fans across the baseball world and rewarded fantasy owners who had acted upon their faith in the pitchers when few others would.
Rivera, coming back from a knee injury that cut short his 2012 season, was able to take a year-long victory lap befitting the best closer in the history of the game. And after posting a 5.32 ERA in 2012, Liriano emerged as the Pirates' ace, leading them into the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
In an effort to find value in the middle and late rounds of a fantasy draft, there are several different categories of players worthy of mining with the picks that remain after the superstars are off the board. From the untested rookie with bountiful upside to the veteran with diminishing skills from whom we hope to get one last great season, there's a vast array of players we select with the hope that they find a way to outplay their draft position.
No matter what adversity they have endured in the recent past to fall out of favor with the fantasy faithful, comeback candidates can turn into incredibly valuable selections if an owner correctly predicts a bounce-back season. There are countless reasons a player's star might have fallen, including injuries, legal difficulties, conditioning, poor supporting players, disagreements with management and even personal reasons such as a divorce or immigration issues.
Below, we look to certain players who have dealt with adversity, examine their drop-off in production and assess their chances of a return to form in 2014. Most of them should be available late in your drafts, or at least much farther down than you would have thought they'd be a couple years ago.
• Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins: The hometown hero missed 49 games last season, suffering a season-ending concussion after a pair of foul balls hit him behind the plate in a mid-August contest. The Twins have installed him as their first baseman in an effort to save his head and knees from further damage.
• John Jaso, C, Oakland Athletics: The veteran backstop also had his 2013 season cut short after taking a foul ball off his mask. In leagues where on-base percentage is rewarded over batting average, Jaso becomes much more valuable as he receives more at-bats as the designated hitter.
• Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees: After winning his fifth Gold Glove in 2012, Teixeira appeared in only 15 games last season after injuring his right wrist in the spring and reinjuring it when he tried to come back midseason. A revamped Yankees lineup and plenty of time to heal will help him, but he'll have to find the swing he lost before the injuries, too -- his .151/.270/.340 effort at the plate in the short time he was active won't cut it for fantasy owners.
• Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies: Howard has been snakebit in recent seasons, with a torn Achilles from the previous postseason limiting him for most of 2012 and a torn meniscus cutting the 2013 campaign short. He's healthy this spring -- for now -- but if you end up taking a flier on Teixeira, you can back him up with Howard and hope one of them comes through.
• Jhonny Peralta, SS, St. Louis Cardinals: Thanks to the 50-game suspension he served for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, Peralta played just two-thirds of a season in 2013, but he did hit over .300 for the first time in his career. He plays a thin position and will get his first taste of the National League as a cog in another above-average offense in his 12th year in the majors.
• Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees: Much like Rivera, Jeter has decided to retire after completing his comeback from a season robbed by injuries. It's doubtful he does much in the counting categories outside of runs scored, but at full strength Jeter can still get on base, as he did in 2012 when he hit .316 and led the league with 216 base hits.
• Grady Sizemore, OF, Boston Red Sox: With Jacoby Ellsbury donning pinstripes this season, the Red Sox have to find a replacement in center field. Either Sizemore, who hasn't played in the majors since 2011 while with the Indians, or Jackie Bradley Jr. will win the job. Sizemore has outplayed Bradley this spring, which will bring his ADP up a bit. If you can get him in the final rounds, it's a risk worth taking. Amazingly enough, he's only 31 years old.
• Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: Everyone remembers the first month of Kemp's 2012 season, when he hit .417 with 12 home runs and 25 RBI to build off his otherworldly 2011 numbers. Of course, injuries struck and he finished the year with 23 homers and 69 RBI just one year after leading the NL with 39 homers and 126 RBI. After playing in all but 11 games between 2008 and 2011, Kemp has missed a total of 144 games in the past two years, which has driven owners away. Shoulder and ankle troubles may lead you to believe there are more missed games coming, but he's one of the best all-or-nothing picks around -- a 160-game season could bring 35 homers, 110 RBI and over 30 steals.
• Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: Braun is coming off a lost season brought on by a thumb injury and his season-ending suspension stemming from the Biogenesis investigation. Steroids do little to help a hitter's eye and good timing, however, and Braun will be under the microscope as he looks to back up his career numbers with an ostensibly steroid-free season. He enjoyed some success last year before the thumb injury and after the investigation had begun, logging seven homers and 21 RBI in April alone. A bettor will want to take a chance on Braun if he falls to them near the end of the second round.
• Corey Hart, OF, Seattle Mariners: Coming off a surgically repaired knee that wiped out his 2013 season, Hart begins the year in a different jersey for the first time in his career. The 6-foot-6 outfielder will likely be a bit rusty working back from a long recovery and adjusting to a new league, but by May he should return to form as a 25-plus home run hitter -- even in Seattle. His promising Triple Crown averages in the three years before 2013 -- a .279 batting average with 29 home runs and 77 RBI -- should still play in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
• Michael Pineda, SP, New York Yankees: Even if Pineda doesn't win a job in the Yankees' rotation this spring, remember his name for an in-season pickup. Shoulder surgery has kept him from pitching for the Yankees ever since he was acquired via trade before the 2012 season, so the team will bring him along slowly. Remember that he was an All-Star pitcher in his rookie season for Seattle, in 2011.
• Josh Johnson, SP, San Diego Padres: People have been expecting a comeback season from Johnson ever since shoulder troubles cut short his 2011 season with the Marlins. The next year, he lost 14 games but posted a 3.81 ERA. He was traded to Toronto before the 2013 season and lost eight times in 16 starts before his season ended with tightness in his forearm in early August. On a new team, back in the NL and in a pitcher's park, all signs point to Johnson enjoying a big rebound from 2013.
• Jason Motte, RP, St. Louis Cardinals: Trevor Rosenthal will start the season as the closer in St. Louis, and Motte had Tommy John surgery at this time last season. It usually takes a couple of years before a pitcher returns to form, but the Cardinals' former closer could end up being a nice midseason pickup if Rosenthal falters.
• Joakim Soria, RP, Texas Rangers: Another reliever on the road back to his old form after Tommy John surgery, Soria is in a competition to be the closer in Texas after missing the entire 2012 season and the first half of 2013. He posted a 3.86 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 23.3 innings in 25 appearances last year. Once an elite closer, Soria has the makeup -- we just need to see his arm hold up to the rigors of a full season again.