All around spring camps we see former top prospects who have experienced trials and tribulations at the big league level and now find themselves at a crossroads of their careers. And while their general managers are gambling on them, should you?
Last year we saw big rebounds from former can't-miss stars who almost missed, such as Kansas City's Alex Gordon and San Diego's Cameron Maybin, who overcame early career adversity to become quality major leaguers. Unfortunately, other highly touted prospects Brandon Wood, Jeremy Hermida and Lastings Milledge flamed out despite being given multiple chances to succeed.
Here are five players being given golden opportunities this year to establish themselves as major league stars. They could become the bargains of the 2012 fantasy season or end up on the waiver wire before the end of May. Isn't it that risk-reward that makes playing in these leagues fun?
Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; Drafted No. 2 overall out of Vanderbilt in 2008, Alvarez has been considered the linchpin of a rebuilding Pirates team for years, a can't-miss star who would be locked into the heart of Pittsburgh's lineup for a decade. In '10 he was on track, tearing up big league pitching for 16 home runs in just 386 at-bats following a midseason call-up. But after beginning '11 as a starter, Alvarez struggled badly, and following a trip to the DL found himself optioned to the minors. Although he returned to The Burgh for the final two months, Alvarez closed the season with just four home runs and a .561 OPS.
After an offseason of intensive agility training he's back and hopefully refocused. But this year he has to beat out veteran Casey McGehee for the job. If he doesn't, he may end up in a platoon or -- a long shot -- back in Triple-A Indianapolis. In any case, with an average fantasy draft position around 18th among third basemen, he's potentially the best bargain in your draft.
Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays: Once the poster-child of the Cardinals farm system, in which he once was ranked the third-best prospect in the majors by Baseball America, Rasmus wore out his welcome by clashing with his holiness Tony Cardinal La Russa. He was exiled north of the border last July as part of an 11-player deal that netted the Redbirds Edwin Jackson and relief help. Hitting well below his '10 numbers (.276/.361/.498) at the time of the trade (.246/.332/.420) and unable to get the bad taste of his St. Louis experience out of his mouth, his stats plummeted once he arrived in Toronto, eking out a mere 23 hits and five walks in 140 plate appearances. Still just 25, he enters camp as the best option in centerfield for John Farrell, who'll bat him in the bottom part of a menacing lineup. Given that half of his games will be played in the hitters haven that is the Rogers Centre, Rasmus has a great shot to return to the fast track.
Ian Stewart, Cubs: Among the first moves new team president Theo Epstein made was to acquire this onetime power-hitting prospect and pitcher Casey Weathers for slugger Tyler Colvin and infielder DJ LeMahieu. A member of the Rockies organization for nearly a decade, Stewart never lived up to the expectations placed upon him after a stellar minor league career that saw him post a career OPS of .950, as opposed to just .751 for Colorado. He batted just .156 with no home runs in 146 trips to the plate with the Rockies, numbers that made him available to step in for the departed Aramis Ramirez in Chicago. Epstein pounced and now hopes that Wrigley's confines will be friendly to Stewart, who has a career OBP of .346 there, fourth among all of the parks in which he's played. While a return to his 25 HR, 70 RBI of '09 seemed like a long shot in Colorado, playing for the Cubs has proven to be just the tonic some hitters (Mark Bellhorn, Mark DeRosa, Alex Gonzalez) have needed in the past.
Daniel Bard, Red Sox: Unlike the expectations placed on teammate Alfredo Aceves or Rangers reliever Neftali Feliz, a successful conversion of Bard from reliever to starter is far from a foregone conclusion, not after his disastrous final two months of '11 that saw the fire-balling righty's ERA climb from 1.76 on July 31 to 3.33 by the end of the year. One of the main culprits in Boston's historic collapse, Bard was 1-5 with a 6.95 ERA with three blown saves during the swoon. Once seen as the clear heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon as closer, the additions of Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon make it clear that Bard's big league ticket will be as a starter from here on out. He hasn't started a professional game since '07 -- a span of 271 minor and major league relief appearances. His longest outing in 192 games for the Sox is two innings (twice) and he's gone more than one frame just 16 times. Those factors all make him a bit too risky for my liking this season.
Mat Gamel, Brewers: Making the adjustment from the Pacific Coast League to the majors is a daunting task for many a hotshot prospect, and Gamel is no exception. A .301/.374/.512 hitter in four seasons at Triple-A Nashville, success has eluded the corner infielder in the show as he's compiled a disappointing slash line of .222/.309/.374 in limited action over four seasons with the Brewers. Last year he almost hit rock bottom in his quest for an everyday big league gig, managing to reach base just four times (two singles, a double and a walk) in 27 trips, for a dreadful .115/.148/.154. However, the defection of Prince Fielder to Detroit, the trade of Casey McGehee to Pittsburgh and the signing of Aramis Ramirez to play third has opened up a golden opportunity for Gamel to kick start his career. His main competition is non-roster invitee Travis Ishikawa, another hitter who showed power in the PCL that didn't translate in his time with the Giants. Still, this is Gamel's job to lose. Milwaukee's lineup is essentially the same as last year, sans Fielder, and with an offensive upgrade at short, so this team will score runs. If Gamel's ever going to succeed, now is the time.
Chat with David Sabino me on Twitter, @SI_DavidSabino.