Can these veteran hitters bounce back in 2015 from brutal '14 seasons?
As the 2015 season approaches, hope springs eternal, not only with regards to the game’s newcomers but also its mainstays—many of whom might have been understandably eager to turn the page on difficult '14 seasons. What follows here is a look at five established position players who were notably off their games last year, in large part due to injuries, with an eye toward the chances of their bouncing back this year.
Bruce came into last season having posted four straight years with an OPS+ between 118 and 124 and three straight with at least 30 home runs. In fact, from 2011 to '13, only three players topped his 96 homers: Miguel Cabrera (118) and Jose Bautista and Adrian Beltre (98 apiece), and only Cabrera and Beltre joined him at the 30-homer plateau in all three seasons. Bruce was also coming off a career high 4.9 WAR, some of which admittedly owed to an out-of-character +18 Defensive Runs Saved. It still added up to a very promising track record for a hitter entering his age-27 season.
Despite homering twice in the season's first four games, Bruce started slowly, hitting just .216/.352/.363 before going on the disabled list in early May with a torn meniscus in his left knee. He returned just 16 days later—probably too quickly—and while he got hot in June, he was dreadful in the second half. He finished with a .217/.281/.373 line, 18 homers, an 84 OPS+, and -1.1 WAR, a six-win drop from 2013, and 4.5 below his average from '10 to '13.
Given Bruce's age (28 on April 3) and previous reputation for durability, he would appear to be a good bet to rebound toward the .262/.337/.489 showing he made from 2010 to '13 while averaging 155 games per year. It's worth noting, though, that he was slowed by a strained right calf this spring, and his Cactus League numbers have been lousy (to the extent that anyone should look at those). Of more concern is that the frequency with which teams shift against him might cut into his offense; via The Bill James Handbook 2015, Bruce was shifted against in 59.6% of his plate appearances last year and suffered a 28-point drop in BABIP on grounders and short liners relative to when he wasn't shifted (.289 with, .317 without). Still, he should be a lot closer to his previous form than to his '14 crater.
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Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Rangers
Signed to a seven-year, $130 million deal in December 2013, Choo appeared primed for a big year thanks not only to the Rangers' hitter-friendly environment but also a move out of centerfield—where he was a dreadful -18 DRS in a one-year experiment with the Reds—to the much easier leftfield. Unfortunately, he battled multiple injuries, doggedly playing into late August with what turned out to be a bone spur in his left elbow, as well as a left ankle injury, while the rest of the Rangers' roster did its impression of a MASH unit. From his '13 stats of .285/.423/.462 with 21 homers, 20 steals and a 145 OPS+, he plummeted to .242/.340/.374 with 13 homers, three steals and a 102 OPS+. His defense in leftfield wasn't much better than in center, as he finished at -13 DRS; his WAR plunged from 4.2 to 0.1.
Choo underwent surgery to repair both injuries after being shut down, and while that should have given him ample time for recovery, he's endured a rough spring, battling triceps soreness in the same arm to the point of receiving an MRI (clean) and a cortisone shot in late March. He's finally returned to playing the field—he'll shift back to the more familiar rightfield this season—and on Monday, he hit a triple, his first extra-base hit of the spring. Even so, there's plenty of reason to be concerned: The 32-year-old's value is increasingly tied up in his bat, and of the major projection systems, none have him slugging above .413. Ouch.
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An excellent hitter even after adjusting for the Rockies' extreme surroundings, Gonzalez has long had trouble staying on the field. From 2010 to '13, he hit a combined .311/.370/.556 for a 133 OPS+, averaging 27 homers and 22 steals per year despite playing in just 129 games per year, with only one season above 135. Even with those constraints, he averaged 4.1 WAR, including 4.9 in his 110-game '13 season, during which he lost a month to a sprained right middle finger.
Alas, Gonzalez's 2014 was a mess, as a January appendectomy, a benign growth in his left index finger and patellar tendinitis in his left knee led to a trio of surgeries, the last two of which came during the season. He played in just 70 games, batting a dreadful .238/.292/.431 with 11 homers, three steals and an 89 OPS+.
The Rockies have brought the 29-year-old Gonzalez along slowly this spring; he didn't make his Cactus League debut until March 10, and while he missed a couple of days this past week due to fatigue in his surgically-repaired knee, he’s reported no further complications. He’s swinging the bat well after restoring his signature leg kick to put more weight on his left (back) leg and making good plays afield. That's reason for optimism, as is PECOTA’s .296/.354/.526 projection, though it's probably folly to expect more than about 125–130 games from him.
Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians
After a solid showing in his first full season in 2012, Kipnis enjoyed a breakout in '13, hitting .284/.366/.452 with 17 homers, 30 steals and average defense en route to a 5.9 WAR season that played a significant role in the Indians earning a Wild Card berth. Primed to build on that in his age-27 season, he struggled to get going, then missed nearly all of May due to an oblique strain and generally got worse as the year went on. Check his OPS by month: .748, .583 (9 PA), .636, .666, .611, .516. That's ugly, even with the added excuse that his September playing time was curtailed by a right hamstring issue. He finished at .240/.310/.330, and adding insult to multiple injuries, his defense slipped from -1 DRS to -11 (though his UZRs were much more similar at -6 and -8) en route to 0.9 WAR.
While he's still just 28 years old, it's not automatic that Kipnis bounces back to his 2013 level. His projections generally look a whole lot more like his '12 (.257/.335/.379), serving to remind that second basemen tend to peak earlier than most players. Those systems suggest he can still be a 3–4 win player—an above-average building block rather than a perennial All-Star. He's got a bit more to prove than the others on this list.
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Votto came into last season with a solid half-decade under his belt as one of the game's elite hitters. He had led the NL in on-base percentage for four straight years and placed in the top five in OPS+ in four years out of five. Over that 2009–'13 span, he hit a combined .318/.431/.548, leading the majors in OBP while ranking third in batting average and fifth in both slugging percentage and WAR (30.3); only Miguel Cabrera outdid his 162 OPS+.
Alas, quad strains in both legs limited Votto to just 62 games in 2014, and while he still took his walks—too many, to the tastes of certain critics surrounding the team—his .255/.390/.409 showing with six home runs was well shy of expectations. That line was still good for a 127 OPS+ (second on the team), but with the lack of playing time, he slid from 6.4 WAR (his fourth straight season of at least 5.9) to 1.9.
What's concerning is that Votto is now 31 years old and has missed significant time in two of the last three seasons due to leg injuries, averaging just 112 games in that span. What's more, he's owed a staggering $213 million through 2023. The major projection systems see both his batting average and slugging percentage taking significant hits, with Steamer the most pessimistic (.279/.405/.465) and PECOTA the most optimistic (.290/.411/.487). That's still useful, but it's a significant step down for a career .310/.417/.533 hitter.