Pivotal season looms for many
Players, managers and executives face potential make-or-break year
Every season is an opportunity for everybody fortunate to participate at the Major League level. But some guys have more riding on the outcome than others.
With that in mind, here are 10 people in and around the game who have reached a particularly interesting intersection in 2015.
Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals and Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
I group these two together not just geographically but because they're both entering their age-22 season at similar developmental stages (1,489 big league plate appearances for Harper, 1,266 for Machado) and facing similar questions. These are, after all, two potentially game-changing talents who can join Mike Trout in becoming not just MVP-type players but the game's most marketable assets to the younger generation.
Alas, unlike Trout, neither Harper nor Machado has proven their bodies can hold up to the rigors of a 162-game schedule. The 2015 season, with Harper on a Nats team that's already a popular World Series pick and with Machado coming back from another knee surgery to rejoin the defending American League East champs, would be a great time for both these guys to rise to the level prescribed for them.
Alex Anthopoulos, GM, Blue Jays
This is the final season of the extension Anthopoulos signed after his "rookie" season at the helm in 2010, and the stakes are again high after a major trade for Josh Donaldson and a large (and heavily backloaded) investment in Russell Martin, among other moves.
This will be the third straight season the Blue Jays carry a payroll deep into the $100 million terrain, and the first two obviously netted nothing in terms of an October berth. Last year, fans and players alike griped when Anthopoulos didn't make any moves at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, though the fact that he had valuable enough trade chips to land Donaldson in the offseason and the structure of the Martin contract both suggest that there were monetary considerations in play at the time.
Anthopoulos has overseen the injection of some young assets like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey, and he made the bold moves for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Donaldson and Martin. Now is the time for all the parts -- young and established alike -- to mesh into Toronto's first playoff team since 1993.
Josh Hamilton, LF, Angels
Teams sign gargantuan contracts with guys on the wrong side of 30 with the hope that they can eke out at least a few more elite seasons before hitting the inevitable (and hopefully gradual) decline phase of their careers. But when it comes to the Angels and Hamilton, the decline was stunningly swift.
That said, Hamilton's numbers when actually healthy (which wasn't often enough) last year, weren't embarrassing. He did have an adjusted OPS+ 14 percent better than league average. And through all his struggles the past two seasons, Hamilton has remained a clubhouse asset.
So we'll see what 2015 brings. But if Hamilton can't stay in the lineup and produce, the Angels might reach a point where it's time to swallow that salary (he's still owed another $90 million over the next three years) and move on.
Pedro Alvarez, 1B, Pirates
Darn those yips. They forced Alvarez off the hot corner last year and prompted a shift to first base that will take full-time effect in 2015. If only the throwing woes were the only issue. Alvarez, who hit 66 homers between 2012-13, also saw his offensive performance regress substantially in the power department, and now the Pirates have added two guys -- veteran Corey Hart and Korean import Jung Ho Kang -- who could threaten his playing time at the new position.
With all of this in the air and so much riding on 2015, not showing up to the Pirates' voluntary minicamp this month was not a particularly good look for Alvarez. But a strong spring would silence that mini-controversy.
Bud Black, manager, Padres
Any number of managers could be on the hot seat this season -- Ron Roenicke (after the Brewers' precipitous fall from grace in 2014), Don Mattingly (trying to win over the Dodgers' new regime) and Robin Ventura (encountering ratcheted expectations on the South Side) all come to mind. But Black's situation is particularly interesting given his long tenure, the Padres' wild offseason and a contract that expires at the end of 2015.
The good news is that if you're going to go into the season with lame-duck status, better to do so with Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Derek Norris in your lineup than the alternatives the Padres ran out there last year, when they hit just .220 as a team.
This will be Black's ninth season at the helm in San Diego -- an eternity, really, in professional sports -- but he's rarely had much to work with, and the Padres' contention until the final day of the 2010 season was undoubtedly due in part to his leadership. You won't find many managers with a .476 winning percentage who are respected as much as Black. A.J. Preller was wise to give him the opportunity to guide this greatly improved club.
But Black will obviously have plenty to prove this year in a tough division.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Royals
Eric Hosmer is also a strong candidate for this list, but at least his regular-season performance, while short of the hype, have been in the league-average realm. Moustakas, meanwhile, earned a demotion to Triple-A last summer and finished the season with a .633 OPS, by far the lowest among qualifying third basemen in the bigs.
Like Hosmer, Moustakas came alive when the lights were brightest in October, and the Royals have to hope those five postseason home runs are a sign that he's making the adjustments necessary to be an impact everyday player. His defense is solid and at times even spectacular (like when he went over the rail to catch a foul popup in the American League Championship Series), but consistency has not been a strength, and he'll need more of it not just for the sake of the Royals but also to maximize the value of his arbitration years.
CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees
The Yanks' rotation is loaded with guys at a crossroads. Will Masahiro Tanaka's elbow snap? Will Michael Pineda's shoulder hold out? How will Nathan Eovaldi handle the transition to the AL East? And then there's CC.
Having personally covered Sabathia's ascension to Cy Young status and seen the work and adjustments and the engaging personality behind it, I feel both bummed and old to see him coming back from chronic knee troubles that required knee surgeries and searching for his lost velocity. The Yankees, who still owe him another $48 million over the next two years (plus a $5 million buyout in 2017) are pretty bummed, too, and, in the wake of a quiet offseason on the rotation front, their 2015 competitive chances are in some measure dependent on CC making a strong return.
Sabathia's legacy of guiding the Yanks to the 2009 World Series is already secure, as is his financial portfolio. So this isn't about that. This is about a great player trying to summon his old skills for the good of a ballclub that needs him.
Jason Heyward, RF, Cardinals
Barring a spring or in-season extension with the Cardinals (which, for all we know, could happen), Heyward is poised to enter free agency at season's end at just 26 years old. And at a time when the defensive metrics that rave about Heyward are so readily embraced, this is a player who could find himself at the forefront of that 2015-16 free-agent class.
But while the glove is great and all, Heyward has to show clubs what they'd be getting from an offensive perspective if he's going to command top-of-the-market money. And oh by the way, a Cards team that averaged just 3.8 runs per game in 2014 could sure use a boost from the power perspective -- one Heyward is capable of providing. Heyward had a nice .351 on-base percentage last season, but he slugged at just a .384 clip after posting a .427 SLG in 2013. Some of this is role-dependent (the Braves used Heyward quite a bit as a leadoff man last year), but not all of it. A burst of power from Heyward would be huge for both him and the Cards.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Rangers
The Tigers looked brilliant for dumping him and his gargantuan salary as the 2014 season played out, with the formerly durable Fielder missing most of the season with a neck issue that required surgery. When he actually did play last year, the majority of his contact went for ground balls. The Rangers' steep slide in the standings was directly tied to what currently looks like a misguided move to bring Fielder's left-handed bat aboard.
But a strong return from Fielder this year could change the perception on a lot of fronts. He could be baseball's answer to Peyton Manning, who had a similar surgery and (2014 Super Bowl and 2015 playoff performance notwithstanding) has had a very successful comeback with the Broncos.