Everybody has a bad year. Heck, sometimes it feels, looking back at the last couple of years, that everybody has had the same pair of bad years. But one of the unique benefits of being a human, after things haven’t gone well, after you’ve been knocked down, is that you can pick yourself back up and get back after it again. You can always try again. You can always be renewed.
As we approach the beginning of the season, somehow less than two weeks away, we look at those players who had difficult 2021 seasons -- players who are talented, who have had success in the past or can reasonably be expected to have success in the future, but just didn’t have things work out for them in '21.
Who’s a guy on each team due for a bounce-back year? Let’s take a look:
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP
Ryu has said in the past that his personal goal is to make more than 30 starts every year and have a 3.00 ERA. He usually gets one of those goals: He had an ERA under 2.70 every year from 2018-20. Last year he, for the first time since 2013, made more than 30 starts. Unfortunately, he put up the highest ERA over his career, at 4.37. He was the first pitcher to come to Toronto to try to turn around this staff, but he has more help, and theoretically less pressure, this year. Can he finally hit both goals?
Orioles: Anthony Santander, OF
Santander was a Rule 5 pick from Cleveland who was one of the happy stories of the Orioles’ 2020 season -- a year in which the Orioles were in second place a third of the way through the season! -- but took a big step back last year, dropping 140 points off his slugging percentage. He’s still in the middle of this lineup, so he’ll have plenty of opportunities to rebound. At 27, this is theoretically his prime.
Rays: Ryan Yarbrough, LHP
The Rays, famously, don’t quite ask as much out of their starting pitchers as a lot of other teams do, but, all told, they do ask for more than a 5.11 ERA. Yarbrough does not throw hard, at all, so he has less of a margin for error than almost anyone in baseball. But the Rays have seen him pull it off before.
Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr., OF
There was a time, I swear, when it looked like Jackie Bradley Jr. was going to be a superstar in this league. After some frustrating years, he bounced back well in his final year with the Red Sox in 2020, and the Brewers signed him hoping he’d unlock some of that initial potential. It didn’t work -- he hit .163 in 428 plate appearances, yikes -- but now he’s back in Boston, no longer an up-and-comer, but at least in a place that he’s comfortable.
Yankees: Gleyber Torres, 2B
It’s now mostly apparent that Gleyber is unlikely to become the superstar the Yankees thought they had when he was hitting 38 homers at the age of 22 back in 2019. But you certainly expect at least an above-average offensive season from him. That’s not what the Yankees got in 2021. How can a guy hit 38 homers in 144 games in 2019 and then just hit nine in 127 two years later? The Yankees would love to find out.
Guardians: Triston McKenzie, RHP
Heading into last year, you wondered whether the lanky, powerful McKenzie was going to become the next Cleveland pitcher to come up through their system and turn himself into an ace. That didn’t happen in 2021, thanks largely to control issues (4.4 walks per nine), but the stuff is still there. Is it possible we just got too excited about McKenzie just a year early?
Royals: Carlos Santana, DH
The decision to bring in the veteran Santana last season felt like a savvy move for the Royals, a way to raise their floor with a long-underappreciated hitter and on-base guy. But they got Santana just in time for the worst season of his career, one where he hit only 19 homers (despite playing 158 games) and put up a career-low .319 OBP. He’s got one more year on his Royals deal, and if this team’s going to compete at all in this division, they need him making far more regular jaunts down to first base, one way or another.
Tigers: Matt Manning, RHP
You can never expect too much from a rookie, even one who came with as much hype as Manning did, but the larger concern with Manning’s first season, which ended with a 5.80 ERA in 18 frustrating starts, was that his stuff wasn’t particularly overwhelming. He had trouble with walks, but he also only struck out six batters per nine innings -- far, far below what he was doing in the Minors. He looks a lot different this spring, from all accounts, and he might be ready to unlock what got everybody so excited about him in the first place.
Twins: Gio Urshela, 3B
As bizarre as it is to see an Urshela-Carlos Correa infield in Minnesota rather than The Bronx, it’s worth remembering that Urshela did take a step back offensively last year. His OBP dropped more than 60 points from his 2020 season (and 50 from his 2019 season), and his walk rate plummeted while his strikeout rate skyrocketed. The defense is still there, but the Twins would love 2019 Urshela at the plate.
White Sox: Dallas Keuchel, LHP
Keuchel has the sort of stuff that has to be perfect: We’ve seen him dominant and we've seen him get knocked around. Until last year, it was much more of the former. But he had the worst year of his career since 2013 in 2021, putting up a 5.28 ERA just a year after he had a 1.99 ERA that ended with him fifth in Cy Young voting. The White Sox don’t necessarily need that guy, but somewhere in the middle would be a substantial improvement.
Angels: David Fletcher, 2B
Fletcher was one of the lovely surprise stories of 2020 -- do you realize he finished 17th in MVP voting? His numbers fell off a cliff last year, providing 665 plate appearances of a .297 OBP with only two homers … basically making just about as many outs as anyone in the sport. He doesn’t need to get any MVP votes, but rising somewhere back toward the middle would do wonders for this lineup.
Astros: Alex Bregman, 3B
Look, Bregman is still a terrific player: Who wouldn’t want Alex Bregman on their team? But it sure feels like it has been a while since he was finishing second in MVP voting? (2019, anyway.) He has been a solid player for two years, but hardly anything resembling a superstar. Bregman had wrist surgery last November, so maybe that will turn him around. With Correa gone, the Astros sure could use a return to that MVP form.
Athletics: Eric Thames, 1B
There are roster spots to be had in Oakland this spring, particularly at first base. Thames hasn’t played in the Majors since 2020, but he was a monster after coming over from the KBO in Milwaukee from 2017-19. The A’s are happily rolling the dice to see what he might have left.
Mariners: Jarred Kelenic, OF
He finally came on toward the end of the year, showing Mariners fans why they thought he could carry them back to the playoffs by himself. But it was rough sledding getting to that point, and he ended up with 106 strikeouts in 377 plate appearances. If he can be that star we all think he is, he could usher in the next era of Mariners baseball.
Rangers: Kole Calhoun, OF
The Rangers brought in two stars in Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, but there’s also a lot of upside to be had from Calhoun, who was terrific from 2019-20 in Anaheim and Arizona before injuries knocked him out last year. There’s still a ton of power left, you’d think, and the Rangers can lengthen their lineup considerably if he can tap into it.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Travis d’Arnaud, C
Those two homers he hit in the World Series might have distracted you from the fact that d’Arnaud was, uh, kind of terrible last year. After a Silver Slugger season in 2020, he hit .220 and slugged only .388, in a season where he only played 60 games. Even with Manny Piña here, he’s still the primary catcher. The Braves would very much welcome his 2020 form.
Marlins: Jesús Luzardo, LHP
The Marlins couldn’t have been that surprised by Luzardo’s struggles in his 12 starts for them last year: Those struggles were why they were able to trade for him, after all. This was still one of the most promising starters in the game a couple of years ago. Maybe they can shake more of that back out of him.
Mets: Dominic Smith, 1B/OF
In 2019 and 2020, Smith finally turned into the player of Mets fans dreams, getting on base regularly and showing considerable pop. He did that in just 89 games in 2019 and 50 in 2020, but stretched out to 145 in 2021, his slugging dropped a shocking 253 points. He now says he had a shoulder injury that was holding him back. He won’t be relied on as much in 2022 -- he might not even be starting -- but even a few glimmers of what he was before would go a long way.
Nationals: Victor Robles, OF
At this point, we’ve all accepted that Robles is not, in fact, the next great Nationals prospect to turn into a superstar. But you certainly would expect more than a .203 average with two homers. The defense will always be there, but he was certainly thought, at the plate, to be more than this.
Phillies: Didi Gregorius, SS
The Phillies’ signing of Gregorius looked like one of those tactical moves that would work out perfectly for them, and in 2020, you thought it might. But Gregorius put up the worst numbers of an already-sort-of-inconsistent career in 2021 (.639 OPS). This lineup is stacked now, but he could raise it even higher … and hey, while he’s at it, can he catch every ball in the field too?
Brewers: Christian Yelich, OF
Again: Yelich isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. But this was supposed to be a perpetual MVP candidate. And it has been a couple of years since he has been anything close to that. He slugged .373 last year, which is roughly 300 points lower than his 2019 mark of .671.
Cardinals: Ryan Helsley, RHP
The Cardinals looked like they had the next dominant relief pitcher during the 2019 playoffs, but Helsley, who throws hard and has had moments of looking downright incredible, has now had two down seasons in a row, with a walk rate of more than 5 per nine in that span. The team still believes in him and now, with Alex Reyes out, they need him.
Cubs: Kyle Hendricks, RHP
Hendricks was the nominal ace for the Cubs, but he also was their North Star who was going to prove you could have a rotation that didn’t throw hard but still won. Well, Hendricks had his worst season last year (4.77 ERA), proving just how thin a margin for error he, and pitchers like him, have. He still has the smarts and precision to return to himself, though.
Pirates: Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
Last year there was probably too much put on Hayes, who not only was supposed to boost a struggling team but in fact establish himself as the National League’s Next Great Third Baseman. That didn’t happen (.689 OPS), but he’s still got talent vibrating off him.
Reds: Mike Moustakas, INF
The Reds were moving all sorts of pieces this offseason, but one of the reasons Moustakas is still there was just how bad he was in 2021. He hit .208 in 62 games and never really got on track. He has been around forever but is not, actually, that old (he turned 33 last September); a bounce-back season is far from unreasonable.
D-backs: Madison Bumgarner, LHP
He finally made a (mostly) full season of starts in 2021, but he still was barely a league average pitcher. Bumgarner is still, somehow, only 32 years old. It sure would be nice to see a vintage Bumgarner season, wouldn’t it?
Dodgers: Cody Bellinger, CF
Obviously, the easiest pick on this list. In what universe does Cody Bellinger hit .165? He started to turn it around in the postseason, and if he can return to his MVP-caliber self, sheesh, this lineup just shoots off into the stratosphere.
Giants: Tommy La Stella, 2B
It’s not easy to find disappointments on this Giants roster from last year, but it’s fair to think they expected a little bit more than a .250 average from one of their more high-profile free agent signings. He may be leading off this year, so a step forward would be handy.
Padres: Yu Darvish, RHP and Blake Snell, LHP
Remember when the big debate was which of the Padres’ new pitchers was their top Cy Young candidate? Both Darvish and Snell finished with ERAs above 4.20, so that ended up being a moot point. But if the Padres are going to overcome the loss of Fernando Tatis Jr., it may just have to start with that starting pitcher.