These 7 players have a lot to prove in '23

January 17th, 2023

It’s not that long ago when these seven players were among the very best in the baseball world. All-Stars, Cy Young contenders and even an MVP winner – they all appeared to be on the road to superstardom.

But so much can change in this game over just a year or two. During that time, these headline names have seen their production wane and their doubters increase. Injury concerns now follow most of them. They are young and talented enough to be productive Major Leaguers for many more seasons, but without a bounceback, their future in the game could suddenly appear nebulous. 

They all are also on teams with realistic playoff aspirations in 2023, and each player will most likely be a free agent following the season. So, yeah, this group has a lot at stake and a lot to prove in the games ahead.

Cody Bellinger, OF, Cubs
Bellinger received multi-year offers as a free agent this offseason, according to his agent, Scott Boras. But the aim all along was to ink a one-year pact with the hopes that the man who hammered 47 homers en route to 2019 NL MVP honors can rehabilitate his value and cash in on the open market next winter. He got such a deal from the Cubs.

Bellinger’s production fell off in 2020, but he was still an above-average offensive player (112 wRC+) who played outstanding defense. Although his high-quality fielding has remained, his play at the plate has cratered amid a rash of injuries. It began when he separated his right shoulder while celebrating his go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. Bellinger then had three stints on the injured list in 2021. He remained healthy for the bulk of 2022, but his bat never recovered and he was ultimately benched during the postseason. Over the past two seasons, he recorded a 69 wRC+ through more than 800 at-bats.

Bellinger is only 27 years old and his contract contains a mutual option for 2024. Given his recent results, he knows 2023 will be an important year in his career.

Mike Clevinger, SP, White Sox
Clevinger and Chicago joined forces early in the offseason on a one-year, $8 million contract that contains a mutual option for 2024. The former Cleveland pitcher is hoping his familiarity with the AL Central assists in a personal revival.

From 2017-19, he ranked sixth among qualified starters with a 152 ERA+. In that final year, he was at the 90th percentile or better in average exit velocity, strikeout percentage and wOBA. But Clevinger's right elbow began to bark shortly after an August 2020 trade to San Diego and he ultimately required Tommy John surgery that November, effectively ending his 2021 season before it began.

This past season got off to a bad start in Spring Training with a knee sprain that nagged him throughout the summer. He did make 22 regular-season starts, but Clevinger’s fastball velocity was down by nearly 2 mph. He finished with a 4.33 ERA, a career-worst 4.97 FIP and saw his strikeout rate plummet to 18.8 percent, well below the MLB average of 22.1 percent. Clevinger doesn’t anticipate his velocity being a problem this season. At 32 years old, he can’t afford another lost year.

Joey Gallo, OF, Twins
By the 2022 Trade Deadline, it was clear that Gallo needed a fresh start. His 140-game stint with the Yankees was largely miserable as he put together a .159/.291/.368 slash line with a boatload of strikeouts. The slugging lefty whiffed in 33 of his final 66 at-bats with the Yanks before he was dealt to the Dodgers. However, Gallo’s fortunes didn’t turn in Los Angeles as he logged a .671 OPS across 137 regular-season plate appearances. Now Gallo is embarking upon another reset after signing with the Twins.

His game is always going to have a few staples: a low average, lots of walks, a lofty barrel rate and a league-leading strikeout percentage. Minnesota will probably overlook all of Gallo’s negatives as long as the 29-year-old can lift his HR/FB rate back to near or above 30 percent, which is where it resided from 2017-19, when Gallo batted .217 with a 36.7 percent K rate but produced an .869 OPS thanks to his 103 homers during that span.

Lucas Giolito, SP, White Sox
A return to form for Clevinger would be a boon for the White Sox. But if the South Siders are to reign atop the AL Central, they need their rotation leader to be right. Giolito entered last year on the heels of three consecutive seasons in which he was at least 24 percent better than league average, per ERA+. He also had put on 20 pounds of bulk to help shoulder the load as one of the White Sox’s workhorses. But he suffered an abdominal strain four innings into his Opening Day start, missed the next couple of weeks and never got on track.

His 4.90 ERA was nearly a run and a half higher than his ERA in each year from 2019-21. His 81 ERA+ would have tied for second-worst among qualified starting pitchers if he had recorded just one more out in order to qualify. He termed the season as "a failure." Giolito said he has taken off that extra weight this offseason and is focusing more on fluid movement. He will undoubtedly be one of the best starters in next year’s free-agent class if he rebounds in 2023. A 2022 repeat, conversely, could give prospective buyers lots of questions about his future value.

Jack Flaherty, SP, Cardinals
Flaherty cemented himself as one of baseball's top hurlers in 2019. He paced National League starters in WHIP and fewest hits allowed while ranking fourth with a 2.75 ERA and a 5.8 bWAR. At the tender age of 23 years old, Flaherty’s future was blindingly bright.

But as we learn every season, pitching can be extremely hazardous to your health. After logging about 40 innings during the shortened 2020 season, Flaherty was limited to just 78 1/3 innings in 2021 because of oblique and shoulder strains. His right shoulder continued to be a problem this past year as it delayed his debut until June and restricted him to only eight innings pitched before September.

He made five starts during the season’s final full month and lasted at least five innings in each. The overall numbers weren’t pretty – .358 wOBA, 13.2 percent walk rate, 19.8 percent K rate – but the fact that Flaherty reached the end of the month unscathed counted as a victory. Can he build upon that and provide flashes of his previous brilliance? Flaherty is one of a handful of players who really need to stay healthy in 2023.

Luis Severino, SP, Yankees
Similar to Flaherty, Severino is a few years removed from being a pitching wunderkind. He topped 190 innings at the age of 23 in 2017 and then did it again in ‘18. He was inside the top 10 in the AL Cy Young voting for each season.

But his 2019 was largely wiped out by a lat strain. He underwent Tommy John surgery in February 2020 and suffered setbacks during his long recovery. By the time he was cleared to return to the Majors, more than 700 days had elapsed since his last appearance. His 2022 was interrupted for two months by another lat injury, yet the campaign was a success otherwise. Severino registered a strong 20.3 strikeout-minus-walk rate and a 2.93 expected ERA across 102 innings. His fastball has lost a little bit of life, but it still sits in the high 90s and continues to confound most hitters (.186 average, .275 wOBA last year).

Severino has the look of an ace whenever he’s on the bump. But seeing as he has tallied only 120 innings since the start of 2019, he just needs to find a way to get there regularly. His presence in the Yankees’ rotation has taken on extra importance in the wake of the news that Frankie Montas could miss the first month of the upcoming season because of shoulder inflammation.

Jesse Winker, OF, Brewers
Although he has battled myriad injuries throughout his six-year career, Winker has often carried a dangerous bat whenever he is in the lineup. He slashed .292/.392/.552 with 36 homers through 164 games with the Reds from the start of 2020 through '21. His 145 wRC+ ranked 15th in the bigs during that period, and his 167 wRC+ against right-handed pitching ranked fourth best among all lefty hitters. Winker seemed like the perfect trade acquisition last March for the offense-needy Mariners.

He played in a career-high 136 games with Seattle, and his 15.4 percent walk rate was one of the highest in baseball. But little else went right for the 2021 All-Star. His slugging percentage fell by 200 points while his hard-hit rate declined nearly 30 percent, from 47.1 to 34.3. He was even a below-average performer versus righties (99 wRC+). Winker underwent surgeries on his neck and left knee following the regular season. It’s not certain how much those ailments impacted his on-field play, but they provide a good explanation for his drop-off.

Winker, who was traded to the Brewers in December, now finds himself on his third team in as many years. Perhaps a return to the NL Central will help him recapture some of the magic he had in Cincinnati.