Monday, December 23, 2013

14 Baseball Players to Watch in 2014

Can Pujols bounce back from a forgettable 2013? (SportingNews)
1. Albert Pujols
The Machine broke down in 2013, appearing in just 99 games and none after July 26th. He wasn't very productive when he did suit up, batting .258/.330/.437 (all career worsts) and looking slow in the field and on the bases. Various lower body injuries hampered his power--his .179 ISO was the lowest mark of his career and the fourth straight season in which it declined--and robbed him of the agility that helped him win two Gold Gloves and steal as many as 16 bases in a season (twice). All of his peripheral stats are trending in the wrong direction, which means he could be even worse in 2014.

Then again, writing him off as washed up may prove to be immature. The Angels are hoping that with extra rest, their $240 million first baseman can come back strong next year--the third of their ten-year pact. Pujols will be 34, young enough that a rebound is well within the realm of possibility considering what David Ortiz, Lance Berkman, Derek Jeter and Carlos Beltran have done at similar ages in the recent past. It's not hard to imagine given that Pujols hit better in June and July and was still on pace to approach 30 home runs and 100 RBI. His best days are behind him, but if he can stay healthy next year he figures to be one of the game's better hitters.

2. Robinson Cano
Speaking of ten-year, $240 million contracts...How will Cano fare in his new diggs on the West Coast, away from Yankee Stadium's short right field porch?

3. Dan Haren
Once a borderline Cy Young candidate as well as a model of consistency, Haren has endured back-to-back down years. However, there are plenty of indications that he's far from done, such as his 4.25 K/BB ratio and 1.27 WHIP over that span. He also pitched markedly better in the second half last year, posting a 3.29 ERA from the end of June onward. Moving to Dodger Stadium and the huge parks of the NL West can only help the 33 year-old as he looks to return to form with Los Angeles.

4. B. J. Upton
Justin Upton's older brother was a massive bust in the first year of his five-year, $75 million deal with the Braves, batting .184/.268/.289 and striking out in more than one-third of his plate appearances. All told, he was worth roughly two wins below replacement. He's always been a free-swinger, but in 2013 mechanical issues prevented him from making contact with any sort of regularity. Atlanta hopes that he can re-tool his swing over the winter and at least be a serviceable center fielder from this point forward, if not the player who averaged 19 home runs and 36 steals per year from 2007 through 2012. At 29, his odds of bouncing back are pretty good.

5. Matt Adams
Displayed plenty of promise filling in for Allen Craig, swatting 17 home runs in just 296 official at-bats. With Craig slated to replace Carlos Beltran in right field, Adams will have the first base job all to himself. The 25 year-old slugger seems poised for a breakout.

6. CC Sabathia
Coming off the worst season of his career, Sabathia must adjust to his age (33) and the diminishing velocity that comes with it. New York's postseason hopes depend on it.

7. Wil Myers
The 2012 Minor League Player of the Year took home 2013 AL Rookie of the Year honors despite playing just 88 games, becoming the first American League position player to win the award while playing in fewer than 100 games (Bob Horner and Willie McCovey did so in the NL). An instant star, the 23 year-old should get even better in his first full big league campaign.

8. Ryan Braun
Busted for ties to Biogenesis in 2013, Braun served the suspension many felt he deserved after testing positive for elevated testosterone levels in October 2011. All eyes will be on Braun, now 30, as he tries to legitimize what was shaping up to be a Cooperstown-caliber career.

9. Matt Kemp
An All-Star as recently as 2012, Kemp has seen his stock plummet in the wake of two injury-marred seasons. 2013 was particularly frustrating for the Dodger center fielder, who made three separate trips to the Disabled List and was shut down for the playoffs to undergo ankle surgery. Still, he's only 29 and not far removed from his MVP-caliber 2011. Like Jacoby Ellsbury coming off his down 2012, Kemp is a very good center fielder with health concerns, a giant contract and one monster season on his resume. I see him bouncing back, but probably not to his previous level of excellence.

10. Yasiel Puig
Apologies to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, but Puig is hands-down the most exciting player in baseball.

11. Prince Fielder
Can moving to Texas put a stop to two years of decline? We'll find out.

12. John Lackey
Coming off Tommy John surgery, Lackey reinvented himself and had his best season in years. 2014 is a contract year for him, so the 35 year-old is going to have to do it again if he wants one more big payday.

13. Derek Jeter
Jeter's future has never been more uncertain. Injuries prevented him from playing all but 17 games last year and figures to miss additional time in 2014, his 20th big league season. The Yankees would be wise to move the defensively-challenged Jeter to third base during A-Rod's suspension, especially since only two men in baseball history (Honus Wagner and Luke Appling) have ever accumulated more than 400 plate appearances while playing shortstop at 40, which is how old Jeter's going to be on June 26th. Still, Jeter is one of the greatest to ever play the position, so perhaps he can return from injury and hold off Father Time for one more year, as Mariano Rivera did.

14. Miguel Cabrera
He won the Triple Crown in 2012 and would have done so again in 2013 if not for Chris Davis's power outburst. Cabrera compensated by winning the sabermetric Triple Crown. So which one will he win in 2014? Don't be surprised if he takes both.

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