In a January 22 post, BBRT called out a group of MLB prospects I’ll be watching in 2014. In this post, I’ll touch upon about a dozen veteran players BBRT thinks are worth some special attention in 2014 – for the most part, players who face particular challenges and whose performance may be particularly important to their teams’ fortunes.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers … The Tigers’ 31-year-old right-hander (2011 Cy Young Award Winner and AL MVP) had his second worst MLB season in 2013. (He did lead the AL in losses with an 11-17 record in 2008). He finished 2013 at 13-12, 3.46, while striking out 217 in 218 innings. Verlander’s velocity was down in the first half, but he found the old heat late in the season, posting a 2.27 ERA after September 1 and enjoying a post season in which he pitched 23 innings, giving up just one earned run and striking out 31. It certainly looked like Verlander was back on his game. But then came an off-season injury and “core muscle surgery.” It’s disturbing that the Tigers have not defined “core muscle.” Verlander says he’ll be ready, but it makes you wonder if seven straight seasons of 200+ innings (Verlander led the AL in innings pitched in 2009, 2011, 2012) may be taking a toll. BBRT will be watching, but is betting Verlander will be back at or near the top of his game. How good can that be? In 2011/2012, Verlander went 41-15, 2.52 with 489 strikeouts in 489 1/3 innings. Verlander should reach 16 wins and 200+ whiffs in 2014.
Albert Pujols, 1B/DH, Angels … The Angels have a big investment in 34-year-old Pujols, who started his career (as a Cardinal) with ten straight seasons (2001-2010) of a .300+ average, 30+ homers and 100+ RBI, three MVP awards, a batting title and two HR crowns. He barely missed another .300-30-100 season for the Cards in 2011 (.299-37-99), when he was on the disabled list from June 20 to July 5. Since signing a 10-year/$240-million contract with the Angels before the 2013 season, Pujols has suffered from planter fasciitis and turned in seasons of .285-30-105 and .258-17-64. Pujols says he is healthy now – and the Angels need a return on their investment if they are going to contend for the division crown. BBRT will be watching to see if a healthier Pujols returns to form. BBRT expects a bounce back, but not to his early career levels. Still, a .290-32-104 season would suit the Angels fine, and that seems well within reach. One thing is for sure, a true professional, Pujols is determined to let his bat silence his critics in 2014.
Note: While watching Pujols, BBRT will also be keeping an eye on another big-time Angels’ investment – Josh Hamilton, who turned in a disappointing .250-21-79 season in the first year of a five-year/$125-million contract with the Angels.
R.A. Dickey, RHP, Blue Jays … The Blue Jays acquired 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey after his spectacular 2012 season – when the then NY Met translated his hard knuckler into a 20-6 record, 2.73 ERA, NL-leading 230 strikeouts and a Cy Young Award. To get Dickey (along with catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas), the Jays gave up high-potential prospects catcher Travis D’Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard, as well as catcher John Buck and outfielder Wuilmer Becerra. The Jays signed Dickey to a two-year/$25 million contract extension. In 2013, Dickey went 14-13, 4.21 for the Jays, striking out 177 in 224 2/3 innings (and winning a Gold Glove award). The Blue Jays were and are hoping for more from Dickey. However, if you take 2012 out of the equation, his 11-year MLB record is 55-63, 4.31. Dickey’s knuckleball will remain fun to watch, but a return to 2012 form seems unlikely for the 39-year-old. Still, Dickey appears recovered from neck and upper back pain that hampered him early last season, and 15 wins from this work horse would not be unexpected.
La Troy Hawkins, RHP, Rockies … Colorado Rockies have indicated the 41-year-old Hawkins will be their closer for 2014. In 2012, his 19th MLB season, Hawkins went 3-2, 2.93, with 13 saves for the Mets. Hawkins has kept his career alive by filling a variety of roles (for ten different teams) – full-time starter (twice starting 33 games in a season for the Twins), closer (twice saving 25 or more games), set-up and middle/long relief (six times appearing in 65 or more games). If he stays healthy, the ageless Hawkins (imposing on the mound at 6’5”, 220 lbs.) should be fun to watch. If he pitches in 57 contests for the Rockies, he will become one of just 16 pitchers with at least 1,000 appearances.
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Orioles … Jimenez, with an inconsistent delivery (and similar results) can sink you or save you. The Orioles are hoping they are getting something closer to the Jimenez who went 19-8, 2.88 for the Rockies in 2010 than the 9-17, 5.40 Indians’ hurler of 2012. Last season, Jimenez was somewhere in the middle at 13-9. 3.30 for Cleveland. He’s a gamble – but one with lots of upside. Worth a watch in 2014, as his fortunes will have a lot to do with the Orioles’ ability to contend in the tough AL East.
Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees … Okay, so “everyone” will be watching the 39-year-old Jeter’s retirement tour. What can you say about a player whose resume includes 3,316 hits, an AL Rookie of the Year award, 13 All Star selections, five Gold Gloves and a World Series MVP award? Of course, the “Jeter Watch” is focusing on more than his retirement (although Mariano Rivera set the “gift” bar high). The Yankee captain is coming off a 2013 season when he was put on the DL four times (primarily traced back to his 2012 post season broken ankle) and played only 17 games. Can he get back to form? Don’t bet against him. Remember, Jeter is just one injury-plagued season away from leading the AL in at bas and base hits. There are, however, a lot of miles on Jeter’s legs – 2,602 MLB games over 19 years. For the Yankees, the question is will he look like the “Jeter of Old” or just an old Jeter. BBRT expects Jeter will get into 130 games and turn in a .280-.285 average. Then again, well rested, he could surprise and go out at .300+. Either way, the future Hall of Famer will be a veteran to watch this coming season.
Jeter factoid: In his first professional game (Rookie-level Gulf Coast Yankees), Jeter went hitless in seven at bats, with 5 strikeouts – and he finished the season at .202. Apparently, he made some adjustments over time – and we can expect he will adjust well in 2014 as well.
While you’re tuning in the Bombers to watch Jeter, keep an eye on Mark Teixeira as well. A wrist injury (and subsequent surgery) limited the power-hitting first baseman to 15 games last season. The Yankees need his bat to come back. Still, there are some disturbing signs beyond the injury. Over his first seven MLB seasons (2003-2009), Teixeira hit for a .289 average. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged just .249. Still, as recently as 2011, he hit .248, with 39 home runs and 111 RBIs. That would make the Bronx Bombers happy, and strengthen their lineup considerably. Keep an eye on the 34-year-old (turns 34 in April).
Koji Uehara, RHP, Red Sox … Uehara, who turns 39 in April, was presented the Red Sox’ closer role in 2013 after injuries to Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan. All he did was record 21 saves, along with four wins and one loss, a 1.09 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings. He then added a record-tying seven post-season saves and an ALCS MVP Award. Uehara was successful as both a starter and closer in Japan (a twenty-game winner as a rookie in 1999, 32 saves in 2007) before joining the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. In five MLB seasons, he is 9-10, 2.42, with 35 saves. It seems doubtful he can be as dominant in 2014 as he was in 2013, but BBRT and Boston fans will be watching. Notably, Boston does have a backup in place having added Edward Mujica (37 saves for the Cardinals last year) in the off season.
Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers & Prince Fielder, 1B/DH Rangers … These two are on the watch list together because they were traded for each other “one-for-one” in the off season – and both will be vital to their new team’s success.
Kinsler is a three-time All Star, who is considered a “plus” defender, and is a two-time member of the 30-30 (HRs and SBs) club. Kinsler is looking to bounce back from a 2013 season in which he went .277-13-72, with 15 steals.
Prince Fielder, on the other side of the trade, is a power hitter who has averaged .286, with 32 home runs and 97 RBI per season in his nine MLB years. Fielder is a five-time Star and a member of the 50-home run club (Prince and his father Cecil Fielder are the only father-son members of that prestigious club). Like Kinsler, Fielder is looking to rebound from a pretty good (but not up to expectations) season – .279-25-106.
BBRT will be watching to see if either of these players performs well enough (or badly enough) to establish a clear winner in this trade.
Francisco Liriano, LHP, Pirates … Did the Pirates really find the flaw in Liriano’s explosive delivery? 2013’s 16-8, 3.02 record (163 strikeouts in 161 innings) seems to say so. But we’ve seen this before. (Liriano is, in fact, a two-time Comeback Player of the Year.) Liriano made the AL All Star team as a rookie in 2006, and ended the season 12-3, 2.16 with 144 whiffs in 121 innings pitched. That season, unfortunately, ended early and was followed by Tommy John surgery. Liriano missed the 2007 season, then went 6-4, 3.91 in 2008. In 2009, he fell off to 5-13, 5.80. But he seemed to straighten out in 2009, going 14-10, 3.62 and topping 200 strikeouts, while winning the Comeback Player of the Year award. His comeback was short lived. In 2011-12, Liriano went a combined 15-22, with an ERA over 5.00 both seasons. Then came the 2013 Comeback Player of the Year II season with the Pirates. Given his track record, 2014 could be interesting.
Others to watch:
David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox … Big Papi is 38 and coming off a .309-30-103 season, leading the Red Sox in all three categories. The Sox need solid numbers – and continued clubhouse leadership – from Ortiz to repeat as AL East leaders in 2014. BBRT will watch to see if age starts to catch up to the game’s top DH.
Joe Mauer, 1B/DH, Twins … Mauer is the only MLB player to win three batting title as a catcher (2006, 2008, 2009) and carries a ten-year, .323 average into the 2014 season. Concussion issues have resulted in a move to 1B for 2014. BBRT will be watching to see if the less stressful position can lead to another batting title.
Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers … A thumb injury and a PED suspension muddied the waters for the five-tool Braun – a former Rookie of the Year (2007), MVP (2011), two-time member of the 30-30 (HRs/SBs) club and five-time All Star. He seems to be handling the pressure well, and BBRT expects a strong return for the 30-year-old in 2014. BBRT will be interested in the fan reaction, as Braun works to rebuild his reputation.
Raul Ibanez, OF/DH, Angels … In 2013, Ibanez (then with the Mariners) rapped 29 home runs in 124 games, tying Ted Williams for the most homers in a season by a player over 40. Ibanez who turned 41 in June of last year, is with the Angels now and, who knows, may make another run at the record.
Mike Trout, OF, Angels … Can he finally win an MVP Award? If the Angels make the playoffs it’s very likely.
B.J Upton & Dan Uggla, OF & 2B, Braves … Two players who both played more than 125 games and hit .184 and.179, respectively. Upton signed a five-year/$75 million contract with the Braves during the 2012/13 off season, while Uggla signed a five-year/$62 million contract before the 2011 season. The questions? Can either or both return to form? (Uggla is a three-time All Star and Upton is a three time member of the 20+ HR/20+ SB club.) And, how much patience do the Braves have? As it stands, the Braves have a lot of money invested below the Mendoza line.