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These guys will be scrutinized in 2012
The romance of spring training only goes so far. Sure, the weather is nice. The pace is less frenetic than the regular season. Sportswriters love the boost toward elite status in their favorite hotel rewards programs. But this is not an angst-free time.
For little-known relievers, one pitch in a March game could determine whether they earn $480,000 in the majors or $60,000 at Triple-A. For aging veterans on minor league contracts, a trip to the manager's office may mean retirement. And there's a lot at stake for some of the most familiar names in baseball who must prove themselves all over again.
Maybe they are coming off dreadful 2011 seasons. (Here's looking at you, Adam Dunn.) Or maybe they are entering contract years, with the difference between "good" and "great" measured in tens of millions of dollars. (No pressure, Andre Ethier.) Either way, there's nothing pastoral about one's professional future being questioned on a daily basis.
So, as spring training heats up, here are 12 players set to face heavy scrutiny.
1. Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Sadly, Hamilton tops this list because of what happened in a Dallas-area bar.
Hamilton relapsed in his battle with alcohol addiction a couple of weeks ago, and it's anyone's guess where the story swerves next. In public statements, Hamilton has said he will assess why the incident occurred while working to strengthen relationships with his wife and children.
By his own admission, Hamilton must devote added time and energy to his personal life. Will that make him more focused when he's at the ballpark? Or more distracted? Hamilton is due to become a free agent after this season. It's not clear when (or if) the Rangers will reengage him in discussions on a long-term deal.
Just think: If the Rangers had closed out Game 6 in St. Louis, and if the relapse hadn't occurred, we would be talking about Hamilton's World Series heroics — and perhaps his new contract.
2. Carl Crawford, Red Sox
When we last saw Crawford, he was floundering at Robert Andino's season-crushing single in Game 162. It was an apt metaphor at the end of Crawford's profoundly disappointing debut season in Boston.
Crawford isn't exactly off to a robust start in 2012, either. He underwent surgery on his left wrist last month, and new manager Bobby Valentine told the Boston Globe, "I wouldn't be surprised if Carl's a few weeks into the season before he's really ready."
Unless Crawford recovers fully and returns to the level he played at in Tampa Bay, his seven-year, $142 million contract will be looked upon as one of the worst ever.
Last year, Werth arrived at Nationals camp in Viera, Fla., as the highest-paid player in franchise history. By Opening Day, he may be the third-best outfielder on his own team.
Left fielder Mike Morse, formerly a part-time player, emerged as the Nationals' top power hitter in 2011 while Werth struggled after signing a $126 million deal. And now Werth may have to move from his usual position (right field) to make room for 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper.
Werth has experience in center field — he started 17 games there last year — but his defensive play will be monitored closely this spring.
4. Vernon Wells, Angels
How has $126 million become such a tragic number? As a sport, baseball is 0 for 3 in contracts of that value: Werth, Wells and Barry Zito.
Wells' career-worst 2011 season (.660 OPS) was bad enough on its own. It was made worse by the knowledge that three years and $63 million remain. In other words, there is more money left on Wells' contract now than there was at the beginning of the Gary Matthews Jr. blunder.
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The math will be much less painful if Wells gives the Angels something close to an .800 OPS. The pressure is on him to perform now, because young outfielders Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout must play on a regular basis, too.
5. Andre Ethier, Dodgers
Around this time last year, Ethier mused publicly that 2011 might be his final season with the Dodgers. The comments created a minor dustup with team management and hinted at sensitivity on Ethier's part about his contractual status.
Well, Ethier is still a Dodger — for now, anyway. He is on track to become a free agent this fall. He's also coming off a complicated season that began with a 30-game hit streak and ended with right knee surgery.
With the franchise poised for a sale, Ethier could be dealt at midseason if the Dodgers are out of contention. He's going to be closely scouted from the moment spring training games begin.
6. Johan Santana, Mets
Santana last pitched in the majors on Sept. 2, 2010. Since then, he has rehabbed from shoulder surgery while the Mets have slinked toward irrelevancy.
With only two years left on his contract, there isn't much time for the Mets to receive a return on their massive investment. But at least the reports on his health have been encouraging. "Right now, he's on schedule to start spring training and undergo the full routine," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said this week. "I would say he's had a normal offseason."
And yet, Mets officials will watch each of his spring outings with apprehension. A healthy Santana is integral to any scenario in which the Mets finish close to .500 in 2012.
7. Adam Dunn, White Sox
There's no denying it: At least in the first season of his four-year deal, Dunn was one of the biggest free-agent busts in baseball history. His home run production dropped by more than one-third, and his batting average fell 100 points to .159.
Obviously, Dunn's adjustment to designated hitter didn't go smoothly. But with Paul Konerko entrenched at first base, Dunn has no choice but to adapt to the position. The White Sox hope he feels more comfortable in his second tour of the American League — and that new manager Robin Ventura builds his confidence in a way Ozzie Guillen did not.
As usual, A-Rod enters spring training amid plenty of personal storylines: He made the last out of the Yankees' season for the second straight year. In December, acting on advice from Kobe Bryant, he traveled to Germany to undergo a new form of blood therapy on his left shoulder and right knee. And now he's trying to rebound from what he described in an offseason interview with the New York Post as "the worst year of my career."
For Rodriguez, everything hinges on the health and mobility of his 36-year-old body. Early this season, he must establish that he's capable of playing third base on an everyday basis — rather than fall back into a hybrid role that involves a high number of games at DH.
9. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox
In retelling the tale of the Great Boston Faceplant, fried chicken, laissez-faire managing and ill-advised signings are the most obvious culprits. But in fairness to the Red Sox, none of this would have happened if Buchholz had remained healthy.
When Buchholz threw his last pitch of the season — on June 16 — the Red Sox had the best record in the American League (41-27). They were barely better than .500 thereafter, as Buchholz was idled with a stress fracture in his lumbar spine.
Upon arrival at spring training, he told the Globe, "As of right now, I feel good." If that remains the case in August and September, the Red Sox should have a reasonable chance to end their two-year playoff drought.
10. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
Ichiro is quietly entering a contract year — and an ill-timed one at that.
Ichiro, 38, is coming off by far his worst season in the majors. He will need to bounce back dramatically in order to justify a new contract worth anywhere close to the $17 million he's set to earn this year. And he may need to do it while growing accustomed to a new role, given manager Eric Wedge's openness to moving Chone Figgins into the leadoff spot.
Ichiro's strong relationship with titular owner Hiroshi Yamauchi makes it possible he will remain with the club on an above-market deal. Regardless, there is so much at stake in how he plays this year — his legacy, his chances at the Hall of Fame and the Mariners' future.
11. Buster Posey, Giants
How important is Posey to the Giants? On the May night he was lost for the season with three torn ligaments in his left ankle, the Giants led the National League West by 2 1/2 games. But their offense stagnated over the following months, and the upstart Diamondbacks passed them by.
All eyes will be on Posey as observers gauge whether his mobility has returned. The Giants obviously missed his bat last year, but there was an equal void behind the plate. Now, the question is how many games he may need to play at first base in order to keep his bat in the lineup on days he doesn't catch.
12. Jason Heyward, Braves
Oh, right: The other collapse.
The Braves' epic stumble has been — and will continue to be — overshadowed by the concurrent catastrophe in Boston. But two years after he came to prominence as a spring sensation, Heyward, still only 22, must take up the humble task of reclaiming his swing — particularly against left-handers — if he is to be the everyday right fielder.
Heyward, as much as any other player, was the face of the Braves' late-season swoon. He showed little of the power that made him a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2010. He didn't even start three of the season's final four games.
We'll know "The J-Hey Kid" is back when he shatters the sunroof of an unsuspecting car with a batting practice home run, as he did at the Braves' spring complex two years ago.
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