We’re nearly two weeks into the 2015 season, and are already getting some initial ideas of who the standout performers of the year could be. But of course, it’s early and more than 150 games remain on the schedule. That leaves an enormous amount of time for players to either maintain hot starts or break out of early-season struggles.
Several star players had subpar 2014 seasons from which they need to rebound for their respective teams to have success. Others are former top prospects who still have yet to fulfill their potential. And there are also some disappointments that have never lived up to expectations — especially financial ones — needing to help their clubs and resuscitate flagging careers with turnaround seasons. Here are 10 players that need to step up this year.
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Prince Fielder, Rangers: The Texas Rangers are going to be bad this season. But they could be less bad if Fielder produces as general manager Jon Daniels was hoping for when he acquired him in November 2013. Last season was a bust, due largely to a neck injury that required season-ending cervical fusion surgery. That surely played a role in Fielder batting .247 with a .720 OPS before being sidelined.
Now that he’s healthy, Fielder looks like he may be the middle-of-the-order run producer Texas needs so badly. With multiple hits in six of his first nine games, the Rangers’ first baseman is sporting a robust .409/.450/.459 triple slash average. He has yet to hit a home run, managing two doubles in 40 plate appearances. But as he continues to make contact, some of those balls might start leaving the park soon.
Justin Verlander, Tigers: In what appears to be a stacked AL Central, Detroit needs a strong starting rotation. The top of that staff would look far more formidable if Verlander can be anything close to what he was from 2009 to 2012. Perhaps his days of winning AL Cy Young Awards (or even finishing as a runner-up) are over. The Tigers might even settle for Verlander being what he was in 2013, when he compiled a 3.46 ERA with a strikeout rate of nine per nine innings. But they need him to be better.
Verlander’s 2015 season hit an early pothole when he suffered a triceps injury that put him on the disabled list to begin the season (the first DL stint of his career). But if he throws well in a simulated game Wednesday (April 15), the right-hander could be ready to join the rotation and perhaps challenge David Price for the status of No. 1 starter.
Joey Votto, Reds: Okay, this probably would have made more sense before the season began. The Reds first baseman has already stepped up his performance in the first eight games of the year. Votto has beencriticized in some circles for focusing too much on getting on base, rather than hitting for more power and driving in more runs.
So far, he’s stuck it to the detractors with his bat, slugging three home runs with nine RBI an compiling a triple slash average of .375/.459/.781. Yes, those are easily the best numbers in the Reds lineup. Perhaps not coincidentally, Cincinnati currently leads the NL Central. Votto’s health was obviously a big factor in his subpar performance last year, and that may have translated into his approach. Maybe he knew he couldn’t drive the ball, and thus didn’t try to. Now, however, he once again looks like one of the best hitters in MLB.
Brett Lawrie, Athletics: Lawrie has big footprints to fill at third base in Oakland, taking over for AL MVP contender Josh Donaldson, for whom he and three other prospects were traded. After a promising start to his career, playing for his native Canada’s MLB team, the third baseman struggled the past two seasons. Last year was particularly difficult due to finger and oblique injuries that limited him to 70 games.
In just his second game of the season, the 25-year-old had a facepalm of a performance, striking out four times and doing so on only 12 pitches. That’s not exactly the approach for which Oakland hitters have come to be known. Lawrie bounced back with a 3-for-5 showing in his next game, however, which was encouraging. Perhaps he’ll never be the star hitter that was once predicted, but if Lawrie continues to put the ball in play, his numbers should improve. With the strong defense that he provides at third base, he may prove to be a more-than-suitable replacement for Donaldson.
Yonder Alonso, Padres: For all the uproar over San Diego general manager A.J. Preller upgrading his lineup with three powerful outfielders and a catcher who can hit, first base is still a question mark. To be fair, Alonso has never been a slugger. He’s a gap hitter that can be a doubles machine. The most home runs he’s ever hit in a season was nine in 2012, but he notched 39 doubles. That’s also the only full season on his résumé.
After eight games, Alonso is off to an impressive start, batting .357.455/.500. The slugging percentage is especially impressive for a hitter whose career mark is .398. Yes, it’s early. But if Alonso shows some power early on and can at least be an extra-base threat, the Padres’ batting order is much deeper with a much-needed left-handed bat.
Travis d’Arnaud, Mets: To be fair, the Mets catcher only has one full MLB season on the books. So saying he has to step up might be a tad harsh. Anyone would be expected to improve in his second season. With his bat, d’Arnaud certainly showed the potential to be a strong offensive catcher that many had projected for him in the minors as one of the Blue Jays’ top prospects. Though he batted .242, he hit 22 doubles, 13 home runs and slugged .416 in 421 plate appearances. Those power numbers should naturally increase as d’Arnaud makes more contact.
But it’s his defensive performance that’s more of a concern going into this season. Allowing 39 wild pitches and 12 passed balls made for a rough year behind the plate. He also threw out only 19 percent (14-of-52) of opposing basestealers. Mets bench coach Bob Geren has beenworking with d’Arnaud, getting him to focus less on framing pitches and more on receiving the ball better and his footwork. With -15 Defensive Runs Saved last year, there’s considerable room for improvement.
Starlin Castro, Cubs: Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Castro needs to step up, considering he had a relatively strong 2014 season. He batted .292 and his .777 OPS was the best of his career. But the Cubs are carrying some large expectations into this season, based largely on the emergence of young talent. Getting consistent production from one of the lineup’s veteran hitters would help fulfill those lofty projections.
Shortstop prospect Addison Russell is knocking on the door, so perhaps a position change or trade is in Castro’s future. Continuing to hit well — which he has thus far, batting .286 — and improving his defense (Castro had -7 Defensive Runs Saved last season) would not only make the Cubs better, but also improve his trade value (which could help the team in years to come). Either way, Castro needs to be a key part of this franchise’s future.
Drew Storen, Nationals: The Nats are widely considered to be a World Series favorite. But if there’s one weakness on a seemingly flawless roster, it’s the bullpen. In particular, Storen is a question mark at closer. GM Mike Rizzo previously demonstrated a lack of confidence in Storen by signing reliever Rafael Soriano. But Soriano is now gone, as is Tyler Clippard, putting the onus on Storen to get the job done at the back end of the Nationals’ bullpen.
Storen succeeding as closer is even more important with insurance policy Casey Janssen sidelined because of a shoulder injury. The Nats have depth in their bullpen, but a reliable presence in the ninth inning ties the whole unit together. If Storen falters, manager Matt Williams doesn’t know if he has anyone suitable for the role. (Though he has plenty of candidates.) Interestingly, Soriano is still available as a free agent, but you have to believe that ship has sailed. This is Storen’s job to lose and the Nationals need him to thrive.
Brandon League, Dodgers: Perhaps the most disastrous decision of the Ned Colletti era was signing League to a three-year, $22.5 million extension and anointing him as the team’s closer, a role he quickly squandered. The good news for the Dodgers is that 2015 is the final year of his contract, so they’re only on the hook for another $7.5 million. The bad news is that League has a shoulder injury that will probably keep him out until June. But by opting for rehab over surgery, the right-hander still has a chance to help the Dodgers this season.
Team president Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi have covered themselves against League’s absence, loading up on bargain relievers such as David Aardsma and Sergio Santos. But with closer Kenley Jansen also out with a foot injury, the bullpen is rather thin to begin the year. Dodgers relievers have pitched adequately, compiling a 3.24 ERA and a .576 opponents’ OPS. Perhaps League ultimately won’t be able to contribute this year, but getting him back — and able to pitch like he did last season — would certainly help.
Logan Morrison, Mariners: Seattle took care of its need for right-handed power by adding last year’s home run leader Nelson Cruz to its lineup. But the Mariners could also use some thunder from the left side of the plate. Maybe they’re already covered in that area with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. However, Morrison flexing some muscle would make Seattle’s batting order much deeper and make it more difficult for opponents to pitch around Cruz and Seager.
The 27-year-old isn’t off to a good start, batting .148 with no walks or extra-base hits in his first 27 plate appearances. As a result, Dustin Ackley (with three homers and a 1.289 OPS) may have overtaken Morrison as a more reliable power bat in the middle of the Mariners’ lineup. Morrison has one more year of arbitration eligibility next season before becoming a free agent. If he doesn’t want to be non-tendered this winter, he’ll have to hit much better and show the Mariners that he can possibly be a part of their future.