Baseball season is only just starting, but some teams are already thinking about October. Likewise, some MLB players already have next winter — aka payday — on their minds. Others simply want to shake off a forgettable 2016 and start anew.
As we all know, hope springs eternal.
Here, we’ll look at 10 players trying to prove something this season. Some, like Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel, will have to partly rely on team success for their resurgence. Others, such as Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, have money on the line. Others still, like Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray, need to get the stink of 2016 off them.
Many of these players will be central to the pennant race. Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price, for example, could find himself starting games in the Fall Classic this year if things break right for the Red Sox. You could call Price an X-factor, but he undoubtedly has something to prove after a shaky 2016.
Here are 10 players with something to prove this season.
Dallas Keuchel, pitcher, Houston Astros
After winning the 2015 American League Cy Young Award, Houston Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel flopped in 2016. His ERA ballooned from 2.48 to 4.55, his FIP rocketed from 2.97 to 3.87, he lost nearly a strikeout per nine innings and went from 7.2 Baseball Reference WAR to 0.5.
Coming into this year, Keuchel has to prove he’s the pitcher who set the league on fire two years ago and not the one who had to be doused after every start last season.
Some underlying numbers tell different stories here. It could be argued that Keuchel lost so much between seasons simply because his BABIP allowed regressed to the mean. However, it’s worth noting that his xFIP — FIP allowed with home run per fly ball rate at held at a constant — was 3.53 last season, over a full run below his ERA.
In a stacked AL West, the Astros need Keuchel to be at his best. Whether he lives up to this will define their season.
Sonny Gray, pitcher, Oakland A’s
Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray had an injury-filled, misery-inducing 2016. Coming off a campaign in which he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, Gray posted a 5.69 ERA and 4.67 FIP, with his WAR dropping by 6.3 wins between 2015 and 2016.
However, he remains the de-facto ace on a straggling A’s team. Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman were both solid last season, but neither will fetch a big haul if Billy Beane starts to deal. Gray will, but he has to prove that last season was a fluke brought on by injury.
There is already a good case for the injury making a big impact. In July of 2015, opponents hit .250 against Gray’s fourseam fastball, .080 against his sinker and .083 against his changeup, per Brooks Baseball. A year later, they hit .375 against the fastball, .349 against the sinker and .600 against the change. That sort of drastic shift, most of the time, doesn’t just happen.
Of course, this is a two-pronged challenge for Gray. Before he can think about pitching, he needs to stay healthy. Gray reportedly hired a personal trainer to help with that, but A’s fans will be waiting with bated breath to see whether he will be his former self.
David Price, pitcher, Boston Red Sox
David Price wasn’t all that bad in his first season pitching for the Boston Red Sox. In a league-leading 230 innings, he had a solid 3.99 ERA, struck out nearly a batter per inning and 3.0 WAR. The problem is that he is David Price, former Cy Young Award winner, and the Red Sox gave him a seven-year, $217 million deal.
The expectation isn’t for Price to be all that bad, its for him to be David Price. You know, the guy who led the league with a 2.45 ERA, whose FIP was 2.78, who was worth 6.0 WAR and helped lead the Toronto Blue Jays to the ALCS in 2015. That guy.
If Price returns to his 2015 form, the Red Sox can claim a terrifying rotation that features (undeserving) 2016 Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello, perennial All-Star Chris Sale, 2016 All-Stars Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz, along with himself. That has all the makings of a championship team, but Price is a huge question mark.
He’s 31 years old this season — an age when pitchers normally start to decline. He’d also never played in a market the size of Boston or on a team that expects to win a championship every year before last season. Whether there is a resurgence will dictate if that expectation is fulfilled or if Boston faces another disappointing early-round playoff exit.
Zack Greinke, pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
Greinke is coming off a shoulder injury which ended his season a few weeks early in his worst statistical campaign we’ve seen in years. After inking with the Arizona Diamondbacks for big money, Greinke flopped in Year One of his six-year, $206 million deal with a 4.37 ERA and 4.12 FIP.
For those counting, that’s a 2.71-run spike in ERA and a 1.36-run shift in FIP between 2015 — when Greinke was one of the best pitchers in baseball — and last season. Coming into this year, there are still outstanding questions about his shoulder — D-backs manager Torey Lovullo has held him at a slower pace than other pitchers this spring — not to mention his pitching.
Without another star, or even another particularly reliable pitcher on the staff, Arizona will be relying on Greinke to carry the load in the rotation. Of course, relying on a 33-year old to do such a thing is nary a smart idea — former GM Dave Stewart was fired for a reason. But it’s where the D-backs are right now, and it’s better to be relying on Greinke than, for example, Robbie Ray.
An All-Star season from Greinke won’t stop Arizona from struggling in the NL West, but it will embolden his Hall of Fame case. Without much postseason success, Greinke’s lone Cy Young Award, three Gold Gloves and three All-Star appearances are underwhelming, as is his 54.4 career WAR.
Another strong season, however, and perhaps Greinke’s case can gain more steam when he’s on the ballot.
Michael Conforto, left fielder, New York Mets
This year, we likely will learn whether or not Michael Conforto will be in the New York Mets’ lineup 10 years from now. After an encouraging rookie campaign, Conforto struggled last season, slashing .220/.310/.414 and yo-yoing between the majors and AAA.
It’s unlikely Conforto begins the season in the starting lineup without injury to Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce or Curtis Granderson. But the pressure is on him to perform in a bench role. With both Bruce and Granderson’s contracts expiring after this season, Conforto can secure his place in New York’s future if he performs well.
However, there are limited opportunities. Not only will he be coming off the bench, but fellow outfielder Brandon Nimmo will compete with Conforto for at-bats. If the latter struggles out of the gate, it will open the door for Nimmo, who hit .274/.338/.329 in 32 games last season.
Conforto, a left-handed hitter with pop, has real value to the Mets — a team that plays 81 games a year in Citi Field, which is a pitcher’s park. In 2015, Conforto had a .229 ISO at home, no small feat despite a small sample size. He needs to prove that he can be that player over a full season, and over a career. If he does, he’ll get more than just a bit of playing time.
Michael Pineda, pitcher, New York Yankees
New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda’s talent is not in question. He led the league in strikeouts per nine innings just last season, had an impressive 3.30 xFIP and boasts a nasty slider. However, in three seasons with the Yankees, Pineda has been the epitome of inconsistency.
Check out his monthly splits and you’ll find a 7.52 ERA in May, a 2.75 ERA in June and a 4.80 ERA in July. At the top of his game, Pineda is on par with any pitcher in the league. Take his starts on June 25 and 30 of last season, a two game stretch over which Pineda allowed just two runs in 12 innings, striking out 20.
Every one of those two-game stretches, however, seems to be compounded by one that exhibits the exact opposite performance. Right after he struck out 20 in those 12 innings, Pineda gave up 10 runs over his next 11 innings. It’s just one example of the maddening inconsistency he’s displayed over his career.
However, if Pineda is ever going to shape up, this is the year. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent next offseason and whether he’s the potential All-Star who shows up every fourth start or the player who posted a 4.82 ERA in 2016 will dictate how many millions Pineda sees this winter. It will also shape a Yankees rotation that, besides Masahiro Tanaka, is full of question marks.
Jose Bautista, right fielder, Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista shouldn’t have to prove anything. He’s a 36-year old five-time All-Star whose OPS was .817 last season. Bautista should be having a relaxed twilight to his career, providing what production he has left in the middle of a stacked Blue Jays lineup.
The problem is that about a year ago, Bautista reportedly demanded a five-year, $150 million extension, which is ridiculous for a 35-year old — Bautista’s age at the time. That demand, along with good-but-diminished production, caused the free agent market to stay away from Bautista, who had to come back to Toronto, hat-in-hand, and sign a one-year deal for $18.5 million.
No level of production will give Bautista the contract he wanted, despite an impending return to free agency if either he or Toronto exercises a mutual option. But a strong year would at least vindicate the aging slugger.
If Bautista is still capable of the 40 home run, 5.1 WAR season he had in 2015, that would at least guarantee him another $17 million in 2018 if neither side opts out of the deal. The right level of production could even result in a $20 million vested option for 2019. With that amount of money and pride on the line, Bautista should be motivated to prove something this year.
Kevin Gausman, pitcher, Baltimore Orioles
Last season, the Baltimore Orioles’ starting pitching staff ranked 24th in ERA, 21st in FIP, 19th in strikeouts per nine innings and 21st in batting average against. They need an ace, and Kevin Gausman is the closest thing they’ve got.
In 2016, Gausman had the best season of his career, putting up a 3.61 ERA, 4.10 FIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine with career highs in innings pitched and ERA-. Those numbers don’t knock you over, but if nothing else, Gausman proved to be the best the Orioles have got when it comes to their rotation. If he can take the next step this year, Gausman could be the ace Baltimore desperately needs.
He certainly has the talent — his heater averages 95.91 mph, per Brooks Baseball, and his splitter produced whiffs 24.16 percent of the time it was thrown last season. If Gausman improves his curveball — the pitch he replaced his slider with in 2015 — he’ll have a repertoire on par with most aces.
The AL East is stacked. The Red Sox are World Series hopefuls while Toronto, New York and Tampa Bay each have a solid chance to make the playoffs. For Baltimore to compete, its starting pitching has to improve, and that starts with Gausman.
Matt Wieters, catcher, Washington Nationals
Newly minted Washington Nationals catcher Matt Wieters’ production is in decline. His wRC+ dropped from 101 in 2015 to 88 in 2016, thanks mostly to a second half in which he slashed .227/.294/.399. Now, Wieters is the starting catcher on a Nationals team that will compete.
In the same role last season, Wilson Ramos hit .307/.354/.496 with better pitch framing numbers than Wieters to boot. Although it’s not as black-and-white as Wieters needing to replace Ramos’ production in full, Washington does need some level of increased production from him.
Wieters, who signed late in the offseason, is still getting into baseball shape. Click on any article about him and the tone of low expectations, not to mention the feeling that the Nats bargained on the catcher position, shines through nearly every time. Dusty Baker told MLB.com on March 4, “It’s Spring Training more for [Wieters] than anybody.”
If that doesn’t motivate a ballplayer, I don’t know what does. Wieters doesn’t just have to prove he can help the Nationals win, he has to prove he’s still a capable player and not a declining shadow of a former Sports Illustrated coverboy.
Travis d’Arnaud, catcher, New York Mets
In three full big-league seasons, New York Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud has yet to play more than 108 games. The talent was always there, it was just health keeping d’Arnaud back from stardom. Until last season, that is, when d’Arnaud hit .247/.307/.323 in 276 plate appearances.
At age 28, d’Arnaud has to prove that 2016 was a fluke and that he can be behind the plate for an entire season.
There is some evidence for the former, as d’Arnaud’s ground ball rate rocketed up 52.2 percent last season from 37.0 percent in 2015. That jump is inconsistent with the rest of his career and likely the result of a small sample size. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see d’Arnaud return to form and slug .485 again in 2017.
However, the injuries are another question entirely. D’Arnaud hasn’t come close to staying healthy for a full season yet, and he’s closer to the end of his prime than the beginning. The Mets shouldn’t be happy with starting Rene Rivera or Kevin Plawecki behind the plate 80-100 times a year. If they have to do it again, the team may look at moving on from d’Arnaud.
D’Arnaud has injured nearly every part of his body. A healthy season would go a long way toward ensuring his place as the Mets’ starting catcher for years to come.