Every MLB season, multiple teams that are supposed to do really well end up struggling. We then proceed to stumble all over ourselves trying to point the finger at why, and more often than not, the major culprit is a veteran player that turns in an unusually subpar year. This happens every year.
Last year, we named Travis d’Arnaud, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto (among others) as players that needed to turn in strong 2015 campaigns, and they all did. Here are 10 players that need to do the same in 2016 if their teams have any hope of making the postseason.
Melky Cabrera: The White Sox likely have no idea what they’re getting out of Cabrera in 2016. He was a great player for the Royals in 2011 and Giants in 2012, but that 2012 season ended with a PED suspension. He still got a two-year, $16 million deal from the Blue Jays that winter, was horrible in 2013 while dealing with a back tumor, and had a good year in 2014. That season led to a three-year, $42 million contract from the White Sox last winter… and Cabrera was once again a disaster in 2015, hitting .273/.314/.398 with 12 homers and below average defense in left field over 158 games.
At 31, we still have no idea who the real Melky Cabrera is, which has to be frightening for the White Sox and their fans. He’s really only been an above-average hitter during three of his 10 MLB seasons, but those three seasons have come over the last five years. Not much went right for the White Sox in 2015, and getting below average production from corner outfielders Cabrera and Avisail Garcia was one of the biggest reasons they couldn’t break through in the AL Central. They don’t need a star-level performance from Cabrera this season, but an extra 20-30 points of on-base percentage and slugging percentage would do a lot towards helping them compete for a Wild Card slot.
Matt Cain: The Giants have rotation depth in case Cain is a non-factor again. But considering the team is paying him $20.8 million in each of the next two years, getting something positive out of him would be a good thing. Cain only made 11 starts and two relief appearances last season and was terrible, throwing just 60 2/3 innings, pitching to a career-worst 5.79 ERA, striking out 41, and walking 20. The year before, Cain missed half the year, making just 15 starts and notching a 4.18 ERA. The 151 combined innings over the past two seasons is a lower total than Cain threw in any single season from 2006-2013.
Simply put, the 31-year old Cain is *probably* done as an effective, every fifth day starting pitcher. Without Cain last year, the Giants still won 84 games, but were forced to trade for Mike Leake at the trade deadline, and that wasn’t even enough to help them overtake the Dodgers in the NL West. If Cain was slotted into a rotation featuring Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and Chris Heston, Bruce Bochy would be able to breathe just a little easier.
Jacoby Ellsbury: The New York Yankees still owe Ellsbury $110.7 million over the next five years. He has a full no-trade clause, turned 32 in September, and is coming off of a 2015 season in which he hit .257/.318/.345 with seven homers and 21 stolen bases over 111 games. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?
Everything trended downward for Ellsbury last season. Excluding his 18-game season in 2010, Ellsbury posted the worst batting average of his career, the second-worst OBP, the worst slugging percentage, the lowest ISO, and the highest strikeout rate. And even though he did steal 21 bases, he was only successful 70 percent of the time, a career-worst mark and far below his career average of 83 percent. He’s trending the wrong way and for him to become anything but a sunk cost for the Yankees going forward, Ellsbury needs to be the top-tier outfielder he was in 2013 and 2014. A return to his 2011 MVP-level production would be lovely, but let’s be realistic here — those days are long gone.
Victor Martinez: Year one of Martinez’s four-year, $68 million contract with the Tigers was a disaster. The 37-year old played in just 120 games, his lowest total for a season in which he actually played since 2008. Martinez struck out in over 10 percent of his plate appearances for the first time since the 2009 season (though his 10.7% K rate was still a top 15 mark in baseball). His .245/.301/.366 slash line was unquestionably a disaster, especially for a player whose primary position is designated hitter.
Money is no obstacle for the Tigers, which was exemplified by this winter’s signings of Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann. It’s not as if the team is going to be crying poverty over the Martinez contract when Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander have much longer, more expensive deals. But Detroit is in a bad position with Martinez because they can’t exactly move him to another position since Cabrera is entrenched at first base, and Martinez is also blocking DH for a potential Cabrera move over the next three seasons. If he’s not hitting, his value to the Tigers is minimal, and they could be faced with the scenario where benching or releasing Martinez will simply make their team better.
Yadier Molina: A player can be overrated, but still be incredibly important to the success of a team. This is Yadier Molina in a nutshell: He’s a top five or 10 catcher in baseball, and the Cardinals are a worse team when someone else is behind the plate. However, Cardinals fans would have you believe that Molina is the NL MVP year-in and year-out. That’s simply not true. Last season, Molina had the worst offensive year of his career since the Cardinals’ 2006 World Championship, hitting .270/.310/.350 with four home runs (a career-low). He played in 136 games, right around the total he averaged during his prime years of 2009-2013, but a thumb injury dampened his production.
Molina is now 33, and appears to be on the downswing of his career. He’s still an incredible asset to the Cardinals and their pitching staff (something that cannot be understated), and St. Louis needs him to be healthy and behind the plate for 130 games again this year. The injured thumb could result in a late start for his season, which wouldn’t be ideal for the Cardinals. But if missing the first two weeks of the year means that he’ll be good to go down the stretch, the missed time will be an even trade-off.
Marcell Ozuna: If the Marlins just let Ozuna play every day and don’t try to send him down (again) in order to screw with his service time, he’ll be fine. Last year, Ozuna got off to a rough start, was demoted to AAA for a month, and was largely fine upon his promotion back to the majors.
Pre-demotion: 79 games, .249/.301/.337, 4 HR
Post-demotion: 42 games, .278/.320/.469, 6 HR
His final line for the year ended at .259/.308/.383, somewhere in the middle of both halves. If Ozuna can produce like he did in the second half all year, you’re looking at a top 10 center fielder in baseball with room to spare. And in case you think that was just a hot streak and is out of reach over the course of a full season, just remember that in 2014, Ozuna hit .269/.317/.455 with 23 homers. The only center fielders with more homers than that? Mike Trout, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen, and Matt Kemp. That’s not bad company.
Yasiel Puig: Hey, remember this guy? Puig was the toast of the baseball world in 2013, a flashpoint in 2014, and a non-factor in 2015. Puig had an injury-prone season last year with the Dodgers, playing in just 79 games, homering 11 times, stealing only three bases, and hitting .255/.322/.436. Puig is still only 25 and his offseason was largely quiet, aside from an alleged domestic violence incident that saw him avoid legal charges and a possible suspension from MLB.
Los Angeles is planning on him being their everyday right fielder, for better or worse, in 2016, and maybe the circus will be less prevalent during his fourth year in the majors. If Puig’s able to stay healthy and avoid any more off-the-field incidents (which have ranged from reckless driving to the aforementioned domestic violence allegations), he can be a key cog in the Dodgers lineup in 2016 and beyond. If he continues to be the center of controversy without the production to back it up, his future will likely be with another franchise.
Anthony Rendon: One of the major knocks on Rendon through his college and minor league career was the fact that he was injury-prone. That, along with the high bonus demands of Scott Boras, is why Rendon fell to the sixth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, where the Nationals were waiting to scoop him up. Rendon made his major league debut the next season, and hit an underwhelming .265/.329/.396 in his first 98 games in 2013. In 2014, he stayed on the field, playing in 153 games, and had an MVP-caliber year for the NL East champion Nationals, homering 21 times and stealing 17 bases while slashing .287/.351/.473.
But last year, the injury bug cropped up again and Rendon played in just 80 games for Washington, while hitting .264/.344/.363 with only five homers and one stolen base. He got a bulk of his playing time last year at second base, but mostly played at third in 2014. He’s expected to start at third this year after the signing of Daniel Murphy during the offseason, and given the lack of support Bryce Harper had in the lineup last year, Washington needs Rendon to be healthy and effective. Otherwise, they’ll probably end up having to turn to Danny Espinosa at third, and that’s not a road anyone wants to go down.
Pablo Sandoval: You’ve seen the pictures of Fat Pablo Sandoval this spring. And those pictures weren’t a welcome sight for Red Sox fans, who saw their alleged third baseman hit .245/.292/.366 with 10 homers in 126 games last season. Unlike many of the players on this list, Sandoval was actually relatively healthy in 2015, playing in 126 games and logging 505 plate appearances. That should be a bit harrowing for Red Sox fans.
And while Hanley Ramirez, Boston’s other big signing last winter, wasn’t great, he at least hit a bit. Sandoval didn’t hit, and like Ramirez, was a disaster in the field. DH is occupied in Boston by David Ortiz through this season, and with Ramirez moving to first base for 2016, it’s third base or bust for Sandoval this year. Can he hit? Can he play adequate defense? At this point, Boston fans should be satisfied with one or the other. Sandoval is still only 29, so there’s a chance he’ll be able to write off his awful 2015 and get back on the right track for the 2016 season. If he can do that, the Red Sox lineup will be even stronger — not that it needed to be.
Jered Weaver: 2015 was unquestionably the worst of Weaver’s career. His 159 innings was the second-lowest total since his rookie year of 2006, which was split between AAA and the majors. His 4.64 ERA was a career-worst, marking just the second time Weaver has had an ERA over 4.00. Weaver struck out 13.5 percent of the batters he faced, which was not just a career-low but also the third-lowest mark in baseball among any pitcher with at least 150 innings pitched. Weaver’s fastball velocity also lost three mph, dropping to a career-worst 83.3 mph — ahead of only R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer.
Weaver is making $20 million in 2016, the final year of a five-year, $85 million contract he signed with the Angels in 2011. Anaheim missed the playoffs by just one game last year, and while there were plenty of reasons why they did, Weaver’s shoddy performance in the summer was a big reason. If he was even a hair better, the Angels make the postseason. A lot of attention in Anaheim is given to the struggles of C.J. Wilson, but over the first four seasons of each player’s five-year deal, they’ve been almost the same pitcher. (Weaver has the edge in ERA and walks, Wilson has the edge in innings, strikeouts, and ground ball rate.) Both need to thrive in 2016, but given how poor Weaver was last season, he’s the one that should be getting the scrutiny.