Who Will Be the Comeback Players of the Year?

Each year two players, one from the American League and one from the National League, are honored as Comeback Player of the Year.

Whether the player is returning from injury, illness, or ineffectiveness, each winner has overcome a hurdle of some sort and reversed their fortunes from the previous year.

As the season winds down, a few candidates in each league have separated themselves from the pack.

American League

The AL crop of players this year could probably include the entire Boston Red Sox lineup and rotation, but John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino have put themselves ahead of the pack.

Former Red Sox Victor Martinez returned to the Tigers after missing all of 2012 – and picked up where he left off with the bat. And of course Mariano Rivera, after missing most of last season, decided to have an elite season on his way into retirement.

After the 2012 season, despite not throwing a single pitch, John Lackey was not a popular man in New England. Saying that Lackey struggled since arriving in Boston (ERAs of 4.40 in 2010 and 6.41 in 2011) would be an understatement. Even factoring in his injury, which ultimately required Tommy John surgery, 2013 was expected to be a return to 2008-2009 Lackey.

That wouldn’t do for the big right hander. Lackey is 9-12 due to bad luck in terms of run support, but his 3.56 ERA is his best mark since 2007. Lackey is striking out batters at a higher rate (7.6 K/9) than any year since 2006 and is issuing walks at the lowest rate (1.9 BB/9) of his career.

Ellsbury entered 2012 with expectations running high. His MVP caliber season the year before looked like his entrance into superstardom. But a fluke shoulder injury resulting from a collision with Reid Brignac altered his season considerably. Even when he took the field, his performance was disappointing.

Turn the calendar to 2013 and Ellsbury was back to his old tricks: he’s leading the league in steals with 52, hitting .299/.355/.424, and playing excellent defense in center field. As a free agent to be, the timing is perfect for him in terms of negotiations. The one thing not going his way: Ellsbury has been sidelined since Sept. 5 with an injured foot.

Shane Victorino looked bad in 2012. His .255/.321/.383 combined performance with the Phillies and Dodgers was the worst of his career. When the Red Sox handed him a 3-year, $39-million deal in the offseason, there were worries that the Sox had signed a free agent after a down year in his early 30s who might not bounce back.

Once again, the Red Sox got everything they expected, and more, from their player. Victorino entered play Tuesday hitting .294/.352/.454 with 21 steals and 14 home runs. He’s missed some time with some small injuries and has been battling a sore hamstring limiting his ability to switch-hit, but it hasn’t slowed him down.

Victor Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera already on the team, looked like he might be the odd man out while fighting for playing time because he would essentially be limited to DH. After a big first year with the Tigers in 2011, .330/.380/.470, it was an open question how Martinez would bounce back.

Through May 31 the former catcher had an OPS under .600. It looked like Martinez would be in store for a disappointing season. He had other plans: a .334/.387/.473 line since June 1 would be enough to raise his batting average to .298 entering play on September 17. In May, a .300 batting average for the season looked unlikely, now, it is within reach.

What can you really say about Mariano Rivera? After missing most of the 2012 season he’s come back for a retirement tour pitching better than many ever do at their peak. His 2.30 ERA is the sixth worst of his career. He made his thirteenth All Star Game. And he has 43 saves. It’s like he didn’t miss any time at all.

National League

The NL has fewer major comeback stories. Some that were expected, like the return of Tim Lincecum, didn’t occur as planned, but there are a couple guys who stand out.

Francisco Liriano has had a strange career. He was dominant during his rookie campaign in 2006, teaming up with Johan Santana at the top of the Twins rotation before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Liriano wasn’t himself again until 2010, but then fell apart in 2011 and 2012.

When he joined the Pirates over the winter it looked like a good depth move for a team looking for veteran innings, and a move to the NL can do wonders for a pitcher. Liriano took that as a challenge and has posted the second best ERA of his career, 2.92, has struck out a batter per inning, and after two years of 5.0 BB/9 has scaled that down to a more reasonable 3.6.

Troy Tulowitzki played in just 47 games in 2012 and wasn’t at his best when he was on the field. Losing a player like Tulo is tough for any team, but for the Rockies, losing half of the very productive Tulo-CarGo tandem was brutal.

Healthy again, Tulowitzki has hit .315/.388/.539 entering September 17. While the Rockies are currently in last place, they are part of essentially a three-way tie for third in the NL West with the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. The speed isn’t there anymore, Tulo has just one steal, 22 home runs by a Gold Glove shortstop is always a nice thing to have.

2014

Looking forward, who might headline this list next year?

Could it be a pair of Angels, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and a third baseman looking to rebuild his value on a one-year deal in Chase Headley? Will an offseason cure C.C. Sabathia of his troubles this season?

It’s tough to predict MVPs ahead of time but Comeback Player of the Year might be just as tough, even with the head start of knowing who performed poorly.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Red Sox Trade Deadline 2012: Blow It Up!

July 31st has been an important day several times in the history of the John Henry era Red Sox. Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004, leading of course to the magical World Series run. The following year, Jonathan Papelbon made his debut while Manny Ramirez failed to start, although he pinch hit after the deadline had come and gone, signaling that he had reached the first of many accords with the Red Sox. Manny would find himself the focus of the trading deadline in 2008 when he journeyed to the West Coast and Jason Bay took over left field duties. Victor Martinez would be the 2009 acquisition, signaling the beginning of the end for Jason Varitek, whose role would continue to diminish over the following two seasons.

The takeaway: the Red Sox have been buyers and sellers – at the same time – when the trade deadline rolls around, looking to make a deal that give each side something of value, not simply dumping salary or taking on a bad contract from another club. With the four o’clock deadline rushing towards us, Ben Charington’s club is at the bottom of the AL East, the back of the pack for the Wild Card spots. Fans are disappointed that the club has missed the playoffs the past two years, but they understand that 2012 is most likely a lost year. The Sox GM can take this time to make the Red Sox his team, not Theo Epstein’s, rebuild, and plan for 2013 without substantially hurting what are already long odds of a postseason berth two months from now.

The Keepers

Despite rumors about Carl Crawford and the Marlins last week, the troubled left fielder isn’t going anywhere. Ditto Adrian Gonzalez. [Man, the Dodgers blew that logic out of the water} Moving either player would require the Red Sox eating a lot of cash or taking on another big contract. Despite the frustrations each player has had during the past season and a half, both are likely better bets to perform well over their remaining tenure than most of the bad contracts out there. David Ortiz won’t be going anywhere either, although if he were not on the DL, he would be an interesting piece to move. Dustin Pedroia is probably as safe as any player.

The Parts

Should the Red Sox explore buying and selling in the remaining hours, Cody Ross and Mike Aviles are obvious names to move. Ross is having a great year while hitting .260/.331/.523 with 16 home runs, but as a free agent at the end of the year, and a crowded Red Sox outfield, his future with the team is limited. Ross might be able to bring back another piece, maybe a back end starter who is also approaching free agency and could shore up the rotation, or simply a prospect along the lines of Clayton Mortenson, who has lost some luster but might be able to right the ship.

Aviles has struggled since a fast start to the season; he’s hit just .241/.259/.354 since May 1st. While the shortstop has 11 home runs on the season, eight of those came in April and May. With Pedro Ciriaco, Nick Punto (also tradable), and Jose Iglesias, the Sox could probably get by with a more defense-oriented player since Aviles hasn’t been hitting well for a few months. Again, the return wouldn’t be great, but another team might have a need and could take a flyer on the former Royal. After all, in his transition to the Red Sox, Aviles thrived, maybe a change of scenery once in awhile is all he needs to get things working again.

The bullpen is full of extra pieces that could be desirable to other teams: Andrew Miller, Matt Albers, and Vicente Padilla could be replaced by the Sox with Mortenson, Andrew Bailey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka (or Aaron Cook).

Kelly Shoppach is another extra piece. The catcher is having a fine season in limited at bats, .261/.346/.504, but could be an upgrade for another team. If the front office considers Ryan Lavarneway capable of stepping in to handle backup catching duties, trading Shoppach could be a nice favor to the player (who doesn’t want to end up on a contender?), let the Sox get a long look at a guy on the farm, and not risk a large drop off is production.

These are minor moves that could let the Red Sox turn over a good portion of the roster, cut some payroll by promoting minor leaguers, and generally shake up the team. With the ground they need to make up, Matt Albers is not the answer. The problem has been and remains the starting rotation.

The Crazy Possibilities

Josh Beckett. Jon Lester. Jacoby Ellsbury. All three have become the subject of trade rumors, especially Beckett. While Gordon Edes is reporting that Beckett is not on the move, until 4 PM nothing is certain.

Reports have linked Beckett to the Rangers, Dodgers, and Braves, but so far nothing has come together. While there were rumors of a deal with the Rangers this afternoon, the idea died off quickly. Given the nearly $40 million remaining on Beckett’s contract, the Sox would likely have to eat a significant amount of salary to move their Texan this summer. Should Beckett finish strong, maybe a deal could be worked out in the winter. Because Beckett has 10/5 rights, he can’t be traded without his permission, although if he wants out as much as the fans would like to see him gone, getting that permission may not be an issue. Like the Manny Ramirez situation, the Red Sox may not have a trading partner for Beckett until the waning minutes of the three o’clock hour.

Lester faces a different problem than Beckett: he has been really bad this year. While his start against the Yankees on Saturday was encouraging, the guy who was so good from 2008 to 2011 hasn’t been taking the mound this year. The lefty is owed $11,625,000 in 2013 but his contract includes a $13 million team option for 2014. Should the Red Sox trade Lester, the receiving team would only be on the hook for $13 million plus the remainder of what he is owed this season, minus whatever cash Boston sends along. If Lester remounds, that 2014 option looks like a pretty good deal.

Unsurprisingly, Edes also reported that the Sox have no plans to trade Jacoby Ellsbury, although there have been calls from other teams about his availability. Ellsbury is probably the most valuable major leaguer the Red Sox have to trade. The center fielder is coming off an MVP-caliber season, has looked healthy since since return, and is under team control for 2013 before hitting free agency. Unlike Beckett and Lester there is no large contract hanging like an albatross around his trade value.

While he is the least likely of the potential trade candidates, Ellsbury would also fetch the most in return. In a dream scenario, the Sox could extract a package similar to what the Braves paid for Mark Teixeira: a couple of top prospects. Like Teixeira, the receiving team would have a full year of control beyond this season rather than a rental. With B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn – both center fielders – hitting free agency this fall, Ellsbury could be a very attractive trade chip this winter as well.

(cross-posted from Sports of Boston)

Adrian Gonzalez: The Padres’ Bargain

September started with Red Sox off-season acquisition Adrian Gonzalez as part of the AL MVP discussion, along with two of his teammates: 2008 MVP Dustin Pedroia and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.  While a substantial number of words were spilled this winter about Boston’s acquisition of the All-Star first baseman and his subsequent contract extension, his old team, the San Diego Padres, should be satisfied with the way things turned out for the team during Gonzalez’s tenure in Southern California.  

Gonzalez was originally selected first overall by the Florida Marlins during the 2000 amateur draft. Just three short years later the young first baseman was traded, along with Will Smith and Ryan Snare to the Texas Rangers for Ugueth Urbina.  The Rangers of course had their own stud first base prospect, Mark Teixeira, who made his major league debut on April of that year.  By hitting .259/.331/.480 while clubbing 26 home runs, Teixeira finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting and never looked back.  

The Marlins probable sold too early on Gonzalez considering his pedigree as a first overall pick and solid progression through the farm system including hitting .266/.344/.437 in AA Portland in 2002.  Off-season wrist surgery would put a damper on his 2003 numbers, both with the Marlins and then with the Rangers.  Across three teams in 2003, over 493 plate appearances, Gonzalez hit just .269/.327/.365 – good for a .692 OPS.  His home run total sat at just five.  Nonetheless the 2004 edition of Baseball Prospectus declared the first baseman as Rangers GM Jon Hart’s “crown jewel” of mid-season acquisitions and expected a full recovery along with Gonzalez forcing his way into the Rangers lineup by 2005 or sooner.

Sure enough, Gonzalez mashed AAA pitching to the tune of .304/.364/.457 in 2004 and .338/.399/.561 in 2005.  Unfortunately the success did not translate to his first exposure in the majors.  Making his Major League debut in April 2004, the top prospect hit just .238/.273/.381 in a cup of coffee with the team.  In more than three times the plate appearances in 2005 (still just 162), Gonzalez again struggled with a line of .227/.272/.407.  Unfortunately it was at this point that the Rangers, with Mark Teixeira now well established at first base and still under their control through the 2008 season, decided to trade from their position of strength, first basemen, for pitching help.

In January 2006, Adrian Gonzalez, Terrmel Sledge, and the pitching version of Chris Young were sent to the NL West San Diego Padres for major league pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka and minor league catching prospect Billy Killian.  Things did not go well in the Ballpark at Arlington.

Adam Eaton, brought in to solidify the starting rotation, was limited to just 65 innings in 2006 and left as a free agent at the end of the season.  After winning eleven games in back-to-back seasons before arriving in Texas, despite ERAs of 4.61 and 4.29, Eaton tallied just seven victories in his limited time on the mound with a bloated 5.12 ERA and WHIP of 1.57.  His 5.95 K/9 was a career worst and part of a downward trend for the hurler since his 2001 season where he recorded 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings.  Eaton was a better at home (.281/.346/.459) than away (.322/.391/.513) and subject to a reverse split with lefties hitting just .279/.340/.382 while watching their right handed counterparts tee off against Eaton: .320/.393/.592.

Right-handed reliever Akinori Otsuka fared somewhat better.  In two seasons with Texas, one as their primary closer, the Japanese righty tossed 92 innings of 2.25 ERA.  He averaged just under seven K/9 but registered a superb 3.50 KK/BB during his time in Arlington.  Unfortunately, injuries limited Otsuka in 2007 and that concluded his tenure with the Rangers.  While he did provide some value out of the ‘pen, it was not the difference making impact the Rangers should have gotten in return for a perfectly good player ho had the misfortune to be blocked at his position.

As for Killian, he spent two seasons in the minors with Texas before moving to the White Sox farm system.  He has never appeared in the Major Leagues.

When it comes down to it, this was simply not a good trade for the Rangers.  At worst, Gonzalez could have been a designated hitter for a team with a very potent lineup.  According to the Fangraphs’ version of WAR, Adrian Gonzalez alone worth 21.8 WAR.  Adam Eaton just 0.6 and Akinori Otuska 3.0 over his two seasons with the team.  Chirs Young, even battling injuries brought with him an additional 4.9 WAR.  Terrmel Sledge was worth -0.3 WAR.  

All things considered, the Rangers may have misread the market, trading too good a hitter for pitchers who were not young kids yet to break in or established top-shelf veterans.  The Rangers traded a future superstar for commodities that just did not match up in value.

Did the Padres get a better haul for their prize?  Gonzalez was certainly worth even more last winter than in 2006 and San Diego managed to snag several of Boston’s top prospects.  If they pan out, the value might look good in a few years.  If not, the Padres at least got promising young players in return.