Comeback Watch

Jerome Williams, Astros SP
We begin with your archetypal journeyman. Such is Jerome’s drifter mystique that we can’t even be sure about his real name. As a 21-year-old rookie in 2003, Williams tossed 130 dependable innings in service of a Giants division championship. Batters didn’t go yard on him the way they do today, and his FIP hasn’t come below 4.00 in the years since, his ERA only once (3.68 in 44 innings with the Angels in 2011). No matter: the Astros are paying him a pittance to eat innings at whatever level he can manage. Someone has to lose all these upcoming games while they rebuild the roster. If Williams can’t manage to lose enough, you can be damn sure the Astros will ship him out of town at the trade deadline, to a team that has the time and patience for not-losing.

Albert Pujols, Angels 1B
Boldly* I reject the notion that it takes two years for one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever to become washed up. Pujols, with his most serious injuries seemingly behind him, will hit 30 home runs again, this season and probably beyond. His body is working against him, and some of last season’s figures, e.g. the .258 average and 0.7 WAR, are pathetic. The dip in average, at least, was BABIP-driven. Good chance for a rebound there. It’s likely both his defense and baserunning are shot, meaning WAR will frown upon him forevermore. Only his hitting can remain elite, and this year it will. Mike Trout is hitting second, Pujols third. Get ready for triple-digit Ribbies.
*True story: that was an accident and I went with it.

Oakland A’s – RP Eric O’Flaherty? 2B Alberto Callaspo?
Nobody on the A’s really had a bad season last year except for these two. Two years removed from setting up the Craig Kimbrel, O’Flaherty threw 18 innings before injuring his throwing elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. He won’t return until midseason at the earliest. When he comes back, expect him to be used more effectively by Bob Melvin than he ever was by rigid Fredi Gonzalez. O’Flaherty will be a lefty specialist with a chance to become the top lefty specialist. The AL West projects to be a close three-team race, and one late-inning matchup against Prince Fielder could determine who plays in October.

Alberto Callaspo was always a utility player, even though he played on some teams bad enough for him to start. These A’s are almost certainly not that caliber team, although Callaspo’s main competition for playing time, Eric Sogard (the rightful face of the MLB), is no world-beater himself. Only a rare performance would convince the A’s to give one of those two the position full-time. Crazier things have happened.

Dustin Ackley, Mariners Project
Things have gone downhill for handsome Dustin Ackley since he visited Japan and hit the first home run of the 2012 season. His power left him, he started hitting groundballs like hotcakes, he became a poster boy for the lefty strike, he lost his job to Nick Franklin, he got demoted to the minors and he was moved to the outfield. His impressive rookie year looks more like a fluke than a true indication of his hitting ability; after all, it’s hard to trust 376 PA from three years ago over about 1100 PA in the two years since.

Lucky for him, the Mariners outfield is so devoid of talent that many are wondering if the front office is pulling some nihilist prank. Ackley will get at least 500 PA to prove the good times aren’t all gone. He might need to adjust his swing and plate discipline to succeed, but a good performance would make him the best outfielder in Seattle.

Tommy Hanson, Rangers SP
Josh Johnson, Padres SP

If you need convincing that durability is a skill, recall Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken. Luck alone was not responsible for their insane streaks of consecutive games played. Less drastic examples of durability can be found in Matt Cain and Cole Hamels. Those two pitchers have tossed at least 180 innings in every season starting with their second. (As rookies they played less not because of injury but because that’s what teams do with rookie pitchers.) They sit on the opposite end of the durability spectrum from Tommy Hanson and Josh Johnson. Hanson and Johnson once had loads of promise, about four years ago, but they just haven’t been able to stay on the field for an entire season since then. I don’t mean to say they are unskilled at durability. That sounds like nonsense. Just because some players do a good job at staying on the field does not mean that other players who have a hard time staying healthy lack a definite skill. Durability might be a skill that only presents itself under a favorable set of environmental conditions—in other words, luck is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Perhaps if Hanson or Johnson came up with the Giants or Phillies they never would have had these troubles; vice versa for Cain and Hamels. That is the eternal hope of the reclamation project, a hope based on unprovable hypotheses and alternate realties. Ah, I’m taking my brain in circles. Let’s move on to the next paragraph.

Basically, Hanson and Johnson are in the same position going into the season. They both have signed one-year deals with the hope that their performance can convince teams they deserve longer, more lucrative deals next year. The Rangers and Padres got talented pitchers on the cheap for a brief commitment. When Hanson signed with the Rangers, it seemed like a luxury, a way to pad their depth. But with injuries shaking up much of their rotation, Hanson becomes a key figure in their hope to win the west back from Oakland. For the Padres, Johnson was a potential ace. If his signing worked out, and other breaks went their way, the Padres coulda been a contender. Now, with Cory Luebke (their other candidate for top pitcher) out for a while, the playoffs seem remote. Should Johnson pitch well to start the season, his becoming trade bait is a likely scenario.

Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks C
Montero put up virtually identical statistics in 2011 and 2012:

2011: 140 G, 553 PA, 139 H, 65 R, 18 HR, 86 RBI, .282/.351/.469
2012: 141 G, 573 PA, 139 H, 65 R, 15 HR, 88 RBI, .286/.391/.438

Fantasy players looking for a three-peat (get that check Pat Riley) got only 116 games played and a pitiful .344 slugging percentage, among other disappointments. The Law of Averages should propel Montero back toward productivity in 2014. That or his work ethic—chances are we’ll never know which. Arizona has him signed for four more years; the next two at least should resemble those consistent years of yore.

Brett Anderson, Rockies SP
Anderson at his best and healthy is the best pitcher on the Rockies. In the state of Colorado, even! He has a combination of breaking balls to die for in his slider and curveball, and the slider is what he really leans on. He likes that slider enough to use it as an out pitch against opposite-handed hitters (he throws it 58 percent of the time he has two strikes, up to 62 percent when the batter is right-handed), and righties slug only .222 against it. Some of his injuries have been fluky, as in they did not result from a flaw in his delivery or any weakness in his constitution. Last year he missed time because he landed awkwardly after releasing a pitch, and that’s just bad luck. He should be less affected by Coors Field than most: his groundball rate has increased every season of his career.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers OF
Recent reports indicate Matt Kemp will not be with the Dodgers by Opening Day, March 30. For now he practices sliding drills and other exercises, testing the ankle a little more each day. Provided no setbacks going forward, the Dodgers will get about five months out of him. He won’t have any pressure to carry the lineup, since Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, and Adrian Gonzalez are likely better hitters than he is at this point. In the lineup he can bat anywhere from 2 to 6, and his context-depended stats like runs and RBIs will fluctuate accordingly. Given how long it has been since he faced major league pitching, his power probably won’t show up like it used to until midseason. A reasonable projection would be 20 home runs; 25 is a little too optimistic for us. With advanced metrics poo-pooing his defense, those power numbers and his good-not-great contact skills make him a poor value for the Dodgers’ dollar. (He’s making $21.25 million this year.) Still, it’s a start, and don’t be surprised if he gets better as the season progress.

Michael Morse, Giants OF
Tim Lincecum is the hungry has-been trying to prove his big contract is deserved. Michael Morse is the hungry has-been trying to prove he deserves another contract, period. San Francisco signed Morse for one year and a measly six million dollars. If he underperforms even that contract, his next contract might be for the minor leagues or Japan. Left field is his for the taking, although right now a platoon of him and Gregor Blanco makes the most sense. All it takes is one injury to push him into the everyday lineup, where he once hit 31 homers. That was not so long ago, 2011, and that season accounts for one-fourth of all his big league plate appearances. His walk rate was never good or even average, but his career BABIP is .330. Compare that to his .254 figure for last season and you have some easy-bake hope.