One Goal for Each of MLB's Top 25 Players During Spring Training

Doug Mead@@Sports_A_HolicCorrespondent IFebruary 2, 2013

One Goal for Each of MLB's Top 25 Players During Spring Training

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    With spring training beginning in less than two weeks, this is the time of year when MLB's top stars decide to work on a specific area of their game.

    With their position on the roster secure, they have the luxury of concentrating on improving what they perceive to be a weakness.

    Last month, I ranked the top 100 players in MLB today. Here are the goals for each of the top 25 players on that list as they enter spring training.

25. CC Sabathia: Regain Elbow Strength

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    New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia will be working toward his 200th all-time win at some point in the 2013 season. He'll also be looking to work his way back from elbow surgery.

    Prior to last season, durability was the key to Sabathia's game, as he made at least 30 starts in 10 of his first 11 seasons. Last year, Sabathia made just 28 starts, suffering from elbow pain that required surgery in October.

    Just the stigma of surgery can be daunting for a pitcher. So it will be important for Sabathia to come into spring training determined to go through his normal routine without thinking about the surgery.

    Considering Sabathia's history, that likely won't be an issue. The Yankees need a healthy and focused Sabathia to have any hope of competing in the now-fiercely competitive AL East.

24. Cole Hamels: Bear Down Harder Against Left-Handed Hitters

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    In looking at the career splits of Philadelphia Phillies left-handed pitcher Cole Hamels, it's hard to see a perceived weakness.

    Hamels excels against all batters—right-handed hitters have hit .237 against him, lefties .238.

    But imagine how nasty he could be if he shut down lefty hitters even more?

    Hamels starting throwing his cutter in 2010 and has used it with increasing effectiveness ever since. It's a pitch that breaks down and away from left-handed hitters.

    If Hamels can more effectively use that cutter in combination with his outstanding changeup, left-handed hitters in 2013 should be very afraid.

23. Adrian Gonzalez: Take Advantage of Expansive Real Estate at Dodger Stadium

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    In Adrian Gonzalez's first full season with the Boston Red Sox, it was commonplace to see him use the left-field wall to his advantage.

    Gonzalez had a league-leading 213 hits, including numerous clanks off the famous Fenway wall, and finished with a career-high .338 batting average and .957 OPS.

    With the expansive real estate at Dodger Stadium, Gonzalez can again utilize his ability to hit to all fields to maximize his game. It's that ability—more than just bashing home runs—that will most aid the Dodgers' offense.

22. Derek Jeter: Just Keep Being Jeter

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    One of the remarkable qualities of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has been his ability to stay within himself.

    Jeter has never been the No. 1 run-producer on his team, nor has he been the player the team relies on to bash a three-run home run.

    Jeter led the majors with 216 hits last season, the second-highest total of his storied career. After fracturing his ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, he appears to be on track to start the season in normal fashion.

    Jeter being Jeter is a huge weapon all by himself. There' no reason to ask for anything different.

21. Felix Hernandez: Bear Down in Final Weeks of Season

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    Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez was a clear favorite for the Cy Young Award entering the final month of the 2012 season. But his 0-4 record and 6.62 ERA in those final weeks effectively killed any chance he had of winning.

    For his career, Hernandez is just 17-16 in the final month of the season with a 3.60 ERA. Playing for a team that's generally out of it over the final month hasn't help him remain focused.

    However, if Hernandez can work on finishing strong each year, he would absolutely give Cy Young Award voters more to think about when casting their ballots.

20. Giancarlo Stanton: Become a Better Two-Strike Hitter

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    In his three-year career, Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton has earned his reputation as a home-run hitter. But he could be even more lethal if he improved his production with a two-strike count.

    Stanton, who hit just .162 when faced with two strikes last season, swung at 48 percent of two-strike pitches out of the zone.

    Albert Pujols, one of the best power-hitting right-handed hitters in recent memory, has hit .258 during his career with a two-strike count.

    Better plate discipline in that situation will make Stanton even more dangerous.

19. Matt Cain: Give Up Fewer First-Pitch Home Runs

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    After the outstanding season by San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain, it's difficult to find weaknesses in his game.

    One that stood out, however, was his vulnerability to the home run. He gave up 21 long balls last year—seven occurred during the first pitch of an at-bat.

    Cain allowed a .356 batting average when batters swung at the first pitch—a stat that opposing hitting coaches will no doubt try to exploit.

    Cain has established himself as the ace of the Giants' staff. He can establish even further dominance by bearing down harder on the first pitch.

18. Jered Weaver: Keep the Shoulder and Back Strong

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    With three top-five finishes in Cy Young Award balloting in the past three seasons, it's clear that Los Angeles Angels ace Jered Weaver has established himself as one of the premier pitchers in baseball.

    Last year, however, Weaver dealt with shoulder tendinitis in September and was placed on the 15-day disabled list in June with lower back stiffness.

    With a starting rotation that has question marks, the Angels will be relying heavily on Weaver to lead the way. He and the medical staff need to do everything they can to protect him from experiencing the difficulties he faced last season.

17. Andrew McCutchen: Find a Way to Step It Up at End of Season

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    In 2011, Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen shined in the first half, hitting .291 with 14 HR and 54 RBI heading into the All-Star break. But in the second half, McCutchen clearly wore down, hitting just .214.

    In 2012, McCutchen was hitting .360 as of Aug. 17, leading the National League. He finished with a .327 average, losing the batting title to Buster Posey. More importantly, his team sputtered to a 13-30 finish.

    As McCutchen goes, so goes the Pirates' offense. For him to truly be considered elite, McCutchen must elevate his game in the final weeks of the season.

16. Adrian Beltre: Don't Try to Do Too Much

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    With the departure of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young, the Texas Rangers offense took a major hit this offseason.

    Third baseman Adrian Beltre will be counted on to continue providing the stellar production he has delivered in his two years in Texas. However, putting pressure on himself to deliver even more could be a major issue.

    Continuing to deliver a 30 HR/100 RBI season is all that anyone can ask.

15. Jose Bautista: Avoid a Slow Start

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    Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista took a while to get going last year, hitting just .181 with three home runs in the first month of the season.

    Slow starts have been typical for Bautista, whose career .447 slugging percentage in April is the lowest of any month.

    Bautista also will  be returning from wrist surgery, although he's reportedly already swinging at full strength.

    If he can get off to a fast start, the rebuilt Blue Jays offense will be even scarier than originally thought.

14. Craig Kimbrel: Improve WHIP in First Month of Season

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    Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel's 2012 season was one of the most dominant ever recorded by a pitcher.

    His 16.7 K/9 rate and 3.9 H/9 rate were records for a pitcher who recorded at least 40 innings pitched. And, remarkably, he did that despite a rather pedestrian first month of the season.

    Kimbrel recorded a 1.444 WHIP in April, allowing seven hits and six walks. That's incredible, considering he only walked six batters the rest of the season.

    An more dominant start by Kimbrel would make him even more invincible.

13. David Price: Don't Give in to 2K Jinx

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    At 27 years of age, Price has established himself as one of the premier southpaws in the majors. Three straight All-Star selections and a first- and second-place finish in Cy Young Award balloting in the last three seasons is more than just a solid start.

    In a dominant 2012 season, there wasn't much to nitpick about Price's game. As a result, Price was given the cover of MLB 2K13 by 2K Sports.

    Let's hope Price won't fall prey to any jinx associated with covers of magazines and video console games.

12. Prince Fielder: Find Postseason Mojo

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    Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder is a professional, so he has likely put his World Series performance far behind him by now.

    However, his debut was not memorable—a 1-for-14 performance.

    Fielder has a .183 career batting average and .643 OPS in postseason play, a far cry from his .283 average and .931 OPS during the regular season.

    It's a bit early to be comparing Fielder to Nick Swisher at this point—Fielder has only participated in six playoff series. However, the Tigers are in win-now mode. Fielder absolutely needs to elevate his game when things are on the line.

11. Mike Trout: Develop Better Plate Discipline

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    Mike Trout showed the baseball world that he is a force to be reckoned with.

    Trout nearly won the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season, an achievement reached only twice previously. He became the first player in baseball history to hit at least .325 and have at least 125 runs scored, 45 stolen bases and 30 home runs.

    One area that Trout could look to improve, however, is plate discipline.

    Trout hit just .242 with a .699 OPS when faced with a two-strike count. When he was ahead in the count, Trout flourished, hitting .370 with a 1.298 OPS.

    At just 21 years of age, Trout likely will develop better plate discipline. Once he does, his 2012 season could come to be viewed as just the start of better things to come.

10. Joey Votto: Stay Healthy

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    It's difficult to find any faults in Joey Votto. The Cincinnati Reds first baseman has led the National League in on-base percentage the past three seasons and put up incredible numbers last year despite missing close to two months.

    Simply staying healthy is the key for Votto. With his game, he's an MVP contender year in and year out.

9. Albert Pujols: Convince Angels to Allow Him to Play in WBC

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    Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols strongly believes in representing his native Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

    To that end, Pujols' goal, according to USA Today, is to play for his country following the second round of the WBC. He'll likely have to convince the Angels that his participation won't be a detriment to his recovery from offseason knee surgery.

    Because of that surgery, he would need permission from the Angels to achieve his goal. The first days of spring training will likely be the determining factor.

8. Josh Hamilton: Simply Become More Patient

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    There's no questioning the ferocity of Josh Hamilton when he's on top of his game. Just look at his torrid hitting the first two months of last season.

    However, Hamilton is simply not a good hitter when working behind in the count. Last season, he hit just .163 when faced with two strikes and .213 when working behind in the count.

    For Hamilton to offer better production for Albert Pujols in the middle of the Angels' batting order, patience will be the key.

7. Robinson Cano: Focus on Season and Not on Contract

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    New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano is entering the final year of his contract, and discussion about a future deal has already produced considerable debate.

    Represented by Scott Boras, the New York Daily News reports that it's possible that Cano could be seeking a contract comparable to teammate Alex Rodriguez. Considering the Yankees' goal of getting underneath the luxury tax threshold by 2014, Cano could be getting that deal from another team.

    The last thing Cano needs is for his contract to become a distraction. He needs to play and let the contract situation play itself out.

    No doubt Cano will face questions about that deal, so it might be wise to announce during spring training that he simply won't answer any contract-related questions once the season begins.

6. Buster Posey: Achieve a Higher Batting Average in Late Innings

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    There simply aren't many players in baseball history who can claim the achievements of San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

    And we're talking about a full career, not just three seasons.

    So to find a weakness, one has to nitpick. Posey's .243 batting average in the eighth and ninth innings could be better.

    Yes, we're reaching here. But for any of the top-25 MLB stars, it is simply a matter of finding even the slightest flaw.

    They wouldn't have gotten where they are otherwise.

5. Clayton Kerhsaw: Avoid a Slow Start

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    Clayton Kershaw nearly won back-to-back Cy Young Awards. Had it not been for a special season from knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, Kershaw would have achieved that rare feat.

    If he can light it up in April like he does all the other months, he could be even more elite.

    In his career, Kershaw is under .500 in April. He's 5-6, with a 3.63 ERA and 1.261 WHIP. All of those numbers represent by far his worst monthly stats.

    Getting off to a better start is about the only facet of Kershaw's game that requires any improvement whatsoever.

Matt Kemp: Stop Thinking About 50-50

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    Before the beginning of last season, Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp talked to Yahoo Sports  about his goal of becoming the first player in MLB history to hit at least 50 home runs and steal at least 50 bases.

    Um, Matt, let's have no more of that.

    Kemp went through arguably the most difficult season of his career, enduring two stints on the disabled list with hamstring issues and playing the final month of the season with a bum shoulder after crashing into the Coors Field wall.

    The Dodgers have done a complete makeover, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape their roster.

    What they need is for Kemp to focus on staying healthy and delivering the type of production seen in 2011.

    No more 50-50 talk, please.

3. Ryan Braun: Hit Better at Chase Field

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    You have to know we are really nitpicking if the only fault we can find in Ryan Braun's game is his average at Chase Field.

    Maybe it's sight-lines, maybe he doesn't like the desert. But for some reason, Braun hits close to 100 points below his career average when playing in Arizona. Braun has just a .229 lifetime average at Chase Field.

    It's a good thing Milwaukee only travels there once a year.

2. Justin Verlander: Improve BAA on First Pitch of At-Bat

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    Even the best pitcher in the game has weaknesses. It's just hard to find them.

    Against Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, hitters have a .327 batting average and .870 OPS when offering at the first pitch of an at-bat.

    Imagine how much more dominant Verlander could be if he were to bear down even harder on that first pitch.

1. Miguel Cabrera: Bring a World Series Title Back to Motown

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    At just 29 years of age, Miguel Cabrera could stop playing right now and likely earn more than enough votes to gain entrance into baseball's Hall of Fame.

    Cabrera has done nothing but impress since making his debut for the Florida Marlins in 2003. Cabrera has now put together eight seasons with at least 30 HR and 100 RBI.

    While Cabrera won a World Series in his first season with the Marlins, he has yet to achieve that goal with the Tigers.

    At this point in his career, it's the only goal left worth achieving.


    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.