Former MLB Stars Who'll Be Forced to Battle for Playing Time in Spring Training

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2013

Former MLB Stars Who'll Be Forced to Battle for Playing Time in Spring Training

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    MLB players who previously dominated the league must now scrap for a regular gig during spring training.

    Once at the top of baseball’s stratosphere, these veterans are mere afterthoughts looking to lock down a spot on an MLB roster. No longer fighting for spots on the All-Star team, they now just want a slot on a normal roster.

    Oh how the mighty have fallen.

    These players' careers are diving faster than the Tower of Terror ride at Disney World. Maybe they’ll soar closer to the top again, but not without first returning to the back of the line.

    Injuries have caused decay for some, but others simply aged terribly. So much so that some players on this list remain unsigned with Opening Day just two months away.

    These seven players used to be the cream of the crop, but they’ll now struggle to obtain a starting role in 2013.

Vernon Wells

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    Unless a trade frees him for Los Angeles, Vernon Wells will likely enter the season as the odd man out in the Angels’ outfield.

    After signing Josh Hamilton, the Angels can now play him, Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos in the outfield while utilizing Mark Trumbo as the designated hitter.

    There are 21 million reasons for other teams to steer clear of Wells. Why would anyone want to add $21 million to their payroll this season for a 34-year-old coming off two straight seasons with a sub-.300 on-base percentage?

    Even during his prime Wells produced sporadic numbers that have led to a pedestrian .273/.321/.467 line. At his best, however, he delivered a couple of elite seasons.

    In 2003, he hit .317 with 33 home runs, 117 RBI and a .909 OPS. He manufactured another strong campaign three years later, hitting .303 with 32 homers and 17 steals.

    At this point of his career Wells is an injury-prone power bat who struggles miserably to make contact or draw walks. Barring a scorching spring, the Angels will be forced to swallow their pride and sit the $21-million man on the bench in favor of Bourjos’ defense and speed.

Roy Oswalt

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    Before he can even compete for a rotation spot, Roy Oswalt must first find a team.

    On the surface, it’s understandable nobody wants a 35-year-old pitcher coming off of a season with a 5.80 ERA and 1.53 WHIP.

    But in a sport where Kevin Correia gets his pay-day, somebody should bite on Oswalt.

    Even during a horrendous season, Oswalt struck out a batter per inning while only walking 11 in 59 innings. The long ball plagued him during this short sample of work, but his 18.6 percent home run to fly ball ratio is unlikely to remain so high over a full season.

    Baseball is not exactly swarming with quality pitchers, so beggars can’t be choosers. Two seasons ago, Oswalt registered a 3.69 ERA and 1.34 WHIP with the Philadelphia Phillies. Plenty of teams out there would gladly take that from a starter closing out the rotation.

    Not many rumors are swirling at the moment. While the New York Mets previously expressed interest in signing the veteran, ESPNNewYork.com’s Adam Rubin described the possibility of them signing Oswalt as “remote.”

    After signing Shaun Marcum, starting pitching ranks on the bottom of the Mets’ current needs.

John Lackey

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    Was John Lackey ever really a star?

    Perhaps not. During his best season, Lackey sported a 1.21 WHIP and 8.0 K/9 ratio. Only twice in 10 years has he registered an ERA below 3.50.

    It’s easy to look back and wonder why anyone considered him an ace to begin with. But after a few productive seasons, Lackey must now prove that he still deserves a spot in Boston’s starting rotation.

    Desperate for some above-average pitching, the Red Sox handed Lackey a lavish five-year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2010 season. He rewarded them with one mediocre season, one abysmal season and another where he failed to throw a single pitch.

    The 34-year-old missed the entire 2012 season recovering from right elbow surgery. He probably helped Boston more from the dugout than he did on the mound in 2011, when he netted a 6.41 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over 160 innings pitched.

    While he has the inside track to secure the No. 5 spot, the Red Sox should not be expected to remain patient with a guy who has not performed decently since 2009. The squad is not loaded with arms, but Franklin Morales or Ruby De La Rosa could work their way toward receiving regular starts.

Raul Ibanez

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    Last year's final games felt like a fairy tale for Raul Ibanez.

    The 40-year-old played part-time as a designated hitter for the New Yankees, making a minimal impact with a .240/.308/.453 line.

    That changed late in the season when Ibanez produced the game-tying home run in the second-to-last regular-season game before finishing it off with a walk-off single in extra-innings.

    Then he hit two home runs in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. As every other Yankee batter went into hibernation, Ibanez went 7-for-23 during the playoffs.

    As a reward, the Yankees let him walk in free agency. Hey, he is a 40-year-old who batted just .240.

    Ibanez found a new home in a familiar place, returning to his old stomping grounds in Seattle. Leaving New York for Seattle usually means a clearer path for playing time, but this is not the case for Ibanez.

    While the Yankees are scouring the market for a DH, the Mariners already landed their guy in Kendrys Morales.

    Ibanez could win a starting role in a crowded, yet lackluster outfield, but he could just as easily find himself with a warm seat in the dugout. Ibanez, Michael Morse (who could move over to first if Justin Smoak and Mike Carp don’t pan out), Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders and Jason Bay are all fighting for playing time this March.

Travis Hafner

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    So much time has eclipsed since Travis Hafner’s heyday that many forget just how potent of a hitter he once was.

    In three seasons from 2004-06, Hafner hit .308 with 90 home runs and 325 RBI. He especially made his mark in 2006, hitting .308/.439/.659 along with 42 homers, 117 RBI and an 1.097 OPS.

    But he’s floundered in Cleveland over the past five seasons, failing to stay off the disabled list or crush more than 16 round-trippers in a year.

    With Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds new in town, the Indians are content with allowing Hafner to end his 10-year tenure with the club. Luckily for Pronk, another American League team came knocking at the door.

    The Yankees signed Hafner, who could serve as their designated against hitter right-handed pitchers, to a one-year, $2 million deal. The 35-year-old will basically replace Ibanez, who offered a spark for the Bronx Bombers in similar circumstances.

    If there’s a venue that could revive Hafner’s career, it’s Yankee Stadium, which has a short porch in right field that should have the lefty slugger salivating already.

Bobby Abreu

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    It’s getting a lot tougher to appreciate one of baseball’s most underappreciated stars.

    Bobby Abreu rarely received his due diligence as an all-around stud over the course of his MLB tenure. With a career .292/.396/.477 slash line, 287 home runs and 399 steals, Abreu should garner plenty of Hall-of-Fame votes when his name is eligible for the ballot.

    A disciplined, double-machine like Abreu does not muster up fanfare akin to a perennial .300 hitter or monster slugger, but Abreu is an undervalued star in his own right.

    Well, he was. Soon to turn 39, he is a deteriorating player holding on for dear life.

    Old age has sapped all power out of Abreu’s bat. He managed three homers in 219 at-bats last year, along with just 12 other extra-base hits. There’s not much use for an outfielder with a .342 slugging percentage.

    According to Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald, Abreu is interested in going home to play for the Marlins. After carrying out another fire sale, Miami could use a cheap veteran bat for the bench to accompany an inexperienced squad.

Heath Bell

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    Heath Bell came from nowhere, and now he is in grave danger of going back.

    Following years of rotting away in the New York Mets’ bullpen, Bell immediately found success with the San Diego Padres. He served as a superb set-up man for two years before receiving a promotion to the ninth inning.

    During three years as San Diego’s closer, he notched 132 saves with a 2.62 ERA. Then he moved to Miami, and everything fell apart.

    In 63.2 innings pitched last year, Bell posted a 5.09 ERA and 1.55 WHIP, eventually leading to the Marlins stripping him of his closing duties.

    Now relocating again, this time to Arizona, Bell will have to again prove himself worthy of a spot in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen.

    Even if he returns to form, he won’t sniff the late innings, barring injuries. He’ll initially be tasked with sealing down the seventh inning ahead of David Hernandez and J.J. Putz, but he could fall back down to operating as the forgotten, rarely used man in the bullpen .

    Bell probably vividly remembers living that role with the Mets, so he knows he needs to come out firing to avoid plunging back down to relief-pitcher purgatory.