Slumping MLB Stars Who Must Step Up Before Earning 'Choke' Label

Chris Stephens@@chris_stephens6Correspondent IIOctober 11, 2013

Slumping MLB Stars Who Must Step Up Before Earning 'Choke' Label

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    Every year, countless MLB players reach free agency and hope for a big payday. Some receive a decent-sized contract and perform up to those standards.

    However, there are others who fail to meet expectations. And fans of those teams can only groan each time those players make an appearance on the mound or in the lineup.

    While some of those are one-year slumps, others seem to last longer. At that point, fans look for a trade or for the team to release the player due to poor performance.

    Here's a look at 10 players who must step up or be forever thought of as a choke artist.

    Note: All stats obtained from ESPN, unless otherwise noted.

Dan Uggla

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    To say Dan Uggla struggled this year would be an understatement. In fact, he's struggled ever since he came to the Atlanta Braves.

    Out of all qualified players in baseball, Uggla had the lowest batting average at .179. In fact, no other player on the list had less than a .208 average.

    He was so bad that the Braves left him off the playoff roster. And he was upset by the decision, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN).

    "I'm not blind to my numbers, but at the same time I know what I've done my whole career and I still know what I'm capable of doing," Uggla said Thursday. "So I was kind of blindsided by it."

    But the move was understandable, considering his numbers since joining the Braves:

    YearBAHRRBISOWAR
    2011.23336821561.6
    2012.22019781682.7
    2013.1792255171-1.3

    Uggla's average went down every year, as did his total RBI. Meanwhile, his strikeouts increased each year, and 2013 was the worst statistical year in his career.

    If Uggla doesn't get things going at the beginning of next year, he could find himself released or traded.

B.J. Upton

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    When B.J. Upton signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with the Braves in the offseason, fans thought they were getting one of the best center fielders in the game.

    After all, here's how his numbers looked in the five years before he joined the Braves:

    YearBAOBPHRRBISB
    2008.273.38396744
    2009.241.313115542
    2010.237.322186242
    2011.243.331238136
    2012.246.298287831

    This year, though, Upton hit .184 with nine home runs, 26 RBI and 12 stolen bases.

    To say that the Braves are disappointed in the production they received from him would be an understatement.

    He struggled so much that he was left out of the starting lineup for all four games in the NLDS, and he only had three plate appearances in the series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    The Braves are paying Upton $15 million a year, but if he struggles again next year, he'll enter Uggla territory, which is not good news for Braves fans.

Mike Moustakas

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    In his three years in MLB, Mike Moustakas has gotten progressively worse.

    In 2011 (the year he was promoted), Moustakas was the No. 9-ranked prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. For the 89 games he played in 2011, he batted .263 with five home runs and 30 RBI.

    Since then, he's had his ups and downs:

    YearBAHRRBIOBP
    2012.2422073.296
    2013.2331242.287

    Moustakas' power numbers were good in 2012, but he still failed to hit for average and get on base. If his struggles continue, the Kansas City Royals have Hunter Dozier in the system, who is projected as a third baseman. He's the No. 7-ranked prospect in the Royals' system and could be up in late 2015 or to start 2016.

    That gives Moustakas close to two years to get things going at the plate. If he doesn't, the Royals will move on to Dozier to man third base.

Starlin Castro

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    Although there will be a new manager for the Chicago Cubs this year, the history of Starlin Castro remains. He was benched multiple times, including once for a mental gaffe in August.

    When he made those mistakes in 2012, it was something that could be lived with a little more, as he hit .283 with 14 home runs, 78 RBI and 25 stolen bases. But in 2013, he hit .245 with 10 home runs, 44 RBI and nine stolen bases.

    Having that kind of year at the plate makes those mental gaffes and mistakes even bigger.

    Castro may have over $50 million left on his contract over the next six years, but his inability to consistently make the simple plays is what is earning him the "choke" label.

    His fielding has been abysmal throughout his career as well. In fact, Castro has been one of the worst defensive shortstops over the last four years:

    YearErrorsRank Among SS
    20102720th (of 21)
    20112922nd (of 22)
    20122721st (of 21)
    20132220th (of 20)

    The Cubs have Javier Baez waiting in the wings, and he's performed better in the field and at the plate. He has a good bat (.294 BA, 20 HR, 54 RBI) and isn't making near the errors (13) Castro is, per his stats on MiLB.com.

    Castro has to step up and not only make the plays in the field, but get back to hitting the way he was in 2012. 

Josh Hamilton

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    Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $133 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels in the offseason. He then proceeded to bat .250 with 21 home runs and 79 RBI.

    For a guy who is averaging more than $26 million a year, that's not good enough.

    When the Angels signed him, they expected at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI. But what they got was a guy who hit .207 with 10 home runs and 25 RBI through June 23.

    Luckily, after that point, Hamilton hit .289 with 11 home runs and 54 RBI.

    But the Angels needed him to perform from the get-go. Failing to do so put the Angels 11 games back in the AL West by the middle of June. If he does the same next season, the Angels could find themselves in the same position.

Albert Pujols

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    To even put a choke label on Albert Pujols was something unfathomable a few years ago. But since he signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels, Pujols hasn't played like the best player in the game.

    In 2012, he had a decent season, batting .285 with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. But even that home run total and average were the lowest of his career (up to that point). And his RBI total was the second-worst of his career. Regardless, it was still a decent season compared to others. But it wasn't Pujols-like.

    This year, Pujols' numbers were abysmal compared to what he's done in the past. He hit .258 with 17 home runs and 64 RBI.

    Luckily for the Angels, they've only paid Pujols $28 million over the last two years. His salary is $23 million next year, though, which will increase by $1 million each year through 2021.

    Pujols may have missed significant time this year due to injury, but the Angels didn't sign him for him to be on the DL. And if he can't perform to the standards of his contract, he'll receive the choke label in the same way Alex Rodriguez received it when he struggled in 2011.

Jeremy Hellickson

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    Jeremy Hellickson was the No. 18 overall prospect prior to the 2010 season, according to Baseball America. And from 2010-12, he pitched decently. Over that time period, he went 27-21 with a 3.06 ERA.

    But 2013 was a different story, as he went 12-10 with a 5.17 ERA.

    Hellickson was demoted to Triple-A in early August. Then, in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Red Sox, manager Joe Maddon wasn't confident in Hellickson to go far in the game. He pulled him out in the second inning with the bases loaded and no outs (and no runs in), forcing the Rays to use any and every pitcher available in the bullpen.

    Depending on what happens with David Price this offseason, Hellickson could be fighting for a rotation spot in spring training next year.

    Tampa Bay wants to be able to depend on the former AL Rookie of the Year. But if 2013 is any indication, Hellickson won't be able to live up to the expectations of his 2011 season.

Ian Kennedy

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    In 2011, Ian Kennedy went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, finishing fourth for the NL Cy Young. Since then, he has gone 22-22 with a 4.43 ERA.

    If you look before 2011, Kennedy's only other season as a full-time starter was in 2010.

    Here's a look at the numbers next to each other since 2010:

    YearRecordERASOWHIP
    20109-103.801681.201
    201121-42.881981.086
    201215-124.021871.301
    20137-104.911631.395

    Simply put, the numbers show Kennedy has been a one-year wonder with the way he's performed. 

    Kennedy was traded from the Diamondbacks to the Padres at the trading deadline for a fresh start. But he had a 4.24 ERA while with San Diego and gave up nine home runs in 10 starts.

    If Kennedy is going to avoid the choke label, he'll have to return to ace or near-ace status in 2014. He's shown he can be an ace pitcher, but he's only done it one year.

Josh Beckett

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    Over the last few years, Josh Beckett has been one of the most inconsistent pitchers in baseball.

    From the infamous beer and chicken incident to his poor performances on the mound, Beckett is seeing the choke label attached to his name.

    Here's what he's done over the last few years:

    YearRecordERASOWHIP
    200812-104.031721.187
    200917-63.861991.192
    20106-65.781161.535
    201113-72.891751.026
    20127-144.651321.327
    20130-55.19411.500

    Besides the fact that many consider him a clubhouse cancer, Beckett can't be depended on to get the job done.

    It's likely a big reason why the Boston Red Sox were more than happy to trade him to the Dodgers last season.

    When Beckett comes back from multiple injuries in 2014, he'll have one year to prove himself as a pitcher. If he doesn't perform up to snuff, don't be surprised to see teams take a pass on him in free agency after the season.

Dan Haren

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    Dan Haren was once one of the better pitchers in baseball, but he has struggled over the last two years and hasn't been the pitcher he once was.

    YearRecordERASOWHIP
    201212-134.331421.291
    201310-144.671511.238
    2005-11 (Avg.)14-103.491951.151

    Haren may have been paid a combined $25.75 million since 2012, but his numbers show that he's clearly struggled.

    He is eligible for free agency this offseason, but Haren's recent performance shows he doesn't deserve more than a two-year deal.

    What he did in the seven years prior to 2012 set an extremely high bar for future seasons. However, he has underperformed in the same way others have, leaving him headed for the choke label.