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10 MLB Players Heading into Make-or-Break Seasons

Ben BerkonContributor IJanuary 7, 2014

10 MLB Players Heading into Make-or-Break Seasons

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    Rickie Weeks cannot afford another bad season.
    Rickie Weeks cannot afford another bad season.Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Not every MLB player is looking forward to 2014. For some, the new season represents a pivotal juncture in their respective careers.

    This is of course called a “make-or-break season.” While some players like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Ryan Howard appear to be albatrosses, their contractual security is paramount to their 2014 production.

    By comparison, a player like Rickie Weeks desperately needs to find his stroke in 2014. After posting a .209 batting average with an 80 OPS+ in 2013, the once elite second baseman is already playing caddy to farmhand Scooter Gennett.

    And if Weeks continues to hit below the league average, the 31-year-old will not find a starting job in 2015.

    Read on to see the 10 MLB players heading into make-or-break seasons.

     

    All statistics sourced from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

John Axford

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    It didn’t take long for John Axford to lose his closing gig in 2013. In fact, after just 3.1 innings, the Milwaukee Brewers pulled the plug on Axford, who saved 105 games from 2010 to 2012.

    The Brewers' decision wasn’t a rash one, however, as the 30-year-old posted an abhorrent 24.30 ERA and served up four home runs over that span.

    And while Axford did settle down for the Brew Crew over his next 51.1 innings, tossing a 3.16 ERA and 2.38-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, the team still dealt the reliever to the St. Louis Cardinals at midseason.

    Axford continued to excel in a non-closing role, owning a 1.74 ERA and 3.67-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio over 10.1 innings for the Cardinals. The reliever proved, at the very least, that he could still be a serviceable pitcher—albeit, not in a ninth inning role.

    The real test for Axford will come in 2014, as the Cleveland Indians inked the Ontario native to be their closer. Needless to say, if Axford again stumbles out of the gate, he will have a difficult time convincing any future organization to let him close.

Melky Cabrera

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    In 2012, Melky Cabrera was in the midst of a career season. In fact, the switch-hitter had posted a .346 batting average, park-adjusted 157 OPS+, 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases over 501 plate appearances.

    But Cabrera’s elite campaign was too good to be true. On August 15, 2012, Cabrera was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances.

    The timing of his suspension was unfortunate as Melky missed the playoffs as well as the San Francisco Giants’ World Series victory. The 29-year-old also cost himself a hefty free-agent payday, accepting a mere two-year, $16 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Even though the Blue Jays’ decision to sign Melky was a prudent one, the outfielder looked pedestrian in 2013. Over 372 plate appearances, the Dominican native posted a park-adjusted 88 OPS+ and just three home runs.

    Unless Cabrera bounces back in 2014, the free-agent-to-be runs the risk of letting his drug usage define his ceiling.

Dan Uggla

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Despite notching double-digits home run seasons from 2006 to 2013, Dan Uggla is still a bad hitter. Over the past three years, Uggla has posted a collective .213 batting average and park-adjusted 97 OPS+. The second baseman also owns a career minus-63 DRS, per The Fielding Bible.

    Uggla was so bad in the second half (a .133 batting average) of 2013, that the Atlanta Braves even left him off their playoff roster.

    Luckily for the 33-year-old, the Braves are contractually stuck with Uggla through 2015. But unless the right-handed hitter stops swinging (and missing) at almost every pitch thrown his way, the slugging infielder could whiff his way off the Braves next season and into oblivion.

Ike Davis

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Ike Davis excited New York Mets fans when he made his debut in 2010 as a 23-year-old. Davis posted a park-adjusted 115 OPS+, 19 home runs and gloved a 12 DRS at first base, per The Fielding Bible. 

    But despite jacking 32 home runs in 2012, Davis’ rookie campaign is still the slugger’s best full season to date. The first baseman only accumulated 149 plate appearances in 2011 and posted a combined .219 batting average and 103 OPS+ between 2012 and 2013. 

    Davis’ struggles at the plate even forced the Mets to send the 26-year-old to the minor leagues. To the southpaw’s credit, Davis hit to the tune of a .954 OPS in the second half after getting recalled.

    But Davis' inability to string together a productive full season and hit left-handed pitching (a career .204 batting average against) makes 2014 an important season for the former first-round pick.

Danny Espinosa

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    From 2011 to 2012, Danny Espinosa found ways to hide the huge holes in his game. The second baseman posted a combined park-adjusted 97 OPS+ and averaged 19 home runs and 18 stolen bases over the span. But Espinosa also struck out at an alarming 30.4 percent rate; a habit that would lead to his demise in 2013.

    Over the first two months (through June 2) of the season, the 26-year-old only mustered a .158 batting average, 2.3 percent walk clip, 29.7 percent strikeout rate and 27 OPS+. The Nationals demoted Espinosa to Triple-A in hopes that his bat would come back to life.

    It didn’t.

    Espinosa hit to the tune of a .216 batting average while striking out 35.6 percent of the time in the minors. And the Nationals never recalled him, either.

    With top organizational prospect Anthony Rendon now manning second base, it appears as though Espinosa’s best shot at making the team would be in a reserve role. Yet even with an above-average glove (career 16 DRS at second base, per The Fielding Bible), Espinosa’s incredibly poor eye could ruin what once seemed like a solid career.

Rickie Weeks

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    From 2007 to 2011, Rickie Weeks was one of the better second baseman in the league. Over that span, Weeks averaged a park-adjusted 114 OPS+, 11.2 percent walk rate, 18 home runs and 13 stolen bases per season.

    Weeks began to show regression in 2012, despite hitting 21 home runs, when he posted a .230 batting average and 93 OPS+.

    But in 2013, the bottom truly fell out. The 31-year-old posted a mere .209 batting average with an 80 OPS+ and just 10 home runs over 399 plate appearances. Weeks became too unplayable for the Brewers, forcing the team to use Scooter Gennett at second base instead.

    Even though Weeks is set to earn $11 million in 2014, the Brew Crew still plan to use Gennett as their starter. The right-handed hitter will likely be granted free agency after the season, but few teams will line up if Weeks’ production continues its downward spiral—especially with a career minus-97 DRS in the field, per The Fielding Bible.

Edinson Volquez

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Edinson Volquez is probably most famous for being traded straight up for Josh Hamilton in 2007.

    But as a 24-year-old, Volquez showed a lot of promise. In his rookie year for the Cincinnati Reds, the right-hander posted an electric 3.21 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 137 ERA+), 1.32 WHIP and 2.22-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. 

    The stellar campaign landed Volquez on the All-Star team and fourth in the Rookie of the Year Award voting.

    Yet a myriad of injuries and ineffectiveness derailed what could have been a productive career as a power pitcher. After leading the league in walks in 2012, Volquez tossed a horrendous 6.01 ERA (versus a 57 ERA+), 1.66 WHIP and 1.68-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in his second season since being traded to the San Diego Padres.

    The Padres cut their losses with Volquez, granting him free agency on August 27.

    Even though the 30-year-old showed signs of rebirth after signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 4.18 ERA over his final 28 innings, 2014 presents the pitcher’s last chance at the stardom many critics felt he’d enjoy.

    Volquez is currently slotted as the Pittsburgh Pirates fifth starter.

A.J. Ellis

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    A.J. Ellis burst onto the scene in 2012, despite being a 31-year-old catcher. Ellis posted a .270 batting average, park-adjusted 118 OPS+, 12.8 percent walk rate and 13 home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

    While it seemed as though the Dodgers uncovered a diamond in the rough in Ellis, 2013 was not as kind to the backstop. The 32-year-old hit to the tune of a .238 batting average, 93 OPS+ and just 10 home runs over 448 plate appearances this past season.

    Ellis’ first- and second-half splits also exposed that the catcher is perhaps incapable of a full-time gig:

    Half

    BA

    BB%

    sOPS+

    First

    0.262

    11.6

    106

    Second

    0.207

    7.8

    73

    Given the spending habits of the Dodgers, if Ellis again fails to produce in 2014, the under-team-control catcher will likely be a backup in 2015.

Tim Lincecum

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    From 2008 to 2011, Tim Lincecum was unequivocally one of the best pitchers in baseball. Over that span, Lincecum posted a 2.81 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 143 ERA+), 1.17 WHIP and 3.11-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. “The Freak” also snagged two Cy Young Awards as well as two other top-10 finishes. 

    But after 2011, Lincecum lost his mojo. Over the past two seasons, the right-hander has tossed a combined 4.76 ERA (versus a 72 ERA+), 1.38 WHIP and 2.31-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

    The power pitcher’s once sterling fastball has also taken a noticeable hit too: 

    Year

    Avg. Fastball MPH

    2011

    92.3

    2012

    90.4

    2013

    90.2

    Luckily for Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants ignored the red flags and re-signed him to a two-year, $35 million contract. But contract aside, the Washington-state native has big hurdles ahead to prove that his best seasons are not behind him.

Josh Johnson

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Despite often coping with injuries, Josh Johnson always had the talent to be a top major league arm. Johnson’s finest season came in 2010 with the Florida Marlins, when the then 26-year-old tossed a dominant 2.30 ERA (versus a park-adjusted 180 ERA+), 1.10 WHIP and 3.88-to-1- strikeouts-to-walks ratio. 

    But in 2013, for the first time in Johnson’s career, the pitcher was legitimately ineffective. Hoping to have acquired a much-needed ace, the Toronto Blue Jays instead witnessed the 30-year-old pitch to the tune of a 6.20 ERA (versus a 66 ERA+), 1.66 WHIP and 2.77-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. 

    Johnson agreed to terms on a one-year, $8 million deal with the San Diego Padres on November 20, 2013 in an attempt to bounce back in a more pitcher-friendly environment. And even though Steamer projects a 3.60 ERA in 2014, Johnson will have difficulty finding a job in the offseason if he tosses another stinker.

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