Professional baseball players have something to prove every day, but each year a certain group of individuals arrive at a critical junction of their respective careers.
The following players all enter 2014 under the microscope. At one point, perhaps as recently as 2013, all were stars. As we often are reminded, the past matters little when it comes to public perception.
In order to change the narrative or stave off an avalanche of criticism, all of the players on this list must play well in 2014. For some, it means rebounding from injury. For others, it's justifying a new long-term contract. For one in particular, it's reshaping an image that may be stained forever.
When spring training arrives, expect to read and hear stories about every individual on this list. Many will be counted out, but by the end of 2014, a few could re-emerge into the spotlight once again.
Without further ado, the players with the most to prove during the 2014 season.
*All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs, unless otherwise noted.
In 2011, at age 26, Matt Kemp was among the best position players in baseball. Despite falling short of the NL MVP to Ryan Braun, Kemp led the NL in WAR (8.1), posted a .986 OPS and stole 40 bases. After the season, the Dodgers rewarded their center fielder with an eight-year, $160 million deal.
Since that moment, Kemp has played in a grand total of 179 games. Injuries have sidetracked the career of one of the most promising center fielders in years.
Entering 2014, Kemp is technically part of the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers roster, but until he can prove he's healthy and still a viable MVP candidate, his status as the face of the franchise will be in major question. In fact, with starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw due a gigantic payday and Yasiel Puig emerging as a superstar, Kemp's role atop the Los Angeles hierarchy is on shaky ground.
With trade rumors surrounding his name, it's time for Kemp to justify the commitment the Dodgers made to him after 2011.
At age 29, he's young enough to regain his form and produce throughout his prime.
From 1996 through 2012, spanning the first 17 seasons of Derek Jeter's career, the Yankees shortstop averaged 151 games played per year. That number, remarkable on its own, is even more staggering when considering the chunk of games missed in both 2003 and 2011 due to shoulder and calf injuries, respectively.
For 15 of 17 big league seasons, Jeter played in at least 148 games. During that span, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer racked up more than 3,000 hits, 71.6 WAR and five World Series rings.
Last year, while battling lower leg injuries, Jeter played in a grand total of 17 games. Now, entering 2014 at age 39, there's serious questions about his long-term viability as an everyday shortstop.
Injuries aside, Jeter's impending 40th birthday should give the Yankees reason to worry about the one position they've been able to ignore for 17 years.
Furthermore, in order to refrain from disrupting the lineup in the event that Jeter becomes a part-time player, it may be time for Yankees manager Joe Girardi to drop him to the bottom third of the order.
If Jeter expects to be New York's everyday shortstop and No. 2 hitter, he has to prove that injury and age haven't zapped his ability.
With Alex Rodriguez's career rapidly coming to an end, Ryan Braun is poised to take his mantle as the most hated man in baseball. After finally admitting to performance-enhancing drug use during the Biogenesis saga, the former NL MVP must re-shape his image in Milwaukee and around the sport.
In order for Braun to reclaim his throne as one of baseball's superstars, he'll have to find his customary dominance and convince fans—through years of clean tests and keeping out of future scandals—that Biogenesis was a blip on the radar, not a career-long trend.
Due to the negative rhetoric around Biogenesis and anyone associated with performance-enhancing drugs, Braun's career accomplishments have been swept under the rug. However, prior to an awful 2013—due to injury and suspension—Braun dominated baseball since his arrival in 2007.
During the first six years (2007-2012) of Braun's historic career, the Brewers outfielder was fourth in MLB in bWAR (33.4), sixth in fWAR (30.6), fifth in OPS+ (147), sixth in hits (1,089) and the only player in the sport to hit 200 HR and steal 100 bases in that time frame.
If he regains that form, it will be a start. After that, Braun will need years of image repair to win over fans who will label him a cheat.
Furthermore, the Brewers went 91-59 with Braun in the lineup in 2011. Last year, the team was 47-56 when he didn't start.
For the first time in Robinson Cano's career, the spotlight is squarely on him.
After signing a 10-year, $240 million deal to become the lead man in the Mariners lineup, pressure sits on Cano's shoulders to reshape a dismal offense in Seattle. When spring training arrives, there won't be Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez to shift the spotlight away from the 31-year-old star second baseman.
During Cano's outstanding run with the New York Yankees, he was protected from the spotlight by a clubhouse full of future Hall of Fame talents. Now, Cano is that talent in a room of young, unproven Mariners.
From a talent perspective, Cano can clearly handle the mission he's tasked himself with. Last year, when injuries and age ravaged the Yankees lineup, Cano was often the only player capable of generating offense. With the pressure of carrying a lineup by himself, he thrived, posting a 145 OPS+ and career-best walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Those numbers, along with dazzling defense and the best bWAR in the sport (34.2) since 2009, convinced the Mariners to pay him like a franchise-changing player.
Beginning on Opening Day, Cano will have to bring his usual talent and production, but deal with the weight of carrying a franchise on his back.
Less than two years after handing Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million free-agent contract, the Detroit Tigers chose to ship him, along with cash to pay part of his remaining salary, to the Texas Rangers in November.
After a difficult October (.561 OPS, 0 RBI) that ended in an ALCS defeat to the Boston Red Sox, Fielder's tenure in Detroit came to an abrupt halt.
Now, at age 29, Fielder enters 2014 with something to prove to the Tigers and his critics around the sport. Despite a down regular season in 2013 (.819 OPS) and disappointing postseason, the five-time All-Star first baseman still managed to crush 55 home runs and post a 135 OPS+ over two seasons in Detroit.
During that span, here's a list of first basemen who have a better adjusted OPS (minimum 1,000 plate appearances): Joey Votto, Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt.
That's it, folks.
Fielder may not be worth the contract he was given, but at age 29, there's still years of big production left in his bat.
He enters 2014 with the need to prove that. If he does, the Texas Rangers will reap the benefits.
In 2012, Chase Headley emerged from the small market of San Diego to become recognized as one of the best players in the sport.
By posting a 6.2 bWAR and 145 OPS+, the Padres third baseman represented one of just nine players to have a WAR of at least 6.0 and OPS+ of 140 or better. Along with Headley, Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, Buster Posey, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Adrian Beltre, Ryan Braun and David Wright comprised the most valuable position players of the 2012 season.
Entering 2013, calling Chase Headley one of the top 10 players in baseball wouldn't have been outlandish.
Of course, after a down 2013 (116 OPS+, 13 HR), it would have been proven foolish.
Now, entering 2014, Headley must prove that he's a star-level player. If he doesn't, the impending free agent, per MLB Trade Rumors, will enter next winter with more question marks attached to his career than lucrative offers across the desk of his agent.
How do you replace the greatest player in the history of a position?
If you have an answer, pass it along to Yankees relief pitcher David Robertson.
Barring the signing of an impact free-agent reliever like Fernando Rodney or Grant Balfour, Robertson, 28, will enter spring training poised to become the first Yankees closer not named Mariano Rivera since the 1996 season. After 17 dazzling seasons of "Enter Sandman" blaring from the Yankee Stadium public address system, the greatest closer in history is off to retirement.
For Robertson, the torch has been passed. With that comes a major opportunity to become a star closer for a consistent winner and wealthy athlete when free agency arrives next winter.
Of course, the job also comes with immense pressure. Not only is Robertson on track to replace a legend, his best effort can't surpass what Rivera accomplished. Yankee fans may come to embrace Robertson's talent (11.7 K/9 during career), but he'll never, ever be Rivera.
If he can accept that and excel, a successful stint as Yankees closer can be realized. If Rivera's shadow looms too large, the Yankees will be on the prowl for another replacement by the trade deadline.
Which players have the most to prove during the 2014 season?
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