MLB Players with the Most at Risk the Rest of the 2014 Season

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistAugust 3, 2014

MLB Players with the Most at Risk the Rest of the 2014 Season

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    When we think of risk in baseball, we tend to think of injuries.

    How could we not, given the rash of pitchers who have gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery after blowing out their elbows?

    But injury is only part of the risk associated with America's pastime. 

    From struggling veterans being pushed out of their starting spots—and in some cases, their places on a team's roster—by younger, more athletic players just beginning their major league careers to underachieving stars limping their way to the finish line in their contract year, there's no shortage of risks that players face.

    For a myriad reasons, including those listed above, the 10 players on this list have the most at risk over the final two months of the regular season.

    Let's take a look at who they are.

Gordon Beckham, 2B, Chicago White Sox

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    When executives from teams other than your own look at you and say that you're more of a non-tender candidate than a valuable trade chip, as one rival executive remarked to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal about Chicago's Gordon Beckham and Alejandro De Aza earlier this year, things are obviously not going well.

    While the 30-year-old De Aza has turned a corner since those comments were made, hitting .309 with a .813 OPS since June 1, Beckham has not followed suit. The former Rookie of the Year candidate is coming off one of the ugliest months that any player has had in recent memory, hitting .138 with a .371 OPS in 25 July games.

    With Micah Johnson, the team's sixth-best prospect, per Baseball America, playing well in his first taste of Triple-A action, Beckham's hold on the position is tenuous at best. If he doesn't raise his level of play significantly, that unnamed executive may prove to be right after all.

Billy Butler, 1B/DH, Kansas City Royals

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    After hitting for average and power and getting on base consistently over the first seven years of his career, Billy Butler has struggled to do any of those things in 2014, hitting only .264 with five home runs and a .316 on-base percentage.

    A designated hitter who doesn't hit isn't worth much, certainly not $12.5 million, the amount of the team option that Kansas City holds on the 28-year-old for 2015.

    With Eric Hosmer sidelined by a fractured hand, Butler finds himself back in the field as the Royals' everyday first baseman—and with a chance to re-establish his value.

    If Butler can pick up the pace at the plate and prove that he can at least hold his own defensively, the Royals would be hard-pressed to decline that team option, even if the team's ultimate goal is to move him over the winter.

    Should he prove to be a defensive liability, Butler could very well find himself collecting dust on the open market while more productive, well-rounded players find new homes, leaving him with few suitors—and less lucrative offers—than anyone anticipated.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS/2B, Washington Nationals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    A veteran shortstop sliding over to a new team—and the other side of second base—Asdrubal Cabrera heads into the home stretch of his contract year in a similar situation to that of Stephen Drew.

    Still in the prime of his career, the 28-year-old Cabrera has struggled at the plate and in the field since making his second consecutive All-Star team in 2012, hitting .243 with a .693 OPS over the past season-and-a-half.

    If Cabrera is able to show his bat still has some life left in it—and that he can provide at least average defense at second base—the market for his services this winter is sure to increase, with at least one team willing to bestow a lucrative multiyear deal upon him.

    If not, he might find himself faced with having to prove himself all over again on a team-friendly one-year deal.

Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, Colorado Rockies

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Even athletes in peak physical condition can fall victim to the injury bug, but when it strikes an athlete in his mid-30s who also happens to be in the final year of his contract, that bug can be costly.

    For Michael Cuddyer, that bug could cost him millions.

    In the final year of a three-year, $31.5 million deal that he signed with Colorado before the 2012 season, the 35-year-old has been limited to only 31 games this season due to a fractured shoulder.

    Colorado manager Walt Weiss recently told MLB.com's Matt Slovin that Cuddyer was "still a few weeks away," which would put his return around the end of August or beginning of September.

    That doesn't leave Cuddyer much time to not only prove his shoulder is healthy, but that he can perform at a high level. If he's rusty—which is to be expected—he's not going to land the offers he's likely hoping for once he hits the open market, regardless of his 2013 National League batting crown.

Stephen Drew, 2B/SS, New York Yankees

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    Trust me, it feels as weird writing "New York Yankees" after Stephen Drew's name as it does to read it, but the former Boston stalwart finds himself with an opportunity to not only re-establish but increase his value over the final two months of the regular season.

    Drew, who struggled mightily in his return to Boston after declining the team's qualifying offer and sitting out until midseason, will be playing second base in New York, a position that he's never played as a professional ballplayer.

    While he's never played the position, it's not exactly a foreign concept. His agent, Scott Boras, pitched Drew as a second baseman to the Toronto Blue Jays over the winter, expounding on his remarks while a guest on The Jeff Blair Show on Sportsnet 590 radio (audio link) back in February.

    If he can hold his own at the position and Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long can get Drew's swing back on track, Drew may actually be able to increase his value on the open market after the season. Teams could look at him as a pseudo-utility player, someone who could be an answer at second base or shortstop, which would help to increase the number of teams interested in his services.

    Then again, there's going to be an opening at his natural position, shortstop, with his new team after the season. A strong finish could find Drew in the unenviable yet lucrative position of replacing Derek Jeter in the Bronx.

    If he stumbles, well, he might find landing the one-year, $10.2 million deal he ultimately signed with Boston in late May to be difficult to match.

Jason Hammel, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    You'll have to excuse me for looking at Jason Hammel in an Oakland uniform and seeing Ryan Dempster circa 2012 wearing Texas Rangers' duds.

    Both were in the midst of outstanding seasons for the Chicago Cubs when they were traded to teams in the American League West, Dempster to the Texas Rangers, Hammel to the Oakland Athletics.

    Upon their arrival on the junior circuit, both struggled mightily. The similarities are uncanny.

    PlayerGSWLERAWHIPBB/9K/9
    Dempster (CHC '12)16552.251.042.78.0
    Hammel (CHC '14)17852.981.021.98.6
    Dempster (TEX '12)12735.031.443.39.1
    Hammel (OAK '14)4049.532.125.36.4

    Now, granted, Dempster was four years older than Hammel at the time of the trade, and he was making more than double the salary that Hammel currently takes home. But he searched for a three-year deal that winter only to find one wasn't available, ultimately signing a two-year, $26.5 million pact with Boston.

    If Hammel isn't able to get himself back on track and begin to resemble the pitcher who was so dominant for the Cubs, he too might be unable to land the multiyear contract he seeks when free agency begins.

Edwin Jackson, SP Chicago Cubs

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    With two years and $22 million left on his contract, simply cutting ties with Edwin Jackson would be an incredibly painful (and expensive) pill for the Chicago Cubs to swallow, but the 30-year-old has become so woefully ineffective that general manager Jed Hoyer may not have any other choice.

    Jackson hasn't gotten past the sixth inning since May 17, and he's allowed fewer than four earned runs in only six of his subsequent 13 starts, pitching to a 7.30 ERA.

    Back in July, Chicago Now's Gunter Dabynsky tied Jackson's issues to a lack of velocity and quality secondary offerings:

    The reason for this loss of effectiveness might be a decreasing gap in velocity between the change and fastball. The fastball velocity has been declining for several seasons with a major drop occurring in 2012 but continuing steadily through this year. The changeup has also increased slightly in velocity to the point where the average gap in velocity is down to 6 mph from the 8 mph in 2011.

    Edwin Jackson has tried to compensate for the lack of a changeup by throwing more curveballs than ever in his career, and it is not working. Left handed bats are torching Edwin Jackson for a .906 OPS compared to .700 OPS of right handers. His career numbers against left handed versus right handed bats .787 to .751.

    Asking an old dog to learn new tricks is never easy, but if Jackson hopes to have any success whatsoever, he's going to have to learn how to pitch—not just throw.

    The honeymoon for team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer is just about over, and long-suffering Cubs fans are going to start demanding to see results from the rebuilding process that has been underway since that duo arrived.

    Short of a miraculous turnaround by Jackson over the next two months, the Cubs have enough high-upside bats on the farm—and deep-enough pockets—to acquire his replacement this winter, whether it be via trade or free agency.

Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH, Seattle Mariners

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    Like Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales is a Scott Boras client, one who also refused a qualifying offer and waited until midseason to sign only to find himself back with the team he spurned in the winter on a less lucrative one-year deal.

    Unlike Drew, Morales is a one-dimensional player—he's a designated hitter, nothing more—and if he's not hitting, he's not useful. Therein lies the problem.

    Morales isn't hitting. He didn't do it in Minnesota, and he's not doing it in Seattle.

    If he doesn't start to produce at the plate, he certainly won't produce when he hits the open market, no matter how his agent tries to spin what has essentially been a wasted season.

Hanley Ramirez, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Whether it's the Los Angeles Dodgers or another team, Hanley Ramirez is going to be paid handsomely in 2015.

    The question is just how handsome the three-time All-Star's next contract is going to be, and the only one who can really dictate that is Ramirez himself.

    With 92 games played already this season, Ramirez will crack the 100-games-played plateau for only the second time since 2010, which should help alleviate concerns about his ability to stay healthy.

    But his defense remains shaky at best, and he's not exactly tearing the cover off the ball, hitting .275 with 11 home runs, 52 RBI and a .812 OPS.

    Those are respectable numbers, but respectable doesn't earn you a multiyear contract in excess of $130 million, which is what Ramirez was reportedly seeking back in May, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.

Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees

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    Masahiro Tanaka felt so badly about his potentially season-ending elbow injury that he issued a public apology to everyone—the New York Yankees organization, his teammates and the fans—shortly after a small tear of the UCL in his right elbow was discovered.

    Via Roger Rubin of the New York Daily News:

    I want to apologize to the Yankees organization, my teammates and our fans for not being able to help during this time. I accept this injury as a challenge, but I promise to do everything I can to overcome this setback and return to the mound as soon as possible.

    To be sure, the Yankees are going to err on the side of caution with their $155 million ace, and they won't let him even pick up a ball unless the doctors tell them his elbow is sound. But even the most brilliant medical minds can't tell the team how Tanaka's elbow feels.

    Only he can do that.

    But asking a professional athlete to tell the truth when it comes to an injury is like asking a politician to do the same thing about the weather outside—he or she going to look you in the eye and lie straight to your face.

    Tanaka has to ignore the doctors, the MRI machines, the fire that burns in his belly that makes him want to compete and the guilt he feels for letting everyone down.

    He has to listen to his body—and until his elbow is completely pain-free, he can't get back on the mound.

    If he returns before he's fully healed, the end result could be disastrous, with Tanaka joining the dozens of pitchers already recovering from Tommy John surgery, which, at this point, would sideline him until 2016.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and are current through games of Aug. 2. All injury information courtesy of MLB.com. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Contracts.