Every year, hundreds of rookies touch down in the major leagues for the first time. Each has the same goal: to demonstrate to his team and the fans that he has what it takes to be a baseball star.
Luckily for them, they have a generous margin of error should they not immediately succeed. The fans might not be patient, but most people who matter understand that it takes time to transition to the big show.
Unfortunately, not everyone has this safety net. For many players—failed prospects, faded stars, and wrinkling journeymen—a bad season could signal the end of their careers or at least leave them to struggle for the playing time they once took for granted.
Here's a look at 10 players who could fall off a cliff if they take another step back in 2010.
When a player gets injured, there usually isn't too much mystery. Sure, complications can arise and rehab programs don't always go according to plan, but advanced sports medicine has made the process a lot less scary.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for mental illness.
While physical problems played a role in causing Duchscherer to miss the entire 2009 season, his biggest handicap was clinical depression. He says he's fine now, and while there's no reason to think he's being dishonest, there is no way to conclusively prove that he is fully and finally cured.
The Athletics took him at his word and re-signed him to an incentive-laden contract for 2010. If he relapses next season after saying he's okay, will anyone be willing to take a chance on him in the future?
When Tampa Bay signed Pat Burrell last year to a two-year, $16 million contract many people thought it was a steal. Burrell averaged 28 homers and 92 RBI in nine seasons with the Phillies while only once posting an OPS under .800; he was expected to anchor and mentor the Rays' impressive young lineup.
A year later, Rays fans are asking for their money back.
While Burrell was bound to slip up a little bit as he adjusted to a new league and a smaller ballpark, no one expected this large of a regression—he set career lows in several categories, including home runs (14), RBI (64), and OPS (.682).
Were he on the market today, Burrell would probably be able to find a part-time job for a lot less money; surely some team would be willing to bet that 2009 was a fluke season. But if he compiles subpar numbers again in his walk year, he'll have a tough time finding a job in 2011.
No one thought of Bradley as a world-class teammate last winter when he signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs, but consensus was that it was worth putting up with his temper to have his bat (.999 OPS in 2008).
Now things are a little bit different.
While Bradley's outbursts last season—including a feud with Lou Piniella and a series of disparaging comments about the city of Chicago—might not have been the worst of his tumultuous career, they were certainly the most publicized. Meanwhile, on the field, he had his worst season in seven years.
A change of scenery should help matters—according to Bradley, his struggles can be blamed on the "negativity" that runs rampant throughout Chicago—but it will take more than a revived bat for him to regain the respect of the league.
Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Bradley is under contract through 2011, so he's in no immediate danger. But if he doesn't rebuild his reputation by the time he hits the market again, it will be game over.
Despite the Yankees' superiority at the beginning and end, the Red Sox have unquestionably been baseball's team of decade, and the most important player to their success has been David Ortiz (before you argue, how many walk-off hits did he have in 2004?).
Now, having struggled with injuries and a plummeting batting average, Ortiz's days in Boston could be numbered.
A notoriously slow starter, last season Ortiz limped out of the gate looking even worse than usual. He eventually found his groove, racking up the most home runs in baseball after June 9th (26), but he wasn't quite the same. He finished with a .238 batting average, a career-worst 134 strikeouts, and 74 walks (a far cry from the triple-digit totals he accrued in his prime).
It's certainly not too late for a turnaround—he's only two years removed from a 1.066 OPS, and he can still mash when he's got his rhythm. But if he spends another season looking like Jack Cust, the Red Sox won't want to give him $12.5 million.
How incredible has Jamie Moyer's career been?
He has 23 seasons under his belt—nearly 4,000 innings over 667 games. He was in the prime of his career at age 40. He's older than my parents, and when I was born, he had already pitched 700 MLB innings.
At age 46, armed with the slowest fastball in the game (80.6 MPH), Moyer worked 162 innings with a respectable 4.94 ERA.
He isn't on this list because he hit a rough patch or his skills are regressing. I named him solely because even Moyer can't pitch forever.
Were he to hit the open market today, he would probably do pretty well for himself (if Randy Wolf can get $30 million, how hard can it be?). But if he finally starts to crack next season, teams will be hesitant to commit to a pitcher who will hit 50 in 2012.
For Red Sox Nation, Lowell's health has long been the elephant in the metaphorical room. Concerns about his hip led the Red Sox to pursue Mark Teixeira last winter, and they've been conspicuously shopping him over the last few weeks.
Now there are questions about his wrist and thumb as well, and the team is publicly looking into other options at the hot corner.
Concerns about his fragility are so great that the Rangers recently refused to send one of their surplus catchers to Boston for Lowell and most of the money to cover his salary.
While his normally sterling defense took a nosedive last season, there's no sign of an offensive slowdown; his .811 OPS was right in line with his .810 career mark. Yet, teams seem to be anticipating a drop-off there, too.
If he can hold his ground in 2010, he'll earn himself a nice, incentive-based contract next winter. If not, well, he already has a World Series ring.
Speaking of third basemen with health risks, Chavez is quite possibly the most frequently injured player in baseball. Back and shoulder problems limited him to just 121 games last season.
Oh, wait, I'm sorry. That's 121 games over his last three seasons combined.
Once among the best players in baseball, offensively and defensively—in "Moneyball," Billy Beane compared his bat favorably with those of Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez—Chavez's star has crashed and burned.
Even when healthy, he has struggled: He has a .708 OPS since 2007 and put up a -7.5 UZR/150 in his short time in the field last season.
Barring an MVP-caliber bounceback season, Chavez will have to expect a lot less than his current eight-digit salary come 2011. Unless, of course, he throws out his back and has to retire.
In 2003, a pair of rookies took baseball by storm as they led the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship. A few years later, both were shipped off to the Tigers in a dump trade.
One, Miguel Cabrera, continues to be one of the best hitters in baseball. The other, Willis, has completely fallen off the D-Train.
In his two years with Detroit, Willis has compiled a miserable 8.27 ERA. He's walked 63 batters and given up eight homers in just 57.2 innings while suffering from both mental and physical afflictions.
With just one year left on his $29 million contract extension, Willis will need to return to his Florida form next season if he wants a job in 2011.
Prior to winning a starting job in 2004, Crosby was one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball and the reason the Athletics could so casually part ways with Miguel Tejada. He rode his reputation to an AL Rookie of the Year Award despite an underwhelming debut (.744 OPS) then fought through injuries to earn an .802 OPS the next season.
Then, things started going the wrong direction for the young shortstop.
Between being hurt and plain old not hitting well, Crosby downspiraled. He averaged eight homers and 40 RBI from 2006-09, hitting just .231 with a miserable .638 OPS.
Based on his once prized potential, hope that a change of scenery could help revive his career and the theory that at 29, he isn't too old to learn some new tricks, the Pirates signed him to a low risk, incentive-laden contract three weeks ago.
If Crosby can win a starting job and put some life back in his bat, he can salvage his reputation. If not, he will cement his place as a failed prospect and spend the rest of his career warming the bench.
Alright, he's not actually a player, but it's no secret that the seat of the Mets GM is hot enough to burn his buttocks.
With his team reeling from a disappointing 2009 campaign and a front office loaded with his potential replacements, the higher-ups have essentially said, "win or you're fired."
While fans and analysts have questioned some of Minaya's decisions, it's clear from his inflated offers to Jason Bay (who he traded away while with the Expos) and Bengie Molina that he's making an honest effort to improve the team.
Given the money he has to work with and the large role that simple injuries played in the Mets' struggles last season, it shouldn't be too difficult to make them contenders again in 2010. But even if they do well, Minaya might not be around much longer.