2011 MLB Predictions: Each Team's Player with the Most Pressure on Him
Pressure does the strangest things to baseball players. Alex Rodriguez might end up hitting more home runs than anyone else in history, but he has struggled in October. Zack Greinke won the Cy Young in 2009 but would never pitch for a big-market team.
As we look forward to 2011, we can start to pinpoint those who will be under the most pressure. Players struggling to live up to big contracts, coming back from injury, playing for their reputation all make this list, and it only serves to remind us just how many good stories the upcoming season could have.
Atlanta Braves: Fredi Gonzalez
This one is cheating, yes, but it is undeniable. You just try following Bobby Cox.
Florida Marlins: Josh Johnson
Johnson developed into one of the league's best pitchers in 2010, leading the NL in ERA with a 2.30 mark. He finished fifth in the voting for the Cy. Can he repeat his success?
New York Mets: Jason Bay
The 2004 NL Rookie of the Year had a successful, albeit quiet, career in Pittsburgh before moving to the Red Sox in the Manny Ramirez trade in 2008. His great production in Boston landed him a contract with the Mets in the 2009 offseason, but he has been dreadful in New York.
His home run total fell from 36 in '09 to six in 2010. His RBIs fell from 119 to just 47. His .259 batting average was the worst of his career. He needs to improve vastly in 2011 if he is to justify his $12m paycheque.
Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Howard
The picture on the left is one of the iconic images of the 2010 postseason. Buster Posey and the SF Giants celebrate their NLCS victory while Ryan Howard stands stunned with his bat clenched loosely in his hand.
He will be keen to erase that image. Some people wish they could erase his contract. Howard will make $135m in the next six seasons. For a player who will be 31 next season, that is a worrying thought.
With his lowest home run total since his rookie year, there are some who have said he is starting to decline. That is probably not true, and even if it were, a declining Ryan Howard is still better than many players in the league. Still, a bad season could make things uncomfortable for the slugger.
Washington Nationals: Jayson Werth
Nobody thinks Werth is worth $126 million. Probably not even Scott Boras.
Yes, he has had two good seasons the last two years, hitting 36 and 27 home runs, but away from the friendly confines of Citizen's Bank Park, his numbers are nowhere near his contract would suggest.
There will be a lot of pressure on Stephen Strasburg and (if he makes it to the Majors this season) Bryce Harper, but Werth has been brought in as the big signing to save the artist formerly known as Montreal. Now that he will play at most nine games a year in Philly, it will be interesting to see if he can live up to the expectation.
Chicago Cubs: Carlos Pena
One could make the case that with 28 home runs and 84 RBIs, Pena’s 2010 campaign was not all that disappointing, despite of his .196 average. No one, however, can claim that the Cubs’ season was anything but. After finishing in the top two in the NL Central three straight seasons, the Cubbies fell to 75-87, 16 games out of first.
The signing of Pena to a one year, $10m contract might help turn their fortunes around but there is more at stake for Pena. A good season could land him a big contract next year. Another year below the Mendoza Line will not.
Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto
The NL MVP led his team to the playoffs for the first time since 1995, helping to end a run of nine-straight losing seasons. If they are to return, it is he who will lead them there.
Houston Astros: Carlos Lee
The most intriguing Astros story of 2011 could be the promotion of pitching prospect Jordan Lyles. However, if he makes the Majors, it will likely not be until later in the season.
The fact that that should be the best story coming out of Houston tells you a lot about the team. They had a very good second half to 2010, but was that the abberation or was the 17-34 start?
As for the players guaranteed to be on the 25-man roster on Opening Day, Carlos Lee is probably the biggest question mark. He had a terrible 2010 and was moved from left to first after Lance Berkman was traded to the Yankees. His BABIP was low, which could foreshadow a return to form in 2011, but he might find himself being moved between LF and 1B if he does not improve.
Milwaukee Brewers: Prince Fielder
Perhaps an odd choice, but (with the possible exception of offseason acquisition Zack Greinke) Fielder will be the most-watched member of the Brewers team.
If the side does well and is in contention, it will be in large part to him. If they struggle, he might be traded. Then, there are the rumors of his leaving in free agency after the season is over. It will be the most fascinating story regarding the Brewers in 2011.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen
The Penguins are just a year removed from a Stanley Cup. The Steelers have won two of the last five Super Bowls and are in the big game yet again in a fortnight’s time. Were it not for their teams’ success in other sports, the city of Pittsburgh might be harder on the Pirates, who have not had a winning season since 1992.
McCutchen is really the only bright star in a very dark sky. If the Pirates are to bounce back from the third-worst season in their modern-era history, he will need to be at the centre of it.
St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols
Contract talks and rumors have affected even the best players. Pujols is of course one of the greatest all-round players in the game but even he is not immune to the pressures of contract negotiations.
10 straight 30-100 seasons. Six 40-110 seasons. Nine All-Star Game appearances. Three MVP Awards. Even a World Series ring. But nobody will be talking about those numbers. The media will be talking about where he will be in 2012 and how much money it will take to get him there.
Arizona Diamondbacks: JJ Putz
Putz returned to solid form in 2010 with a 2.83 ERA in Chicago. Now he is with the Diamondbacks, who are in desperate need of revival.
By far Arizona's biggest problem last year was the bullpen. Putz instantly becomes the stud of the relief corps and will need to be 'the guy' in the late innings.
Colorado Rockies: Ubaldo Jimenez
The first no-hitter in Rockies history. A 19-8 record. A 2.88 ERA. Third in Cy Young voting. Starter for the NL All-Star team. One of the best starts to a season in MLB history.
You do all that one year, there is a lot of pressure on you to lead the team and do it again.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw
At just 22, Kershaw is already the ace of the Dodgers rotation. The last two seasons, he has posted a sub-2 ERA and ranked in the top four in BAA.
With the biggest off-the-field distractions of all Major League teams, the Dodgers need someone. The finger will be pointing at Kershaw.
San Diego Padres: Brad Hawpe
What's worse than joining a close-to-playoff-calibre team who just lost their best player, who happened to be a hometown hero? Being the man brought in to replace him.
With slugger Adrian Gonzalez now taking his cuts at Fenway and the prospects the Padres received in return still years away from being MLB-ready, Hawpe will need to step up. He has hit 20 home runs and driven in 80 in four of the past five seasons. He is no Gonzalez, but the Padres need him to be very good.
San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey
Posey had an amazing season, snaring Rookie of the Year honors as he hit .305 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs in 108 games.
The Giants won their first World Series since leaving New York in the 1950s, and there will be a desire to return to the Fall Classic. ROYs are always under pressure in their sophomore seasons, but when their team is the defending champion, it makes it that much harder.
Baltimore Orioles: Buck Showalter
This one is cheating again a bit, sure, but it is true. After he became the Os’ third manager of 2010, Showalter’s team went 34-23, making him just the third Baltimore manager with a winning record since 1985. With a number of offseason acquisitions, expectations are higher for the Os than they have been in quite a while.
Boston Red Sox: Josh Beckett
Apr. 5, 2010. Opening Night versus the New York Yankees: 4.2 IP, 5 R, 8 H, 3 BB, 2 HR, 1K, ND.
Apr. 6, 2010. It is announced that the Red Sox and Beckett have agreed to a four-year, $68 million extension.
Of course, the deal would have been in place long before the announcement and delayed to avoid the luxury tax, but the way it played out was poor for the Boston front office. To make matters worse, Beckett did not improve. He had the worst season of his career.
To make matters worse still, fellow big-money starter John Lackey was also uninspiring. Sox GM Theo Epstein will be having many sleepless nights until Beckett returns to his old form. If he ever does.
New York Yankees: Phil Hughes
It is difficult to pick a player for the Yankees. They never made any huge offseason signings other than Rafael Soriano, and it is hard to proclaim a set-up guy the ‘most under-pressure’ on the team. Big stars had poor seasons in 2010, such as Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, but the former should not feel any pressure at this point in his career and the latter still hit 33 home runs, despite his .256 average.
It is not outlandish to think that Phil Hughes will be under some pressure. The Yankees’ biggest area of concern is the starting rotation. One expects AJ Burnett to struggle and CC Sabathia to be a 20-game-winning, Cy Young contender. The big question mark is Hughes. He had a phenomenal first half of the season, and although he fell apart after the All-Star Break, he still showed signs that he can be an ace on this team in the future.
Tampa Bay Rays: Evan Longoria
One has to feel sorry for Tampa Bay fans. The Rays provided one of the greatest Cinderella stories in MLB history in 2008, winning the American League pennant. In 2010, they returned to the postseason, only to fall to eventual AL Champions Texas 3-2 in the ALDS.
Then, in the offseason, their team was decimated. The best bullpen in baseball was picked apart, star pitchers left, and trades and free agent departures left gaping holes in their lineup.
The biggest player left is Evan Longoria. He finished sixth in MVP voting and made his third All-Star team. If the Rays are to stage another unlikely playoff run, it will likely all be down to Longoria.
Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista
Remember that song from Sesame Street? “One of these things is not like the other things, one of these things just doesn’t belong.”
Well, let’s play a game of that. Here are Bautista’s home run totals from 2006, his first full season, to last year:
16, 15, 15, 13, 54.
The improvement was astonishing. Some cried ‘steroids’ whilst fans said it was down to a new swing. Regardless how he managed it, if the Jays are to make a run at the Red Sox and Yankees, and if he is to salvage his reputation, they will need him to do it again.
Cleveland Indians: Grady Sizemore
The Indians missed Sizemore last year. The three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner played just 33 games in 2010. He should be fully recovered by Opening Day, but Cleveland fans do not just need him to play, they need him to play at the .280 BA, 30 HR, 40 2B level he once did.
Chicago White Sox: Mark Buehrle
In 2009, Buehrle set a Major League record for most consecutive perfect innings. He came within three innings of throwing back-to-back perfect games. That is Buehrle at his best.
The reality is that he is walking a fine line. He failed to strike out a batter every two innings in 2010 (4.24 K/9) and while he could be the big-game pitcher that pushes the Sox to the playoffs, he could implode spectacularly.
Add into the mix that he is in the final year of his contract and at just 31, might still want to pitch past 2011.
Detroit Tigers: Victor Martinez
The Tigers inked former Indians and Red Sox backstop Martinez to a four- year, $50m contract this winter and quickly announced they would be moving him to DH full time.
A distinctly average defensive catcher, Martinez' value always lay solely in his bat, but nowhere will his offense be more exposed than as the DH. He is now a one-dimensional player, and even though he slaughtered lefties in 2010, the pressure will be on him to do it again at Comerica.
Kansas City Royals: Billy Butler
The Royals’ offseason had been defined by the departure of former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke until they signed Butler to a four-year, $30m extension. He had a great season last year, batting .318 with 45 doubles and 78 RBIs.
With his new contract and his comments that he wants to become a leader in the Greinke-free clubhouse, Butler will be under more pressure than he has been thus far in his career.
Minnesota Twins: Justin Morneau
Obviously, injuries are the one thing a player cannot control, but Morneau has fallen victim to them a lot in the last few seasons.
When he is healthy, he can put up MVP numbers, but he needs to be able to take the field to do that. With the losses of Gurrier, Crain, Hardy, Fuentes and Hudson and the improvements of the Tigers and White Sox, the Twins need Morneau's bat again.
You know what you will get from Joe Mauer. Morneau is just as talented, but more of a question mark.
Los Angeles Angels: Kendry Morales
The Angels' biggest problem in 2010? Not scoring runs.
If Morales is healthy, he could be the guy to help them do that. 2010 was a bit of a lost season. He only played 51 games, but if he is healthy and can return to his 2009 level of production (.306 BA, 34 HR, 108 RBI) then he could be the sparkplug they need.
Oakland Athletics: Trevor Cahill
Cahill had a wonderful sophomore season, posting an 18-8 record and a sub-3 ERA. The As' offense leaves a lot to be desired, but with Cahill at the top, the rotation is very good.
That is, of course, as long as he can sustain it.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez
Once again, this is purely because he is the only reason Mariners fans can look forward to 2011. He won the 2010 Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record because if he had been on a semi-decent team, he would have won over 20.
If he is not at his impossibly brilliant best, Seattle fans can start counting the days to the NFL kicks off.
Texas Rangers: Adrian Beltre
Beltre had an MVP-calibre season with Boston in 2010, but it seemed that nobody wanted him in the offseason. That was in large part due to fears that he only plays well in contract years.
Assuming that he does not want to be loathed by Rangers fans and wants to perform well and prove the doubters wrong (and with the additional strain of playing for the World Series runners-up) he might be the most pressured player on the team.