Predicting 10 MLB Players Who Will Have Big Bounce-Back 2014 Seasons

Ely Sussman@@MrElyminatorCorrespondent IDecember 28, 2013

Predicting 10 MLB Players Who Will Have Big Bounce-Back 2014 Seasons

0 of 10

    Albert Pujols has an opportunity to validate his enormous contract if he can bounce back from a foot injury.
    Albert Pujols has an opportunity to validate his enormous contract if he can bounce back from a foot injury.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Looking at an MLB player's stats alone, it can be difficult to distinguish between simple disappointment and the onset of a decline.

    However, evaluating these 10 individuals within the proper context suggests that their 2013 seasons fell into the former category. They're due to bounce back strong this coming year.

    Once-great sluggers like Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira succumbed to severe injuries, as did power pitchers Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow. Several of these players found themselves in environments that didn't suit their skills, and all of them fell victim to bad luck.

    To earn inclusion on this list, these veterans needed to give us reasons to trust that they'll put their lost 2013 seasons behind them and rival their production from previous years in 2014.

    *Stats provided by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

Corey Hart (Seattle Mariners)

1 of 10

    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
    Corey Hart's MLB Stats
    2013 0—     
    Career (2004-2013)945.276.334.49115415.2

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    Corey Hart didn't play a single inning for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013.

    After observing swelling in his right knee during winter workouts, team doctors discovered a torn meniscus, performed surgery and ruled him out for Opening Day. Hart suffered cartilage damage in the opposite knee while rehabbing, which required its own season-ending surgery in July.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    There's nowhere to go but up for Hart at age 32. 

    The two-time All-Star has never been the true focal point of a lineup, nor will he be on the 2014 Seattle Mariners. That's Robinson Cano's burden to bear.

    We aren't naive enough to dismiss the possibility that Hart's knees could affect him going forward. Thankfully, joining the M's will allow him to occasionally start at designated hitter, thus minimizing the strain on his lower half.

    At his mid-December introductory news conference with the M's, Hart deemed himself completely healthy.

    Historical Precedent

    Elite power can return following a lengthy leg injury. Just ask David Ortiz.

    Big Papi injured his right Achilles in July 2012 and participated in only one MLB regular-season game during the nine months that followed. 

    He slugged .558 from 2010-2012 before landing on the disabled list; he slugged .564 with 30 home runs last season, and that's without even mentioning his October brilliance.

David Murphy (Cleveland Indians)

2 of 10

    Jonathan Moore/Getty Images
    David Murphy's MLB Stats
    2013 142.220 .282 .374 13 0.4 
    Career (2006-2013)849.275.337.4418610.5

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    David Murphy offered this explanation for his 2013 mediocrity (h/t Jordan Bastian,

    I saw that we lost Josh [Hamilton], that we lost Michael Young, that we lost Mike Napoli, and I put a little bit more pressure on myself to step into a bigger role and play a bigger part in the offense. I kind of tried to re-create my own identity instead of being the same guy I'd always been in the past.

    The numbers suggest that bad luck also factored into his disappointing production.

    Out of more than 200 MLB players who amassed 400-plus plate appearances last summer, Murphy's .227 BABIP was the fourth-lowest. And those below him even hit fewer line drives.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    The presence of Ryan Raburn in Cleveland will allow the Tribe to protect Murphy from left-handed pitching, against whom he owns a lifetime .259/.306/.350 batting line.

    During the past quarter-century, Mark McGwire is the only player with multiple seasons below a .230 BABIP (min. 400 PA).

    Don't expect Murphy to join that exclusive club. His .302 career mark leads us to believe that last year was an anomaly.

    Historical Precedent

    Fellow left-handed contact hitter Casey Kotchman posted a brutal .217/.280/.336 batting line with the 2010 Seattle Mariners, largely because his line drives couldn't find any landing spots (.229 BABIP).

    But Kotchman rebounded in a big way after a change of scenery. As the Tampa Bay Rays' first baseman in 2011, he put up a career-best .306 batting average, which ranked eighth in the American League.

Phil Hughes (Minnesota Twins)

3 of 10

    Mike Stobe/Getty Images
    Phil Hughes' MLB Stats
    2013 30/29145.2 5.19 4.50 2.88 1.3 
    Career (2007-2013)182/132780.24.544.312.6811.0

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    Phil Hughes has become way too predictable.

    His four-seam fastball tops out in the mid-90s, but using it more than 60 percent of the time got him into trouble in 2013. Despite an outstanding knack for getting ahead in the count, Hughes barely exceeded the league's average strikeout rate because his heater lacked the lateral movement to generate swings-and-misses.

    The right-hander frequently fell behind on the scoreboard, and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi didn't have faith in him to straighten out in the middle innings. The majority of Hughes' starts—16 of his 29—lasted fewer than 100 pitches.

    Being extremely reliant on fly balls, Hughes predictably surrendered a ton of home runs at Yankee Stadium (17 in 78.1 IP). Five MLB pitchers allowed more during their home appearances, but all of them shouldered far larger workloads.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    Visiting batters at Target Field, Hughes' new home ballpark, have difficulty crushing balls into the seats.

    The Minnesota Twins pitching staff was pathetic last season, posting baseball's lousiest strikeout rate and second-worst earned run average. Yet it ranked toward the middle of the pack in home runs allowed at home, serving up even fewer than a handful of National League teams. Perhaps that's why Hughes has fared well in limited experience at the new venue (2.53 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, .182 BAA in 21.1 IP).

    Moreover, as Hughes begins a $24 million contract, he'll be given every chance to succeed. That means staying on the mound deeper into his starts and getting opportunities to compensate for mistakes made the first couple of times through a lineup.

    Hughes can continue attacking the strike zone without facing the same consequences that he did with the Yankees.

    Historical Precedent

    The Yankees gave up on A.J. Burnett after the 2011 season, dealing him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for salary relief and a couple of non-prospects. His 5.15 ERA and 1.47 HR/9 were eerily similar to Hughes' this past year.

    But coming off nearly two decades' worth of losing seasons, the Pirates trusted him as a top-of-the-rotation option.

    Permitted to pitch into the later innings and helped by the spacious PNC Park, Burnett provided 202.1 quality innings (3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 0.80 HR/9).

Brandon Morrow (Toronto Blue Jays)

4 of 10

    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
    Brandon Morrow's MLB Stats
    2013 10/1054.1 5.63 5.42 2.33 -0.1 
    Career (2007-2013)218/102702.14.223.942.2810.4

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    An entrapped radial nerve in Brandon Morrow's right forearm sidelined him in late May. Dr. James Andrews recommended prolonged rest, per Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, and when the world-renowned orthopedic surgeon makes a recommendation, you obey it, so Morrow's age-28 campaign ended after just 10 appearances.

    The right-hander's velocity wasn't noticeably affected, but his command clearly was. Morrow struggled with his first-pitch strike percentage, and when getting ahead in the count, he uncharacteristically left pitches over the middle of the plate. That resulted in a 6.96 K/9 and 1.99 HR/9 (both career worsts).

    Why He'll Bounce Back's Gregory Chisholm reports that Morrow's 2013 injury shouldn't linger into this coming season.

    "It looks like he is completely healthy," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "He has thrown a simulated game. He has thrown two bullpen [sessions]. He has thrown every pitchfastball, curveball, sliderat 100 percent. He feels great and he's going to be a big boost to our rotation."

    When unimpaired, he's one of baseball's top strikeout artists. With a 9.77 K/9 from 2010-2012, Morrow ranked No. 1 among all pitchers who threw at least 300 innings. The only other American League pitcher who topped 9.00 K/9 in that span? Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.

    It's worth noting that Morrow is headed into the final guaranteed year of his contract. The Jays hold a $10 million club option on him for 2015, and he'll need to revert to his old form to convince them to exercise it.

    Historical Precedent

    Ben Sheets spent a large chunk of the 2007 season on the disabled list. When active, he posted a shockingly pedestrian 6.75 K/9. Much like Morrow, he had been among the league leaders in that department during the three previous seasons.

    Although Sheets faded down the stretch in '08, he maintained a 3.09 earned run average and tossed five complete games while receiving an All-Star selection.

B.J. Upton (Atlanta Braves)

5 of 10

    Brian Kersey/Getty Images
    B.J. Upton's MLB Stats
    2013 126.184 .268 .289 12-0.6 
    Career (2004-2013)1,092.248.329.40912724421.3

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    B.J. Upton couldn't put balls in play during his debut season with the Atlanta Braves, posting the sixth-lowest contact percentage in the majors (min. 300 PA). He was sharing a statistical neighborhood with notorious strikeout kings Ryan Howard and Carlos Pena.

    Upton's excellent raw power goes to waste when he can't make contact. Moreover, an inability to get on base prevented him from amassing his usual 30-plus stolen bases.

    The athletic outfielder insists that he put forth a strong effort to turn things around, the Associated Press reports (h/t Fox News). That's believable. Upton actually may have overexerted himself to justify a $72.25 million free-agent deal that many considered an overpay.

    Suffering an abductor strain didn't help matters. Upton missed three weeks while the strained muscle mended, his longest midseason stint on the disabled list since 2007.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    Upton turned 29 in August, so his physical gifts aren't eroding anytime soon.

    It's just a matter of getting his mind at peace again. 

    The Braves' regular-season schedule should help with that. They play their first two series and 13 of their first 19 games overall on the road, so Upton won't have to put up with much booing from his own fans. The level of difficulty is also low; Atlanta begins 2014 with nine of 10 series against teams that missed the playoffs last year.

    Historical Precedent

    There were huge expectations for Mike Cameron entering the 1998 season. He was supposed to be a fixture atop the Chicago White Sox lineup, the table-setter for sluggers Albert Belle and Frank Thomas.

    He stumbled out of the starting gate, however—.214/.314/.282, one homer through Memorial Day—and never recovered.

    Cameron bounced back after a trade to the Cincinnati Reds, supplementing his elegant center-field defense with 21 home runs, 38 steals and an .825 OPS.

Albert Pujols (Los Angeles Angels)

6 of 10

    Brian Bahr/Getty Images
    Albert Pujols' MLB Stats
    2013 99.258 .330 .437 17 0.7 
    Career (2001-2013)1,958.321.410.59949287.4

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    There were question marks surrounding Albert Pujols even before 2013 spring training because he had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery. Ultimately, a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot became much more debilitating.

    The persistent pain slowed Pujols to a snail's pace.

    He grounded into 18 double plays through the first half of the season, tops among American League players. Moreover, Prince Albert recorded zero infield hits, and a lack of burst prevented him from turning well-struck balls into extra-base hits. For the first time since his rookie year (2001), he failed to record multiple stolen bases.

    Another consequence of the plantar fasciitis—Pujols made only 34 starts in the field, thus clogging up the designated hitter's spot.

    Why He'll Bounce Back  

    Two weeks into this offseason, the future Hall of Famer offered an encouraging update from his home in the Dominican Republic, via Alden Gonzalez of

    I feel really happy. Last year … it was a really tough year for me physically, in terms of recovering. But now I feel really good, really excellent. With the foot, I feel 99.9 percent healthy. And with my knee, I'm doing my rehab like always.

    Despite an awful slump in early 2012, Pujols' healthy base enabled him to provide elite run production as the summer progressed.

    Historical Precedent

    Lance Berkman posted a comparable .248/.368/.413 batting line in 2010. He was clearly banged up and many doubted that he could reestablish himself as a feared slugger.

    To the skeptics' surprise, Berkman starred alongside Pujols on the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, driving in 105 runs (playoffs included) and finishing seventh in NL MVP voting.

Mark Teixeira (New York Yankees)

7 of 10

    That's the kind of face you'd make if you were striking out once every three plate appearances.
    That's the kind of face you'd make if you were striking out once every three plate appearances.Mike Stobe/Getty Images
    Mark Teixeira's MLB Stats
    2013 15.151 .270 .340 -0.2 
    Career (2003-2013)1,512.278.368.52534140.7

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    While preparing to represent the United States in March's World Baseball Classic, Mark Teixeira strained a tendon in his right wrist. Due to the injury, Teixeira didn't make his 2013 debut until after Memorial Day, and outside of a stellar series against the Cleveland Indians (3-for-9, 3 HR, 7 RBI from June 3-5), he was an enormous liability.

    The former All-Star whiffed during more than 30 percent of his plate appearances (career rate: 17.3 percent).

    As it turns out, the "rest and rehab" strategy didn't mend Teixeira's tendon. He came to the plate eight times in a mid-June contest against the Oakland Athletics (likely aggravating the strain), landed on the disabled list a couple of days later and underwent season-ending surgery.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    Here's what Teixeira told's Bryan Hoch:

    I’m close to 100 percent. I feel like I’m healed. I wish I was a little bit looser; my wrist is going to be tight for a while because of the way the surgery was performed. They had to kind of tighten everything up to make it secure.

    It’s still a little bit tight, but that’s why I’m doing rehab every day and doing exercises every day. I’ll start swinging a bat in January and that will also help loosen it up.

    Although the veteran switch-hitter is entering his age-34 season, there's nobody on the New York Yankees roster who will challenge him for playing time at first base. Regardless of his wrist health, Tex will add value with his slick fielding at the position; he tied with Adrian Gonzalez at 6.6 UZR/150 from 2008-2012, MLB's best among qualified first basemen.

    The year prior to his messy 2013, Teixeira posted the highest contact rate of his career. If he can come close to replicating that this coming summer, he can revert to being an intimidating presence in the heart of the lineup.

    Historical Precedent

    Bleacher Report's Dr. Dave Siebert drew comparisons between this wrist injury and the one that ended Jose Bautista's 2012 campaign. Teixeira's was actually less severe.

    Bautista fared well following surgery with a .259/.358/.498 batting line, 28 home runs and 132 OPS+ last summer. 

Starlin Castro (Chicago Cubs)

8 of 10

    Brian Kersey/Getty Images
    Starlin Castro's MLB Stats
    2013 161.245 .284 .347 10 -0.1 
    Career (2010-2013)606.283.322.404378.2

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    There are numerous theories. 

    The 2013 season was Starlin Castro's first as a wealthy man after finalizing a $60 million contract extension the previous August. Perhaps the long-term security quenched the competitive fire in his belly. 

    More likely, though, his deterioration from All-Star to replacement-level player had something to do with too many voices in his head, as ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers explained. One knock against Castro through all his peaks and valleys has been a lack of plate discipline, and team president Theo Epstein admits to "tinkering" with his approach.

    The 23-year-old was receptive to the club's philosophy; he saw a career-high 3.85 pitches per plate appearance—roughly the MLB average—and seldom swung at the first pitch.

    But that left him vulnerable to striking out.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    Top prospect Javier Baez had a terrific season in the minors. He could be the Cubs' everyday shortstop as soon as 2015, thus making Castro expendable.

    A bounce-back year would restore his trade value, or if he's willing to switch positions, give the club a dynamic infield moving forward.

    Regardless of what Epstein has in mind, he has surely learned a lesson about meddling. Let Castro do his thing.

    Historical Precedent

    Another ultra-talented Dominican infielder who broke into the big leagues at an early age, Aramis Ramirez gave the Pittsburgh Pirates an enormous 2001 season (.300/.350/.536, 34 HR). The following year, he posted an anemic 72 OPS+, identical to Castro's this past summer.

    Splitting 2003 between the Pirates and Cubs, Ramirez reverted back to being a great run producer while trimming his strikeout rate from 16.7 percent to 14.8 percent.

Josh Johnson (San Diego Padres)

9 of 10

    Brad White/Getty Images
    Josh Johnson's MLB Stats
    2013 16/1681.1 6.20 4.62 2.77 0.5 
    Career (2005-2013)170/160998.03.403.322.7121.8

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    Josh Johnson moved to the American League after parts of eight seasons in the Senior Circuit. He received a rude welcome, yielding 15 earned runs through four April starts (6.86 earned run average) before heading to the disabled list with a strained triceps.

    Johnson gave the Toronto Blue Jays two more mediocre months on the mound before returning to the DL with another issue in his throwing arm. Dr. James Andrews attributed his poor performance to bone spurs in his elbow, according to agent Matt Sosnick (via Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors), and surgery was successfully completed in October to remove them.

    A stark difference in the dimensions of Marlins Park—where Johnson spent 2012—and the Rogers Centre clearly hurt him. The hard-throwing right-hander allowed 11 home runs in 49.1 innings at home in 2013, compared to just five long balls in 109.1 home innings the previous season.

    He also struggled to adjust to the AL's longer lineups. The No. 9 hitters who faced Johnson with Toronto combined for a .324/.333/.618 batting line, whereas pitchers have a laughable .092/.120/.109 batting line against him through the years.

    Why He'll Bounce Back 

    Even after the San Diego Padres modified the fences at Petco Park, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune writes that it's still a very pitcher-friendly environment.

    Unlike typical power pitchers, Johnson generates nearly as many grounders as fly balls. Unfortunately, his Blue Jays teammates didn't efficiently convert them into outs, turning only four double plays in 78 opportunities. That 5 percent success rate paled in comparison to his 10 percent career average. 

    Middle-infield instability was at least partially responsible; Toronto used 11 different starting combinations at second base and shortstop in 2013, making it difficult to develop any semblance of chemistry. Barring injury, the Padres will consistently pair Jedd Gyorko and Everth Cabrera at those positions.

    Signing with San Diego brings Johnson back to the National League, which means head-to-head matchups against his counterparts. We'll mention again that he limits pitchers to a .092 batting average, the 10th-best of anybody over the past quarter-century (min. 50 IP vs. pitchers).

    Lastly, by distancing himself from Rogers' Centre artificial surface, Johnson can expect his outrageous .356 BABIP to settle down.

    Historical Precedent

    In 2010, James Shields was the victim of a bloated .341 BABIP and 1.50 HR/9, culminating in a career-worst 5.18 ERA. And like Johnson this past summer, Shields' fielders didn't take advantage of double-play opportunities.

    Improved luck the following year—and a few more strikeouts—propelled him to a third-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting.

Ryan Braun (Milwaukee Brewers)

10 of 10

    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
    Ryan Braun's MLB Stats
    2013 61.298 .372 .498 1.7 
    Career (2007-2013)944.312.374.56421132.3

    Why He Struggled Last Season

    Ryan Braun simply wasn't healthy.

    After three extremely productive games, he missed an entire series with neck spasms. He performed at a near-MVP level through the rest of April and beginning of May, only to injure his right thumb.

    That sapped Braun of his ability to drive the ball, as he was limited to "swinging with one hand," according to's Adam McCalvy. He posted an underwhelming .288/.342/.404 batting line from May 14 onward. Prior to accepting a season-ending drug suspension, he labored through a 20-game homer-less streak, the second-longest of his career, according to (subscription required).

    Seldom did a day pass by without reporters pressing him for details about his involvement with the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic or attacking him through think pieces. All that attention must've been a distraction.

    Why He'll Bounce Back  

    At every step of his professional career (minor leagues included), Braun has demonstrated extraordinary offensive skill. It's highly unlikely that all of that production can be attributed to performance-enhancing substances. There's plenty of natural-born talent to keep him in the lineup.

    Without the juice, Braun will likely drop off in terms of durability and consistency, but probably not as dramatically as we want to believe.

    Let's not forget, the rest of the Milwaukee Brewers offense was devastated by injuries and underachievement. A full season of outfielder Khris Davis, more playing time for second baseman Scooter Gennett and inevitable improvement from Milwaukee's first basemen should provide Braun with newly found protection and opportunities for driving in runs.

    Historical Precedent 

    Braun finds himself in a unique situation. There's admittedly never been a face-of-the-franchise-caliber player coming off injury and a drug suspension in the prime of his career who enjoyed a big bounce back.

    But for the reasons stated above, he's poised to succeed in 2014. 

    Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.