MLB's Biggest Superstars Facing Immense Pressure in 2015

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2015

MLB's Biggest Superstars Facing Immense Pressure in 2015

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    For a Major League Baseball superstar, the pressure is inherited with the title.

    That much is a given. Whether it is a player’s past production or simply his price tag, the stars of the game are looked upon to be among the best. This becomes especially true when that player’s team is expected to win. There is little pressure on a player like Joe Mauer, whose season is not expected to dictate how his team fares.

    However, for other players, the pressure is going to be turned way up this year. And the abundance of those players has grown now that there is an extra wild-card playoff slot and since a team not believed to be a championship contender at the start of last season—the Kansas City Royals—came within one swing of winning the World Series. Now even star players on fringe teams are feeling the heat.

    This season, it is easy to go up and down rosters and find these players. The massive amount of turnover through trades and free agency over the winter makes this even more so, as those superstars are now expected to live up to marquee billings in their new homes.

    It was easy to pick out more than 10 players who fit the bill, but for round numbers’ sake, here they are in no particular order (you can determine that at the barstool or water cooler).

Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Anytime you sign a $210 million contract, there is going to be pressure. And anytime you are expected to be the ace of what just might be one of the best starting rotations of all time, there is going to be pressure.

    In a situation where both things are true, we are talking about a player with arguably more pressure on him than anyone else in his sport.

    Max Scherzer left his perch as the ace of the Detroit Tigers to take the same post for the Nationals, instantly becoming the No. 1 starter in a rotation full of studs. Not only are the Nationals the easy pick to be World Series champs, but they are so loaded that some pundits expect them to do it without a close second in their rearview mirror.

    But be careful about those stacked clubs. They tend to fade in October.

    If the Nationals don’t win it all in 2015, Scherzer’s performance won’t be the lone reason. But, if they fail, Scherzer’s contract is subject to being scapegoated as an unnecessary evil.

    And with each season that the Nats don’t win it all with Scherzer at the top of the rotation, the pressure on him to lead the franchise to a title will increase.

Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Miami Marlins

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    Tom Lynn/Associated Press

    Like anyone with a gargantuan contract, Giancarlo Stanton is going to be under a microscope for its duration. In this case, it’s a lucky 13 years for the low, low price of $325 million. 

    Unlike others with massive paydays under their belts, Stanton will have to carry much of the load on his own as the Marlins’ lone superstar. Sure, Jose Fernandez is not far behind, but he won’t be available to pitch until June (hopefully) and he still has some proving to do before he can be put in the same class as Stanton.

    While Stanton is only 25, he is one of the veteran elder statesmen on the roster. For a franchise that has not topped .500 since 2009, it could be asking too much of Stanton to lead the Marlins to the postseason in 2015. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections has them at 81-81 and missing the playoffs.

    Looking beyond the normal must-win pressure, Stanton is facing something different than anyone else in the game. He is returning from a gruesome bean ball that rearranged his face last September, leaving him with multiple fractures.

    Stanton hoped to return before the end of the 2014 regular season so he could overcome whatever fear or hesitation might linger, but that wisely did not happen. From what we know now, spring training will be the first time he faces live pitching. That in itself will be a mental obstacle Stanton, who will wear a protective face guard during spring training, will have to overcome before he even approaches the pressures of winning and living up to his new contract.

Alex Rodriguez, 3B/DH, New York Yankees

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Not counting Alex Rodriguez, it is difficult to find anyone who believes Rodriguez will be productive this season. His own team isn’t even convinced he can earn his time on the field.

    “I can't expect Alex to be anything,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told The Associated Press in December, via ESPN. “I've got to think the worst and hope for the best. Even before the suspension, he wasn't the same player at third base on the defensive or offensive side. And that was before the [Biogenesis] suspension. 

    “And now he's been out of the game for a year. He's approaching 40 years of age.”

    Just because the Yankees don’t expect much from Rodriguez does not mean he will escape the spotlight. Quite the opposite in fact. Rodriguez is going to be one of the most scrutinized players in baseball this season regardless of the number of plate appearances he accrues.

    That microscope brings pressure, and with Rodriguez’s desire to prove people wrong, he will pile pressure onto his own shoulders as well.

    Whatever the outcome, it will be well-covered, analyzed and questioned.

Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    If the even-keeled, mild-mannered lefty does not like pressure, he sure has the deck stacked against him.

    Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. He is the best player on the most expensive team in the game. And he has failed disastrously in the postseason.

    Mix all of those things in a smoldering vat and you end up with ridiculous expectations and pressure.

    Kershaw had an all-time great pitching season in 2014 and won the National League’s Cy Young and MVP awards. But he had some meltdowns in October, including giving up the game-winning home run that eliminated the Dodgers in the Division Series. In all, Kershaw allowed 11 earned runs in 12.2 innings in the playoffs, pushing his career postseason ERA to 5.12 in 51 innings.

    While it might be asking too much for Kershaw to repeat his regular season, it is hardly asking anything for him to be better in October. If he is not, the Dodgers cannot win the World Series. And if that is the case, and Kershaw is again the primary culprit, the criticism of one of the game’s good guys will become immense.

David Price, SP, Detroit Tigers

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    The Tigers have stripped their rotation of proven, productive starting pitchers. There is no more Max Scherzer. No more Doug Fister. No more Rick Porcello. And Justin Verlander appears to be a one-time ace in rapid decline.

    David Price is what they have left along with Anibal Sanchez. But let’s not beat around the ballpark here: Sanchez is good, but Price is their ace.

    The Tigers are an aging club. Verlander had a 4.54 ERA and 3.74 FIP last season. Miguel Cabrera, while productive for now, is breaking down, and Victor Martinez, 36, has suffered a second significant offseason knee injury after signing a four-year, $68 million contract in November. 

    That leaves Price. Healthy, productive and 29 years old until Aug. 26, he will have to carry the rotation every fifth game. And if these injuries continue, it will be up to him to carry a Tigers team that PECOTA sees as barely better than .500.

    Oh, and in case that weren’t enough for Price, he is in a contract year. Price will be one of the top pitchers in a free-agent market filled with them after this season. A great season from him could mean a contract in the $200 million range. A mediocre one could cost him as much as $50 million.

Jon Lester, SP, Chicago Cubs

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    The Cubbies definitely do not deserve the expectations or pressure yet, but it is certainly present on the north side of Chicago. And Jon Lester is a huge reason for it.

    Cubs fans are excited about their young core of hitters, their blossoming rotation and new manager, Joe Maddon. But Lester’s six-year, $155 million contract to lead the team’s rotation is what really sent the fanbase over the top.

    If Lester is anything short of a top-five Cy Young Award vote-getter, much of the blame for the Cubs not making the playoffs, assuming that happens, will fall on Lester. After all, he said he wanted to play for the Cubs because he saw this franchise becoming a winner.

    “Call it cocky, call it arrogant, call it whatever you want. I'm a winner, and that's what I came here to do,” Lester said in his introductory press conference.

    That was a perfect way to turn on the pressure and let it build for the next seven years, or until the Cubs break the curse.

Matt Kemp, RF, San Diego Padres

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Matt Kemp was a superstar in the land of celebrities when he was roaming the outfield for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But injuries, attitude and a second-half revival in the batter’s box led the Dodgers to trade their one-time franchise pillar to their rivals to the south. 

    Acquiring Kemp for what equates to $75 million over five years seemed too good to pass up for the Padres, but knowing Kemp, he will take this as a slight. He will believe the Dodgers did not gain enough in return, that they gave up on one of the league’s elite hitters. He will use the trade as fuel.

    And Kemp, along with fans in San Diego and Los Angeles, will put pressure on himself to perform and lead a revamped Padres roster into October.

    If Kemp fails to produce at an MVP-like level as he did after the All-Star break last year, there will be a checklist of slaps in the face: He can’t hit at Petco Park; the Dodgers were right to trade him when they did; he is well past his prime.

    Kemp wants to hear none of that, and he wants to show the Dodgers’ new front office was wrong to clear him from their outfield logjam.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Eric Hosmer was to be one of the saviors of the Royals, a player who would lead their resurgence. But after four seasons in the big leagues, Hosmer has been disappointingly average.

    Then, he made it into his first October.

    The Royals captured a wild-card berth last season, and Hosmer flourished in the playoff spotlight. He hit .351/.439/.544 with a .983 OPS with two homers and 12 RBI in 15 games.

    Finally, Hosmer arrived.

    Now he has to do it from April through September. The Royals are not a better team than they were last season, mainly because they will lose James Shields from their rotation. That means Hosmer will have to pick up the slack offensively and become the star player the organization believed it was drafting third overall in 2008.

Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, Seattle Mariners

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    Toru Takahashi/Associated Press

    The pitching has been there for years. The offense has not.

    But 2015 could be different. A year after signing Robinson Cano, the Mariners landed Nelson Cruz this offseason. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection model likes Cano to hit .299/.363/.453 with 17 home runs and a 5.3 WAR. It likes Cruz for 29 homers and a 2.3 WAR with blossoming Kyle Seager worth 21 homers and a 4.3 WAR.

    That trio, along with the rest of Seattle’s lineup and rotation, is now expected to lead the Mariners to the postseason for the first time since 2001. The team pushed its payroll to an estimated $115.8 million, more than $25 million more than it spent last season and the biggest jump in the majors. With that comes visions of October baseball in the Pacific Northwest.

    Manager Lloyd McClendon understands this and knows it can derail a team’s focus.

    “If we get concerned about expectations,” McClendon said at a press conference last month, “we’re not focused.”

    In a division loaded with competitive teams, even in Houston, the Mariners cannot afford to lose focus.

Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Corey Kluber was baseball’s breakout player in 2014. He won the American League Cy Young Award, but the Indians were worse by seven games than they were in 2013, when they were one of the league’s wild- card teams.

    That can’t happen again. Not when the Indians have a legitimate ace on the verge of a possible contract extension and are threatening to boast a great starting rotation—their 8.92 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014 was the highest rate ever in the modern era.

    Kluber is the key to this. Last season was only his second full major league year and it was light years better than what anyone expected. The problem with setting the bar so high is you are relied upon to do it again. The Indians will need a repeat from Kluber if they are going to even sniff the postseason.

    This year will show whether Kluber was a one-hit wonder at age 28 or if he has staying power among the game’s best pitchers.

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