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Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Hope in Spring

by Matt Smith

‘Hope springs eternal’, but in baseball spring is an eternal source of hope.

The sun beats down onto the backs of returning ballplayers in Arizona and Florida, some of the recipients driven by a winter of frustration, some emboldened by the confidence of success from the previous year.

It is the sense of renewal that makes spring such a glorious part of the baseball calendar. Everything starts again and that means anything is possible; however the past is always present in the mind and every player will have something to prove on the back of the 2012 performance.

Here are six players whose 2012 seasons, for differing reasons, will make following their fortunes in 2013 all the more intriguing.

Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)

When we witness a player excelling at a young age it is too tantalizing not to look ahead and wonder just how good he will become. Sportsmen often hit their peak in their late-twenties, so it is natural to see Mike Trout’s incredible performance as a 20 year-old in 2012 as a starting point for our expectations.

Yet how realistic would that be? Whilst experience and physical maturity could hone Trout’s remarkable talent even further, the level of competition in MLB must put a limit on how far he can improve.

It’s possible that Trout could have a long and successful career and never quite top 2012. If we use Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as our measure then Trout’s season (10.7 WAR) is the joint-17th highest in a single season since the end of World War Two. Of all the many thousands of individual player seasons from 1946 onwards, only 16 have been better judged by WAR.

Upon considering that staggering fact, no baseball fan can help but be fascinated by what Trout will serve up as an encore in 2013.

Roy Halladay (Philadelphia Phillies)

Whilst Trout was dazzling as a young star in the AL West, Halladay was struggling as a veteran star in the NL East.  2012 arguably was his worst full season since 2000.

A tough year as a 24 year old can be recovered from, as Halladay’s exceptional career since shows. Fighting back from a disappointing season when you are 36 is a much more difficult task. Halladay was clearly hampered by an injury to his right-shoulder and he has entered Spring Training with a revised training regime, adjusted pitching mechanics and a positive frame of mind.

Every player is in ‘the best shape of their life’ coming into Spring Training and it could be overly optimistic to consider 2012 as a mere bump in the road, but Halladay’s previous excellence means he deserves the benefit of the doubt. If the Phillies are to challenge the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in the NL East, they need ‘Doc’ to return to somewhere close to his previous form.

Jemile Weeks (Oakland A’s)

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Weeks came into the A’s Spring Training camp all set to become the leading face of the club. His impressive rookie campaign in 2011 had earned him an extremely rare compliment: the A’s General Manager Billy Beane described him as the one ‘untouchable’ asset on the roster that he wouldn’t consider trading.

In Oakland’s home season-opener against the Seattle Mariners, Weeks led off the bottom of the first inning with a single and the A’s TV commentators were quick to state that they expected big things of the second baseman in the season ahead.

Instead, Weeks played so poorly that he was demoted to Triple-A on 21 August and he was relegated to cheer-leading duty as Oakland secured a surprising AL West division title.

Weeks was defiant at the time of his demotion, stating: “at the end of the day, I’m going to be a star in this game, man. You’ve got to have your ups and downs. It just makes the story so much sweeter when you come back. I don’t want to expand too much on it, but you’re looking at a star, period”.

If Weeks is to live up to his own billing, he needs to have a big bounceback season in 2013. That includes simply winning a starting job during Spring Training.

Tim Lincecum (San Francisco Giants)

In 2012, Lincecum played his part in helping the Giants to their second World Series title in three years. However, the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s role was to chip in with 4.2 innings of relief pitching during the Fall Classic having lost his place in the starting rotation after putting up a 5.37 ERA over 33 regular season starts.

Lincecum will be a free agent at the end of the coming season and if he is to earn a lucrative new contract he will need to show that his disappointing 2012, and the declining speed of his fastball, was just a blip.

He turned up to the Giants’ Spring Training camp with his trademark long hair cut short, either as a sign that he is smartening up his act or that he is trying a reverse-Samson approach to regain his powers.

Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati Reds)

Lincecum was temporarily moved from starting to relief pitching for the 2012 playoffs and one of the biggest National League stories in Spring Training will be the Reds’ plan to take the opposite approach with their ‘Cuban missile’.

When Cincinnati won the race to Chapman’s signature in January 2010, their offer of a 6 year, $30.25m contract reflected the scouting reports that he could become a dominating starting pitcher. So far they have harnessed his blazing fastball/slider combination out of the bullpen to great effect and he took to the role of closer superbly last season, striking out a scarcely believable 122 batters in just 71.2 innings (15.3 K’s per 9 innings).

However, a quality starting pitcher that can give you 200 innings in a season, plus a potential dominant postseason start or two, is more valuable to a team than 70 innings as a closer and the Reds have decided now is the time to find out if Chapman has what it takes.

With Cincinnati all set to be in a tight NL Central battle with the St. Louis Cardinals, it will be interesting to see how much patience they have before deciding to move him back to the closer role.

Carl Crawford (Los Angeles Dodgers)

Here’s a question for you: will Crawford come into Spring Training this year happier than he did two years ago?

Back in 2011, he met his new Boston Red Sox teammates for the first time flush with a 7 year, $142m contract and full of excitement about what he hoped would be a successful new chapter in his career.  From the outside, everything was perfect, but there was a lingering doubt as to how Crawford would adapt to playing in the media hothouse of Boston compared to his days with the underdog Tampa Bay Rays.

The dream turned into a nightmare as a poor 2011 season was followed by an injury hit 2012. Crawford recently admitted to his feelings of desperation, stating: “I knew with the struggles I was having, it would never get better for me. I just didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. It puts you in kind of a depression stage. You just don’t see a way out”.

Thankfully for Crawford – and for the Red Sox – the dollar-dispensing Dodgers provided an unlikely way out with their summertime mega-trade. The outfielder is still rehabbing from elbow surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day, but 2013 will offer Crawford a chance to get his career back on track.

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Paul February 19, 2013 - 1:12 pm

I really hope Weeks can turn it around this year, even though he seems to be a bit arrogant. The A’s could do with someone speedy getting on-base plenty to go with the power bats. He’s going to have to play really well during spring though, especially since they acquired Lowrie.

Matt Smith February 19, 2013 - 7:02 pm

Hi Paul. Yes, he has a tough battle to win a roster spot. If he has a good Spring then I think he will make the roster but he won’t have a guaranteed starting place and can’t expect to get too long of a chance to play through any slumps. I like the signing of Lowrie because he gives the A’s insurance across the infield. Hopefully Nakajima will settle in at shortstop, but if not Lowrie offers a very steady replacement waiting in the wings, possibly with Nakajima switching to second. Third base isn’t locked down for anyone either. Billy Beane has seemed to have concentrated on getting good depth and then seeing how the year pans out, which is what worked well last year.


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