Picking comeback players or rebound stories in the preseason is tricky business. They're called "surprises" for a reason. Generally speaking, though, one bad year doesn't doom a career; players who have performed well in the past and suffer a lapse in performance tend to bounce back, all else being equal. Frequently all else is not equal, though, as injuries, age, a change in a player's skillset or any combination of the three can turn one bad year into the beginning of a decline. Here, we'll look at four position players who had disappointing 2013s and why they could bounce back in the upcoming season -- or why disappointment might be their new normal.
Miguel Montero, C, Diamondbacks
In a lot of ways, picking bounce-back candidates should be easier than picking breakout candidates, right? You just glance at the player's stats for the last couple of years before his downturn last season, and if they're good, he's likely to come back strong, and if they're not, maybe the year before last year -- the good year that's giving him something to bounce back to -- is the aberration. Miguel Montero would be the poster boy for this kind of analysis. Going into last season, Montero had put up four consecutive years of above-average to excellent hitting for the Diamondbacks out of the catcher spot, hitting .283/.361/.457 (116 OPS+) in 1,927 plate appearances. Last year, his age 29 season, he hit a mere .230/.318/.344 (83 OPS+) in 475 PA, his fewest in a year since playing only 85 games in 2010. As Montero is only 30 years old and is a proven, known quantity, he should be a top pick to bounce back, right?
Well, yes and no. Like most players who show up on lists like these, Montero's woes in 2013 can be blamed at least partially on injuries. Not only did Montero hurt his left hand repeatedly (the last of which coming after the end of the season in October, when he had to get surgery on his index finger to deal with an infection), but he had lower-back problems all season long, culminating with a trip to the disabled list for almost all of August when it finally became untenable to continue letting him play through it. His various injuries sapped his ability to hit both for average and power, though he was still able to get on base a non-disastrous amount thanks to his eye. And Montero's been working a big-league slate of games since he was 23; while most players aren't going to decline until their mid-30s or so, that nifty bell-curve progression isn't a one-size-fits-all career projection model, especially for players at positions with high risk of collision like catcher and second base. Still, if his body cooperates, it's hard to pick against his track record.
Nick Markakis, RF, Orioles
Some players' track records are just weird. Take Nick Markakis, another 30-year-old who's been in the league since he was 22 and is coming off the worst full season of his career. Markakis has never slugged over .500 or (before last year) below .400 in a single season, but look at what he did within that range between 2006 and 2012: .448, .485, .491, .453, .436, .406, .471. In each of these seasons, he had an above-league-average bat (though how much above league-average varied with how well he was slugging) while maintaining a batting average that was usually within a couple points of .295, but the difference in profile between a guy hitting near .300 and slugging almost .500 and a guy hitting near .300 and barely slugging .400 is substantial. Last year, Markakis put up the worst season of his career: 700 plate appearances of .271/.329/.356 hitting. If he was hurt, it was nothing significant enough to take him out of the lineup or cause him to miss playing time. Nevertheless, a player who had never had an OPS under .750 for a season played 160 games and batted .685. There was no way that the Orioles were going to bench him; Markakis is in the backloaded final years of the six-year, $66 million extension Baltimore inked him to after his red-hot 2008, an extension he's only really lived up to thanks to contract inflation over the last three or four seasons.
Markakis has shown up to camp for Baltimore with all the usual "best shape of his life" trappings (lot of arm workouts this past offseason, it seems) but it's hard to know how that will translate on the field in regular season games. Though it's worth noting that in spring training games against MLB quality pitchers he's looked very impressive so far, he had fewer than 20 plate appearances going into Tuesday, a smaller than meaningless sample regardless of the fact he was hitting .625. More importantly, if Markakis does bounce back, who will he bounce back to? The guy who hit .298/.363/.471 in an injury-shortened 2012, or the one who hit .284/.351/.406 the year before that? It's a bit late for him to make good on the promise of 2008, but he should still be able to get back to the .800-.820 OPS level of production, and the good news is that Markakis won't be expected to carry the offense in Baltimore like in years past -- he just needs to contribute to a machine mostly powered by Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz.
B.J. Upton, CF, Braves
The expectations for B.J. Upton are a bit more modest. First, he needs to not be a below-replacement level player at a premium position making more than $13 million a year. Then the conversation can start about everything else.
The contract didn't look like a good deal for the Braves by the time the ink dried, but even the direst predictions about Upton's future pegged him as being unremarkable and unreliable for a couple years and then declining harshly just as the last two big years of the contract came due. They didn't peg him to be a .184/.268/.289 hitter who was so actively detrimental to the team in all aspects of his game that by the end of the season the Braves had moved starting rightfielder Jason Heyward back into center and played Evan Gattis and Justin Upton in the corners, parking B.J. Upton squarely on the bench.
Given the choice between Upton and Michael Bourn, the Braves clearly chose poorly (though the right answer was to give neither man $75 million, the four years, $48 million Bourn got from the Indians was far more reasonable), but the bed has been made and Atlanta needs to figure out how best to lay in it. Upton is another guy who has been the league almost a decade despite being only 28. Outside of his outstanding 2007 -- in which he hit .300/.386/.508 in 548 PA, a performance his reputation has coasted on for years -- he's never been a great hitter and especially has never hit well for average, but he was a slightly better than league-average bat (.255/.336/.422. 105 OPS+) over 4,063 plate appearances during his time in Tampa Bay. It's possible that Upton could just be done. It does happen sometimes even without injury, like someone somewhere just flipped a switch and suddenly a player can't put good wood on a fastball anymore, but it's not very common. It's certainly more likely he'll fight his way back to usefulness than it is that, say, Dan Uggla will reverse his catastrophic three-year decline. His most likely bounce back, however, is one that takes him from below replacement level to a modest bit above it -- that is to say, one that once again justifies him being on the team, but not one that justifies paying him the money he's being paid. So it goes.
Melky Cabrera, OF, Blue Jays
That brings us full circle, back to the question we started with: How do we tell if it's the bad year that's the aberration, or if it was actually the fantastic previous season that was unsustainable? Melky Cabrera is the league poster child for the latter situation: a career 85 OPS+ hitter for six seasons with the Yankees and Braves, Cabrera went to the Royals in 2011 and hit .300 for the first time in his career, posting a 121 OPS+ as a centerfielder for KC. Then he went to the Giants in 2012 and improved even, hitting .346 (!!) and putting up a 157 OPS+, something that would have handily won him the batting title and put him in the conversation for National League MVP.
And then, of course, came the PED suspension. Cabrera was disqualified from the batting title and benched by San Francisco even after his suspension ended, with the Giants not even putting him on their playoff roster. In the offseason he signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays, which would have been a steal of a contract if Cabrera didn't appear to be one of the few guys for whom PEDs actually are Magic Dinger Juice: He immediately regressed to the Melky from New York and Atlanta, hitting .279/.322/.360 for an 88 OPS+ in his first season as a Jay.
First, it is possible, but not unlikely, that Cabrera first tried using banned substances to improve his baseball ability with the Royals at age 26 and used them throughout that season and the next until he got caught. However, we should be consistent: If a player is caught using PEDs, all his numbers should become suspect, not just the good ones. Second, there is a non-PED related explanation for Cabrera's fall off in 2013: He spent much of the season hurt, appearing in only 88 games thanks to a benign tumor he had to have removed from his back. Absent the PED suspension, the biggest storyline about Cabrera's 2013 would be how it was ruined by something that thankfully wasn't more serious. As it is, he has to go out and stop the narrative around his career from fully cementing him as a chemically made man.
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All of these guys have the ability to bounce back this year, even Cabrera -- in fact, if there's one of this foursome I'm least confident in, it's not him but Upton. That said, there's always the chance that a guy who has a year as bad as these four had in 2013 is just done. After all, that's what makes the surprise of the comeback so sweet.