Friday, February 29, 2008
Six players shooting for bounce-back seasons
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
The videotape has been dissected, the nagging injuries have healed, and the obligatory episodes of frustration and self-doubt are in the past.
Spring training is often characterized as a time of rebirth and renewal, and that's especially true for good players coming off bad seasons. When you've endured booing, too much time in the trainer's room and lots of well-intended suggestions from teammates and coaches who empathize with your plight, the best thing to do is compartmentalize and move forward.
Here are six players in the Cactus League who failed to perform to their personal standards in 2007. Will 2008 be a more rewarding experience? They certainly hope so.
Barry Zito, San Francisco (11-13, 4.53 ERA in 196 2/3 innings)
The list of starting pitchers with stat lines comparable to Zito's last season begins with Wandy Rodriguez, Chad Gaudin and Jason Marquis. That's not exactly the company the Giants had in mind when they signed Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract.
Reason to believe: Zito was 4-3 with a 3.33 ERA over the last two months of the 2007 season.
Zito, as he is wont to do, was guilty of overanalyzing and putting too much pressure on himself to justify his megadeal. And his teammates didn't do him any favors. Zito received the third-worst run support in the National League before the Giants erupted for 18 runs in his last two starts. He also piled up some huge pitch counts and fell short of 200 innings for the first time in his career.
Nevertheless, Zito closed with a rush, posting a 3.10 ERA over his final nine appearances. He traces his turnaround to a mid-August start against Pittsburgh, when he decided to just let it fly and worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first inning.
"I had been going out there and wanting to prove myself in light of the contract, the attention and all that stuff," Zito said. "Those intentions are good, but you block your ability and talent by having tension in your body. After a few rough months in a row, you get to a point where you kind of say, 'Screw it.'"
Now that the Mariners have upgraded their pitching, they need to find a way to score more runs. Nothing would help more than a return to form by Sexson, who got into an early funk and never recovered.
Because of his elongated swing, Sexson might have suffered more than anyone from that memorable snowed-out series in Cleveland last April. After a five-day hiatus from games, he returned to hit .145 for the month. The more he flailed, the more fans in Seattle made him a target for their dissatisfaction.
Why should things be different this season? Sexson reported to camp in terrific shape, and he's working overtime in the cage with hitting coach Jeff Pentland. He even made an appearance at the Mariners' FanFest event in January in a sort of "let's all put 2007 behind us" good-faith gesture.
"I think Richie is going to have a big year for us," said Mariners manager John McLaren. "I really believe that. The way he's going through drills and working extra, he's coming back and he's gonna show some people. He's a big piece of the puzzle, let's be honest about it. He's got something you can't teach -- hitting the ball out of the ballpark."
Bill Hall, Milwaukee (.254, 14 homers, 63 RBIs in 136 games)
The conventional wisdom is that Hall's offense dipped because of his shift from third base to center field last season. As Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin points out, teams also began pitching him more cautiously after he broke through for 35 homers in 2006.
But there were other reasons for the decline. Hall began pressing after a slow start, and his mechanics got seriously out of whack. He began over-rotating with his upper half -- in effect, turning his back to the pitcher -- and was forced to start his bat earlier to catch up with the hard stuff. When pitchers began throwing him more junk, he was way out in front of it.
Factor in an ankle injury that made it difficult for Hall to push off his back foot, and you have all the ingredients for a downer year.
Two weeks after the season ended, Hall hit the batting cage at home in Arizona and remedied his swing issues. He said he's had a "bad taste" in his mouth since October, and couldn't wait for spring training to begin.
"I don't make excuses for myself," Hall said. "Last year is over for me. I know what kind of player I am and what kind of player I'm going to be."
Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (7-14, 5.76 ERA, .288 BAA)
In the scouting community, Santana has uncharitably been described as a "head case," or lacking in mental toughness. But the same talent evaluators thought quite highly of him when he posted a 28-16 record in his first two seasons with the Angels.
Santana went 2-2 with a 2.96 ERA last September, with 30 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings.
So what happened last year? Santana was actually decent at home. It was his road performance (1-10 with an 8.38 ERA) that curled your hair. He was also very good in September after pitching coach Mike Butcher worked with him to correct a glitch in his delivery.
In a nutshell, Santana had problems with his hip turn, which made it difficult for him to incorporate his legs in his delivery. His command suffered, he lost some bite on his slider and the velocity on his fastball dipped from 93-94 mph to 89-91 mph. That made his changeup less effective as a result.
"The windup of a pitcher is an athletic move," said manager Mike Scioscia. "He wasn't 'loading,' and his lower half wasn't as much in the picture as it needed to be. It's something we needed to correct."
Santana posted a sub-2.00 ERA in 28 innings of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, so it's all systems go. With Kelvim Escobar on the disabled list with a shoulder injury to begin the season, the Angels are counting on Santana and Joe Saunders to shore up the back end of the rotation and give the Angels the jump on those ambitious Seattle Mariners.
"I don't think focus is his problem," Angels catcher Jeff Mathis said of Santana. "He's ready to pitch every day. For me, it's a matter of us trying to keep him confident in his stuff and what he has out there -- because his stuff is really good."
Eric Chavez, Oakland (.240, 15 homers, .306 OBP in 90 games)
File Chavez under "medical disaster." He underwent two shoulder surgeries and a back operation in 2007, making it a year to forget.
Now Chavez is married to what he calls "the process." He has his own warm-up routine, stretching regimen, pre-designed workout and cooldown, followed by the obligatory icing session. Can all that preparation keep him in one piece through spring training and 162 games? We'll see.
One thing is for sure: If Chavez feels an ache, a twinge or the slightest warning sign that he might have a problem, he won't hesitate to rest and make sure the issue doesn't spiral out of control. Chavez has already experienced some back stiffness in spring training, and the A's said Friday that they're going to give him an epidural and shut him down for four to five days as a precaution before re-evaluating his condition.
"I'm at the point now where I'm not going to overlook anything for the rest of my career," Chavez said. "I take a lot of pride in playing a lot of ballgames and getting out on the field, but I'm definitely going to look out for myself. My mentality has changed a little bit in that sense."
Although Chavez seems like a good bet to eclipse his 2007 numbers, logic says he'll be even more effective next year, when he's further removed from his surgical trifecta. He still has three years and $34 million left on his contract, so the youthful and rebuilding A's need him to return to a reasonable approximation of his old form.
Jim Edmonds, San Diego (.252, 12 homers, 53 RBIs in 117 games)
Edmonds is bounding around the Padres' camp like a teenager, and it's no wonder: He's back in his native Southern California. He says he's the healthiest he's been in quite some time. And you might feel liberated, too, if you no longer had to sit around and listen to Tony La Russa and Scott Rolen bicker for eight months a year.
How much does Edmonds have left at age 37? His numbers have taken a huge dip since he hit .301 with 42 homers and 111 RBIs for St. Louis in 2004. But he was consistently dinged up as a Cardinal -- with injuries to his foot, shoulder and back, as well as a concussion -- and he knew he was simply keeping the seat warm in center field for elite prospect Colby Rasmus.
"This is the first time in a long time when he's had an offseason where he could just prepare and not be rehabbing from an injury," said Padres general manager Kevin Towers. "He's probably a guy who needed a change of scenery. Here's a guy who's used to being an All-Star, core player. I think he's motivated to show the Cardinals, 'I can still play.'"
The Padres are paying only $6 million of Edmonds' $8 million salary, so he's not a huge drain on the budget. Is he physically capable of playing 140-150 games at cavernous Petco Park? Right now the Padres are looking at Scott Hairston and Jeff DaVanon as their center-field backups, so they can't afford to have Edmonds on the disabled list for an extended period.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.