- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The 2008 baseball season has had an abundance of feel-good stories, from Josh Hamilton's first-half fairy tale to Cliff Lee's story of redemption to Dustin Pedroia standing up for little guys with big motors and bigger mouths.
But as Colorado manager Clint Hurdle is so fond of saying, the game has two kinds of people -- those who are humbled and those who are about to be.
In this week's edition of Starting 9, we turn our attention to nine players who entered the season with high expectations but put a crimp in their teams' chances with a puzzling lack of performance. Seven of the nine are under age 30 and appeared to be on the verge of breakthroughs, only to take significant steps back.
All of them (with the possible exception of our No. 7 choice) will be going home shortly and will have all winter to take stock, re-assess and begin the process of turning it around. Meet our "Back to the Drawing Board" All-Stars.
Jeff Francoeur, Braves (11 homers, 67 RBIs, .644 OPS)
After hitting 29 homers in his first full season, Francoeur took pains to become a more well-rounded, selective hitter. He raised his OBP from .293 to .338, but his power took a dive. So he tried an NFL-style workout program last offseason and packed on 20 pounds.
The result? A complete mess.
The Braves sent Francoeur to the minors for a refresher course in July, only to recall him after three days. Francoeur consulted with his high school coach in an effort to fix his swing. He grew a beard, shaved it, tried wearing a contact lens in his right eye and dropped the 20 pounds he gained over the winter, but nothing helped. One scout said Francoeur looked "mentally fried" for much of the year.
"At one point this season, he was the most confused, uncomfortable hitter I saw," the scout said. "He had no idea at the plate whatsoever. When you slump and you're off mechanically and you're the type of hitter he is -- where you swing at everything and have no consideration for the strike zone and a total disregard for the count -- you're going to have a lot more trouble getting out of a big slump."
Francoeur still has the tools, competitiveness and drive to be a good player, but an .800 OPS might be his ceiling because of his inability to draw walks. He's had precious little breathing room as a former Atlanta high school hero playing for the local team, so a change of scenery might be the best thing for his career.
A year ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Braves to entertain trade proposals for Francoeur. Now you have to believe general manager Frank Wren will at least listen this winter. But do the Braves have the stomach to move Francoeur when his value is at an ebb, and risk having him pull a Carlos Quentin somewhere else?
Robinson Cano, Yankees (.260 batting average, .294 OBP)
Melky Cabrera played his way back to Scranton, and Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy failed to fill the void in the rotation the way GM Brian Cashman had hoped they would. But none of the young Yankees has had a bigger fall from grace than Cano.
So much for those Rod Carew comparisons. Cano went 16-for-106 (.151) in April and looked completely out of sync. He's a timing and rhythm hitter, with lots of moving parts, and if his front foot isn't down in time, his swing gets longer and fastballs can get on him in a hurry.
Cano's batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, was .271 this season, compared to .329 in 2007, so he might have hit into some bad luck. His patented second-half surge came in July, but he eventually ran out of base hits in September.
Things have gotten worse recently with all the extracurricular stuff. Manager Joe Girardi benched Cano this week for a lack of hustle against Tampa Bay. Lots of people in New York theorize that Cano: a) misses former coach Larry Bowa, who did a great job staying on him; and b) put it on cruise control after signing a four-year, $30 million contract extension.
While it's tempting to look at Cano's smooth actions and think he's dogging it, he has always been more comfortable taking extra batting practice than fielding extra ground balls.
"It's really easy, when a guy is hitting .320, to ignore the fact that he's not a great defender," said a scout. "To me, he's never been a great defender. It's just more noticeable when he's not hitting."
Justin Verlander, Tigers (10-16, 4.78 ERA)
In an ESPN.com preseason poll, nine of 20 writers picked Verlander to win the American League Cy Young Award. And why not? He threw a no-hitter last season, won 18 games and ranked among the league's top 10 in strikeouts and quality starts.
Still, it's been a grind. When scouts noticed a slight change in his arm angle and a dip in his radar-gun readings, there were rumors that Verlander might be hurt. But he hit 97 mph in his last start against the White Sox, so health doesn't appear to be an issue.
Manager Jim Leyland has questioned Verlander's pitch selection and told him to stop making excuses after the pitcher complained about umpire Chuck Meriwether's strike zone. Former Tigers ace Jack Morris told The Detroit News that Verlander relies too much on "God-given ability" and needs to have more of a game plan. The Tigers also think Verlander needs to smooth out his mechanics to become more consistent. He has a tendency to spin off and open up in his delivery, and his command suffers as a result.
Verlander's strikeouts are down, his walks are up and his ERA has jumped more than a point, but look for him to bounce back and have another good year in 2009. With $50 million committed to Willis and Robertson, the Tigers have far bigger concerns in the rotation.
Kenji Johjima, Mariners (.212, .259 OBP, .304 slugging)
Johjima got off to a woeful start with the bat, and like Francoeur, he lacked the plate discipline to find his bearings. He routinely swung at balls and laid off strikes, and he never seemed to hit the ball with authority.
The problems transcended offense. Johjima takes pride in his defense and works hard at it, but he can be headstrong, and it's been a challenge for him to mesh with the Seattle staff. When pitchers weren't complaining that he set up too late behind the plate and failed to provide a good target, they were griping about the way he called a game.
Carlos Silva and Erik Bedard, Seattle's two free-agent signings, were among the displeased Mariners. One person close to the team said it became easy for the team's pitchers to "scapegoat" Johjima for their own problems.
So where do the Mariners go now? They signed Johjima to a three-year, $24 million deal at the insistence of ownership, so they're stuck with him for a while. This is one move that backfired and can't be pinned on former GM Bill Bavasi.
Jeff Clement, the third overall pick in the 2005 draft, didn't exactly burn it up before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Clement hit .227 in 203 at-bats -- quite unimpressive for a guy whose strong point is supposed to be offense.
Aaron Harang, Reds (4-16, 4.96 ERA)
Harang is living proof that a pitcher's won-loss record can be deceptive. Among big league starters, only Oakland's Greg Smith and Washington's Jason Bergmann have received worse run support than Harang, who's had to make do with 2.98 runs per game.
The demarcation line between the dependable Harang and the awful version came during an 18-inning game at Petco Park on May 25, when Reds manager Dusty Baker summoned Harang out of desperation for 63 pitches and four innings of shutout relief. Three days later, Harang started on short rest and was shelled by Pittsburgh. In this case, Baker's managerial strategy was crying out for an intervention.
Even though Harang went down for a month with a strained forearm, he refused to use the injury as an excuse. But it helps explain his wavering command and all those hanging sliders. For the record, Harang was 2-6 with a 3.50 ERA before his San Diego bullpen cameo. He's 2-10, 6.48 since.
In April, Harang became the first Reds pitcher since Jose Rijo to start three straight Opening Days. He's signed to a four-year, $36.5 million deal, and the Reds expect Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto to anchor their staff next year while Micah Owings, Nick Masset, Homer Bailey and others compete for the No. 5 slot. The Reds have the potential for a nice rotation.
Jeff Francis, Rockies (4-10, 5.01 ERA)
Francis didn't bear much resemblance to the pitcher who posted a 44-32 record from 2005 through 2007 and started Game 1 of the World Series last year in Boston. His velocity dipped into the low 80s at times, and hitters were able to dive over the plate because he didn't have enough fastball to keep them honest inside.
At one point, GM Dan O'Dowd used the word "perplexing" to describe Francis's comedown, but the answer gradually became clear. Francis's left shoulder bothered him so much that he stopped throwing bullpen sessions between starts because he only had so many bullets. He spent a month on the disabled list in an effort to remedy the problem, and the Rockies finally shut him down as a precaution Tuesday.
With Francis in a funk, Franklin Morales stuck in Triple-A Colorado Springs for most of the season and Mark Redman and former No. 1 pick Greg Reynolds posting a combined 7.47 ERA in 21 starts, Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez were left to carry a disproportionate share of the load atop the rotation. Funny, but we didn't hear much humidor talk out of Colorado this season, did we?
Rickie Weeks, Brewers (.233 with 12 homers)
Weeks was hyped as a 2008 breakout candidate after a torrid finish last season. Now that it's mid-September and he has a lower OPS than Akinori Iwamura, let's scratch that prediction. The Brewers are scrambling to beat out the Mets and Phillies for the wild card, and Ray Durham is logging the bulk of the playing time at second base while Weeks sits and watches.
It might be time to junk that "young Gary Sheffield" tag. Weeks is 26 years old, with almost 1,595 major league at-bats on his résumé, and he's a .245 hitter with a .403 slugging percentage. He's been particularly ineffectual at home this season, with two home runs in 209 at-bats at Miller Park.
One team's scouting report on Weeks: His bat speed is exceptional, but his plate coverage is underwhelming. While Weeks crushes fastballs on the inner half, he can be vulnerable to breaking balls and hard stuff away.
Although Weeks' defensive numbers look respectable enough this season, his arm is erratic, he has problems turning the double play and he looks scared to have the ball hit to him in big spots. Maybe the Brewers should pull a B.J. Upton with him and shift him to center field.
"They think he's really started to take his defense to the plate with him," said a scout.
Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates (6-9, 6.66 ERA, 1.80 WHIP)
At least Pittsburgh's pitching is consistent. National League hitters batted .288 against the Pirates last season, and it's .289 this year. With the exception of Paul Maholm, who has given the team a professional outing every fifth day, the entire rotation has been a disappointment. That's put some heat on pitching coach Jeff Andrews, who was supposed to do a better job of relating to the team's young starters than his predecessor, Jim Colborn.
Gorzelanny, 14-10 a year ago, gets the nod over Ian Snell and Zach Duke because his comedown has been so pronounced. He has 67 strikeouts and 70 walks, and he was so hittable in July the Pirates shipped him off to Triple-A Indianapolis for seven starts. In contrast to the Phillies' Brett Myers, Gorzelanny never got over the hump. Now he's done for the year with a finger injury.
Some people in Pittsburgh think Gorzelanny got a little case of "Hey, I've arrived!" and showed up in Florida complacent and out of shape last spring. The Pirates are counting on a better year out of him in 2009, but he needs to show more commitment out of the gate.
Daniel Cabrera, Orioles (8-10, 5.25 ERA)
Baltimore pitching coach Rick Kranitz and manager Dave Trembley gave Cabrera a mandate in spring training: Stand tall in your delivery. Use your 6-foot-7 frame to your advantage, and throw downhill to maximize your sink.
After Cabrera reeled off eight straight quality starts and raised his record to 5-1 in May, it appeared that Baltimore's perpetual tease was getting the message. Four months later, he's the same old Cabrera -- exasperating and, more often than not, behind in the count.
In fairness, Cabrera's fastball has dipped from the mid-90s to the high 80s because of a lingering elbow problem. That helps explain those 95 strikeouts in 180 innings. Orioles fans might cut Cabrera more slack if they weren't so tired of this story. Ray Miller, Leo Mazzone and now Kranitz have all failed to tap Cabrera's supposedly limitless potential.
"If I'm the Orioles, I'm never going to count on this guy to be more than a fifth starter," a scout said. "With his physical ability, maybe they should just throw him in the back end of the bullpen and see what he does in short stretches."
More likely, after years of reluctance to trade Cabrera for fear he might blossom elsewhere, the Orioles will move him or even non-tender him rather than commit to a deal for $4.5 million-plus this winter.