Commentary

Identifying those who have a lot to prove in '08

Originally Published: December 20, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Every major league ballplayer is driven to a certain degree. But to paraphrase a line from George Orwell's "Animal Farm,'' some players are more driven than others.

Maybe it's the sting of media criticism, the memory of a lost season, a recent steroid revelation or the desire to prove that everything is in good working order after an injury. Some players are getting an extra kick in the pants this winter as they find that interest on the free agent market is minimal.

As the Hot Stove season careens toward Christmas break, this week's "Starting 9" list is devoted to players who will be more motivated than usual in 2008. Here's a position-by-position look at major leaguers with a little something extra to prove.

Mark Prior

P Mark Prior When baseball people were mapping out Prior's Hall of Fame course in 2002, here's one development nobody envisioned: The Cubs non-tendering him after his fifth season, allowing him to be a free bird at age 27.

On the way to becoming the next Jim Palmer, Prior turned into a right-handed version of Steve Avery. He's pitched a total of 329 innings since 2004, and he heard a lot of whispers that he was "soft'' before Dr. James Andrews took a good look at his shoulder and found he was legitimately hurt.

Prior might still be a Cub if he were willing to lock into a club option for 2009. But he wants to test the market as a free agent, and the Cubs weren't interested in investing another $3 million in him next season only to watch him go 10-2 and hit the road. Now he's out there for the taking.

San Diego is a natural fit for Prior, for lots of reasons other than the weather. Prior went to high school in the city and his family still lives there. Petco Park is a great pitchers' park, and San Diego's coaching and training staff has a reputation for working well with pitchers.

The prospect of joining a staff with Jake Peavy and future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Trevor Hoffman has some appeal, as well.

The Padres have made an offer, but Houston, Cincinnati, Washington, the New York Mets, St. Louis, Texas, Florida and Cleveland are also in the mix. If an interested suitor is willing to overpay for a year's worth of Prior, it might be tempting enough for him to look beyond California.

Others: Andy Pettitte, Dontrelle Willis, Chris Capuano, Kris Benson, Randy Johnson, Jason Schmidt, Zach Duke, Eric Gagne, Vicente Padilla, Scott Olsen, Adam Eaton, Bartolo Colon.

Michael Barrett

C Michael Barrett Barrett's signature 2007 moment occurred June 1, when he duked it out with teammate Carlos Zambrano in the Chicago Cubs' dugout. Barrett never clicked with manager Lou Piniella, and the altercation sealed his fate in Chicago. The Cubs traded him to San Diego on June 20.

As it turned out, the black eye and fat lip that Barrett incurred were a sign of things to come. He hit .226 for San Diego and walked twice in 136 plate appearances. Barrett suffered a concussion that limited him to 49 at-bats in August and September, and the Padres went 11-20 in games he started.

Despite all that, the Padres offered Barrett salary arbitration, and he accepted and signed a one-year deal Wednesday. Since the Padres aren't inclined to pay Barrett $3.5 million to back up Josh Bard, they'll continue to entertain trade offers. But other than Pittsburgh, it's been hard to find a team with interest.

Others: Johnny Estrada, Paul Lo Duca.

Nick Johnson

1B Nick Johnson Johnson will never be the classic slugger, but there's a lot to like when he's on his game. He's a .395 career on-base guy, a doubles machine and a slick fielder around the bag. When he's not in the trainer's room, he also defines the term "low maintenance.''

But after breaking his leg in a collision with Washington outfielder Austin Kearns in September 2006, Johnson spent all of last season on the disabled list. The injury was bad enough for him to visit the Mayo Clinic and have a titanium rod inserted into his hip and through his femur. The Nationals officially gave up on the possibility of a return in August.

Now the Nationals say Johnson should be at full strength on Opening Day. If that's true, manager Manny Acta will have a hard time finding at-bats for last season's feel-good story, Dmitri Young. But that's a whole different issue.

Others: Carlos Delgado, Richie Sexson.

Kaz Matsui

2B Kaz Matsui The last time Matsui signed a multiyear contract -- for three years and $20.1 million with the Mets in 2003 -- it was a fiasco. He arrived in New York with a big buildup and left with every conceivable shortcoming exposed.

As if the .256 batting average, the defensive lapses and the disabled list time weren't enough evidence that he was a flop, we learned that Matsui needed eyeglasses and had an annoying habit of circling ground balls to avoid the backhand play. In hindsight, it's hard to believe the Mets actually moved Jose Reyes to second base to make room for Matsui at shortstop.

Matsui found new life in Colorado last season. But skeptics point to his home-road splits as evidence that he was a Mile High mirage. Matsui hit .330 with an .863 on-base-slugging percentage at Coors Field and .249 with a .637 OPS on the road.

That disparity didn't prevent Houston general manager Ed Wade from signing Matsui to a three-year, $16.5 million contract. Here's hoping Matsui does a better job justifying this expenditure than the Mets' investment in him.

Others: Ray Durham, Adam Kennedy, Josh Barfield.

Miguel Tejada

SS Miguel Tejada His streak of 1,152 consecutive games ended in 2007. His power numbers have taken a dip. And after lots of Rafael Palmeiro references and Vitamin B-12 related suspicions, he took up four pages in the Mitchell report.

Now that the Astros have surrendered five players to acquire Tejada from Baltimore, they want him to combine with Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence and upgrade an offense that ranked 13th in the National League.

The Astros don't expect the same Tejada who hit 34 homers and drove in 150 runs for Baltimore in 2004 in the first year of a six-year, $72 million contract. But a reasonable facsimile sure would be nice.

Others: Bobby Crosby, Adam Everett, David Eckstein.

Scott Rolen

3B Scott Rolen Rolen isn't the first player who had trouble getting along with Larry Bowa or Tony La Russa. But his contentious relationships with both managers make you wonder if it's all their fault, or if Rolen might be a little too principled or strong-willed or sensitive for his own good.

The situation in St. Louis appeared to reach the point of no return when La Russa went on a stream-of-consciousness rant about Rolen at the winter meetings. Among other things, La Russa said the quest to find the source of his rift with Rolen is "driving me nuts.''

Rolen is a tough guy to trade because of his declining performance and the three years and $36 million left on his contract. Teams want to know if his shoulder is really healthy before they take the plunge.

Either St. Louis GM John Mozeliak ships Rolen to the Giants, Brewers or another team looking for a third baseman, or Rolen and La Russa achieve the seemingly impossible and find a way to coexist. Something has to give.

Others: Eric Chavez, Joe Crede, Dallas McPherson, Morgan Ensberg.

Jason Bay

OF Jason Bay Two months into the 2007 season, Pirates manager Jim Tracy said Bay has the potential to hit 45 homers one day.

"Is he capable of being a superstar-type player? Yes he is, in my opinion,'' Tracy said in June. "Didn't Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones blossom into who they've become? They began their careers as big-time helpers and blossomed into aircraft carriers.''

Four months later, Tracy was unemployed, and the Pirates could only wonder why their would-be aircraft carrier was putting up numbers more befitting a tugboat.

Bay homered eight times in 211 at-bats after the All-Star break on the way to a .247-21-84 season. Although he was bothered by tendinitis in his knee, he declined to use that as an excuse. Bay's name came up recently in trade speculation to Cleveland and San Diego, but the Pirates have refrained from dealing him when his value is at an ebb. As long as he's still wearing a Pittsburgh uniform, they need him to produce like the Jason Bay of old.

Andruw Jones

OF Andruw Jones There's a widespread perception that Jones posts big numbers against mediocre pitching and disappears against the frontline guys. Just for kicks, we took a spin through some of his individual matchups to see how he fares.

As it turns out, Jones is a career 2-for-13 (.154) against Brandon Webb; 3-for-16 (.188) against Aaron Harang; 7-for-37 (.189) vs. Pedro Martinez; 8-for-45 (.178) against Brett Myers; 3-for-20 (.150) off Carlos Zambrano; and 1-for-15 (.067) vs. Jake Peavy.

But it's not all gloom and doom. Jones wears out Roy Oswalt to the tune of a .538 average (7-for-13), and he has six homers in 45 at-bats against Brad Penny.

Jones was bad enough last season that agent Scott Boras quickly relented on his desire for a long-term contract and sent him to the Dodgers for two years and $36.2 million. If Jones can re-establish himself under Joe Torre in Los Angeles, he has a chance to go back out on the market and score a bigger deal at age 32.

Jim Edmonds

OF Jim Edmonds Edmonds is 37 years old and showing all the signs of a guy nearing the end. Since his huge 2004 season with St. Louis, his home run total has declined from 42 to 12, his RBI output has slipped from 111 to 53, and his OPS nosedived from 1.061 to .728.

Will the sun, sand and familiar surroundings of his native California lead to a revival? That's what the Padres were hoping when they traded third base prospect David Freese to St. Louis for Edmonds last week.

The Padres are leaning hard on aging, left-handed hitting outfielders with health issues. Brian Giles, San Diego's right fielder, is trying to come back from offseason microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Others: Vernon Wells, Bill Hall, J.D. Drew, Milton Bradley, Craig Monroe, Rick Ankiel, Lastings Milledge, Mark Kotsay, Luis Gonzalez.

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.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer