The crack of the bat and thud of a baseball striking the mitt in the comparative warmth of Florida and Arizona signal more than the launching of spring training. They trumpet new opportunities for players to reach their potential.
The game is replete with hitters and pitchers who, for a myriad of reasons, have not lived up to the promise heaped upon them. Some have been held back by injury. Others simply don’t boast the ability that scouts, front offices and media believe they own. Still others might have been mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by the transition from the minors to the majors.
This time of year heralds another chance for one and all. Most of the following are still young. But 2017 could be their swan song as stud prospects. It doesn’t take long for potential stars to be downgraded to disappointment. So without further ado, those listed (alphabetically) here are sitting precariously on the edge.
Byron Buxton (CF, Minnesota): Once regarded as the premier prospect in baseball, Buxton finally emerged in September to hit seven home runs. But he needs to dramatically reduce his strikeouts—he fanned a disturbing 118 times in 298 at-bats last year. That greatly explained a .284 on-base percentage, which simply won’t cut it if Buxton is to emerge as the star most predicted he’d become. That emergence would prove critical to a turnaround for a Twins team that collapsed last season.
James Paxton (SP, Seattle): This left-hander and former first-round pick of the Blue Jays pitched lights-out when he arrived in the bigs with the Mariners, winning all three of his starts in 2013 with a 0.917 WHIP. But, he has taken a dip every season since. He allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time in 2016 despite striking out nearly a batter per inning. Paxton is a bit of a mystery, but seems a lock for the Seattle starting rotation this year. At 28, it might be now or never, at least in regard to reaching his potential.
Michael Pineda (SP, New York Yankees): Speaking of former Seattle starters, this one arrived like a house afire in 2011. Then, re-emerged from injury in 2014 to post a sparkling 1.89 ERA for the Yankees. But despite excellent strikeout totals, it has been all downhill from there. Pineda continues to be destroyed by the long ball, having given up 48 in 336 1/3 innings over the last two years. He bottomed out with 27 in 175 2/3 innings in 2016 while posting a less than ideal 4.82 ERA. He’s listed as the second starter in a poor New York rotation this season, but the Yankees might prove rather impatient with him.
Jurickson Profar (LF, Texas): Like Buxton, this fading outfielder was once deemed the top prospect in the sport. Oh, how times have changed. Profar has been moved from the infield to the outfield and is simply hoping to maintain a starting position. His numbers have been consistently ghastly over three seasons. He slugged just .338 a year ago and managed only 14 extra-base hits in 272 at-bats. Power was never his game, but he also stole just two bases. The Rangers are playing to win a championship these days. They can’t afford to tolerate that level of production from their starting left fielder.
Yasiel Puig (RF, Los Angeles Dodgers): First step: Grow up. You’re 26 years old. Signs pointed at times last year that Puig was taking his role as a teammate more seriously. That he was trying to develop into a more well-rounded ballplayer that actually performed tasks like hitting the cutoff man. But Puig has collapsed at the plate since finishing among the top 20 in the NL MVP voting after his first two seasons. His slugging percentage dropped to a career-low .416 last year. Trade rumors have swirled around Puig, who could once and for all be at the end of his rope in Los Angeles.
Danny Salazar (SP, Cleveland): It’s hard to win consistently when you seemingly go 3-2 on every batter and can’t get out of the sixth inning. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued Salazar since his emergence in 2013, when he performed well enough to earn a start in the Wild Card game against Tampa Bay. He did make an All-Star appearance last year, but collapsed thereafter. Then, lost the end of the regular season to an elbow injury. He returned to pitch well in a couple postseason outings, but can no longer count on a 100 mph fastball. Salazar still boasts the talent—particularly a devastating change-up—to realize his potential. But it’s time to take it to the next level.
Miguel Sano (3B, Minnesota): Sano is only 23 and still boasts MVP potential. But 2016 was a severe disappointment—allowing him to fit right in with the Twins. His line of .236/.319/.462 and 178 strikeouts in 437 at-bats scream out that he has much work to do at the plate. Free swingers such as Sano are going to stir up breezes often. But he needs to make enough solid contact to take advantage of his tremendous power. Sano managed just two multi-hit games over the last five weeks. That ain’t gonna get it done.
Giancarlo Stanton (RF, Miami): Stanton lost six weeks late last year to a groin injury, but could not blame it for a highly disappointing season. Folks are waiting for Stanton to take the step to super-stardom that befits the most powerful slugger in the sport. Every number in his slash line has decreased markedly since 2014. Of course, Stanton receives little protection in the lineup. Perhaps it would help if Christian Yelich followed rather than preceded him. But he needs to stay healthy and find the consistent stroke that once made him one of the most productive all-around power hitters in baseball.
Stephen Strasburg (SP, Washington): Enough is enough. Yeah, Strasburg has been devastated by injury. Such as those to his back, oblique and elbow. Those issues have sidelined him for long stretches. But there is still something missing. Strasburg owns perhaps the greatest swing-and-miss potential in the majors. But he has yet to be great at any point in his career. He has averaged nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings and his WHIP has remained around 1.1. Yet, he has neither posted an ERA lower than 3.00 in a full season nor won more than 15 games. And now that he’s reached 28 years old, one wonders if he ever will.
Marcus Stroman (SP, Toronto): Did a knee injury that cost Stroman nearly all of 2015 simply hold back his progress, or will it forever prevent him from realizing his vast potential? Stroman won 15 of his first 21 decisions in the big leagues with a WHIP around 1.1, but his sinker didn’t sink as well in 2016. He allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time along with 21 home runs. That’s not a huge total given the home ballpark in which he pitches, but it is too many for a sinker specialist. Stroman will receive plenty of opportunities this year to prove that his career is back on track.
Michael Wacha (SP, St. Louis): Fantasy owners who followed the advice of the experts and chose Wacha early in 2016 drafts spent much of the year kicking themselves. Wacha was simply brutal for seemingly inexplicable reasons after winning 17 of 24 decisions the year before. His WHIP rose from 1.213 to 1.478 despite similar walk and strikeout numbers. Wacha was simply far more hittable last season, but his curve and change-up should still play well against the best hitters in the National League. This could be a make-or-break year for Wacha.
Taijuan Walker (SP, Arizona): The Mariners tired of waiting for Walker, so they dispatched him to the Diamondbacks. This lefty teases with an occasional brilliant performance, but doesn’t boast the consistent control to stick around for more than five or six innings most of the time. He is also prone to the home run ball—giving up a shocking 27 in 134 1/3 innings last year. That does not bode well for 2017 in Arizona, however. After all, Chase Field is among the most inviting hitters parks in the sport.
Justin Upton (LF, Detroit): The next time this guy puts together a full season of production will be the first. His career has been marked by lengthy slumps, strikeout binges and devastating hot streaks. Upton bottomed out at .226 last August as one of the biggest disappointments in baseball. He then caught fire with 18 of his 31 home runs the rest of the way while raising his average 20 points. Upton seems to be one of those modern-day players who also cares not about how often he fans. He struck out a career-high 179 times in 2016 while managing just 50 walks. Upton will be 30 in August, which makes one wonder if the top pick in the 2005 draft will ever justify that selection. Time is running out.
Who do you think needs to arrive in 2017?