By: Andrew Thell
Vladimir Guerrero, DH,
Texas Rangers: Since breaking onto the scene in 1998 with the Montreal Expos, Vladimir Guerrero has consistently been one of the most entertaining players to watch in all of baseball. With a batting style and gate somewhere between that of Frankenstein and Fred Sanford (significantly exacerbated by nagging back injuries), a sap-encrusted 2 x 4 for a bat and the freakish ability to hit anything (hard) within two feet of the strike zone there’s nobody like him. Unfortunately, age and health have been catching up with the slugger the last three years and the Angels let him walk this offseason after a pectoral strain in addition to a bad back and calf finally sapped Guererro of his characteristic raw power in 2009.
After breaking out with 38 home runs in 1998 and averaging over 36 per for the next nine seasons, all while finishing with an OPS between .934-1.074, Vlady hit just 27 out of the park in 2007 and 2008 before dropping all the way down to a meager 15 in 2009 as the injuries have begun to take their toll. His OPS has gone from .950 in 2007 to .886 in 2008 to .794 last year. His .334 OBP and .460 SLG in 2009 marking the lowest totals of his career, and most think the 35-year-old is done.
Vladimir Guerrero photo credit: Icon SMI
I don’t think he has many years left in the tank either, but there’s a chance Vlad has one or two more decent seasons left in him. He’s reportedly in the best shape in years, having shed some of the pounds that slowed him down and led to chronic injuries in recent seasons, and will be able to focus on DHing duties. And like several others on this list, Guerrero should find his new home ballpark in Arlington more than accommodating after signing a one-year, $5 million contract with Texas in early January. Rangers Ballpark, where Guerrero boasts a massive .394/.471/.705 career line, has been one of the most generous to hitters in recent years and Vlad will be in the middle of one of the most explosive young groups in baseball.
He’s never going to be the elite masher we watched in the mid-2000s again, but here’s hoping Vlad has at least one last hurrah left in him – when he’s even moderately healthy, he’s still a treat to watch.
Ben Sheets, SP, Oakland Athletics: It seems like a long time ago that Ben Sheets was considered one of the elite pitching talents in baseball. He’s been synonymous with “injury prone” over the course of his career, pitching just one full season in his past five and missing all of 2009 with a torn flexor tendon, but when healthy Sheets has also been known for stuff good enough rank among MLB’s best starters. In 2004, his last full season, Sheets put down a dominant line: 2.70 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 264 Ks in 237 innings including 5 complete games. He was one of the brightest pitching starts in the league coming off that season, but it’s been all downhill since. An All Star as recently as 2008 (yet another injury-shortened campaign), Sheets is flying almost completely under the radar heading into 2010 – but there are a few reasons for optimism.
Sheets signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Oakland Athletics back in January and it would be hard to imagine a better landing spot for the former ace outside of San Diego or Seattle (where he’ll also get to pitch a few games). A spacious park with some of the most generous foul territory in baseball, Sheets should find pitching in Oakland Coliseum a major boost to his stats if he can stay on the mound. In addition, he’ll be backed up by Coco Crisp and Rajai Davis in what should be one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. It’s always a big “if” when it comes to Sheets, but if he can stay healthy the 31-year-old could make a return to dominance – at least, until Billy Beane trades him in mid-July.
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Boston Red Sox: The last time Adrian Beltre was faced with the prospect of free agency he made the most of his opportunity. A decent 15-25 home run threat posting OPS in the low .700s who was best know for his defense heading into the season, Beltre went off in 2004 to the tune of 48 home runs and a .334/.388/.629 line, good for a 1.017 (!) OPS. Whatever you assign that aberrant production to, it will go down as one of the most anomalous walk-year performances in professional sports history. Since signing a five-year, $64 million contract with the Mariners in 2005 Beltre hasn’t topped 26 HRs and only eclipsed an .800 OPS once (.802 in 2007), bottoming out with just 8 HRs and a .683 OPS last season.
That didn’t stop the Red Sox from signing Beltre this January to a more modest pact worth $9 million over one year with a $5 million option for 2011. As statistically savvy as any team in baseball, perhaps we should be asking why. First, the Red Sox have put a new emphasis on defense of late and Beltre still plays a great third base and is an iron man (though, as he proved last season, he lacks brass balls). Second, Beltre wasn’t nearly as tame at the plate on the road as he was in Safeco Field – one of the most pitcher-friendly environments in baseball. On the road he’s hit around .280 while slugging nearly .500. In a full season playing at home in Fenway Park and regularly on the road at the likes of Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards, and now surrounded by one of the league’s best lineups, Beltre could surprise a lot of people with his production this season.
Francisco Liriano, SP, Minnesota Twins: For one magical stretch in the 2006 season Francisco Liriano was the best pitcher in baseball – and with his electric fastball and slider many thought he had the potential to surpass staff-mate Johan Santana as the Minnesota Twins ace. Just three years later, Liriano is struggling to earn the fifth starter spot for the Twins after losing the entire 2007 and most of the 2008 season to Tommy John surgery and then looking like a pitcher whose stuff never recovered and whose confidence was shot in 2009.
Liriano will likely never be that dominant kid we saw back in 2006, but he has a chance to be a very useful pitcher again in 2010 – be it as the Twins 5th starter or their new closer replacement for Joe Nathan, who is slated to undergo a Tommy John procedure of his own. In the final game of the Dominican Winter League championship this January, Liriano allowed just one hit and struck out 10 over five innings to cap a stellar winter campaign in which he fanned batters at will and looked as close to 2006 form as we’ve seen in the interim.
Obviously, that’s winter ball, but most encouraging was the fact that he was regularly hitting 95 MPH on his fastball and was again showing great break on his once-dominant slider. Liriano has carried the success over to Spring Training and there’s a chance he can be the pitcher everybody was hoping for going into last season. If healthy and able to maintain his confidence (neither a given), Minnesota will just need to decide if that will be for 180-200 innings as a starter or 60-70 innings closing out games.
Now go and do likewise, gents. And remember: Mitch and Murray paid good money for these leads.