Five former All-Stars among those trying to come back after at least a year away
Recent comebacks by Bartolo Colon and Scott Kazmir, two pitchers who spent a full year out of baseball before returning to something surprisingly close to their former glory, have lent new credibility to attempts by other former major leaguers hoping to follow a similar path. This spring, a slew of players will try to make it back to the major leagues despite not playing an inning in the majors, minors or Japan in 2013, nor even being under contract all year.
Here’s a look at seven of them, five of whom — Grady Sizemore, Mark Mulder, Bobby Abreu, Chone Figgins and Brad Penny — are former All-Stars. The seven men are listed in order of their remaining upside.
Grady Sizemore, OF, Red Sox
Last MLB season: 2011
2011 Stats: .224/.285/.422 (295 PA), 10 HR, 0 SB
Once one of the brightest young stars in the game, Sizemore was an all-around centerfield stud for the Indians in the middle part of the last decade and the face of Cleveland’s 2007 team that fell one game shy of the World Series. From 2005 to 2008, his age-22 to -25 seasons, he hit .281/.372/.496 (128 OPS+) while averaging 27 home runs and 29 stolen bases a a year, as well as 41 doubles and eight triples. Sizemore received down-ballot MVP votes in all four of those seasons, was an All-Star in the last three, a Gold Glover in the last two and a Silver Slugger recipient in ’08.
A sore left elbow sapped Sizemore’s production in 2009, and his career came crashing down in 2010. Microfracture surgery on his left knee ended his 2010 season in mid-May. A right knee injury and a sports hernia interrupted his 2011 season, the former requiring surgery that October. The following spring, Sizemore had an operation on his back that wiped out his entire 2012 season, and that fall he had a second surgery on the right knee. A free agent that winter, Sizemore failed to land a contract for 2013.
Last week, 16 months removed from his most recent trip under the knife, Sizemore signed a major league contract with the Red Sox, whose manager, John Farrell, was Cleveland’s director of player development during Sizemore’s first six seasons in that organization. Sizemore is the only one of the five players listed here who got a guaranteed contract. That says a lot about his upside, but the amount of his guarantee ($750,000) speaks more loudly than the potential $6 million payout should he trigger all of the bonuses.
The Red Sox say Sizemore will challenge 23-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. for the starting job in centerfield in the wake of Jacoby Ellsbury’s defection to the Yankees, but Boston’s front office has to be secretly rooting for the homegrown, team-controlled Bradley in that competition. As it is, Sizemore has enough of a challenge to merely make the roster, and not just because of his own recent history. The Red Sox have a glut of outfielders on their 40-man roster and, with the presence of David Ortiz, no open designated hitter spot to stash an extra one. Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp and Bradley are all expected to make the team. Sizemore would give Boston six outfielders, five of whom hit lefthanded (Victorino and Nava are switch-hitters, Gomes the lone righty).
Mark Mulder, LHP, Angels
Last MLB Season: 2008
2008 Stats: 0-0, 10.80 ERA, 3 G, 1 GS, 1 2/3 IP
One of the “Big Three” starting pitchers who powered the Moneyball A’s of the early 2000s, Mulder posted a 3.65 ERA (120 ERA+ in that era of inflated offense) and averaged an 18-8 record from 2001 to ’05, his age-23 to -27 seasons, finishing second in the Cy Young voting in the first of those seasons and later making two All-Star teams. The last of those seasons came after he was traded to the Cardinals for a trio of players including Dan Haren, but in his second year in St. Louis, Mulder tore his rotator cuff. He managed to make just six more appearances (four of them starts) over the next two seasons, with a second rotator cuff surgery sandwiched in between those two campaigns.
By 2011, Mulder had settled into retirement as an analyst for ESPN, but while watching Dodgers lefty Paco Rodriguez pitch in last year’s playoffs Mulder was inspired to imitate his delivery and discovered that doing so restored the life on his pitches. The Angels apparently agreed and signed Mulder to a minor league deal earlier this month.
Mulder’s comeback is the longest of these longshots given that he hasn’t been an effective major leaguer since early 2006 and he has been completely out of baseball for five years. Still, he’s just 36 and if he shows any kind of competence, there’s room at the back of Los Angeles’ rotation. The only other challengers for the fifth spot as of now are Joe Blanton, coming off a season in which he went 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA, and 22-year-old prospect Tyler Skaggs, who wouldn’t be hurt by starting the year in Triple A.
Tomo Ohka, RHP, Blue Jays
Last MLB Season: 2009
2009 Stats: 1-5, 5.96 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 3.9 K/9, 18 G, 6 GS, 71 IP
At first glance it might seem that Ohka should be lower on this list. After all, he was a journeyman starter who pitched with five major league teams from 1999 to 2009, spent all of 2008 in the minors and hasn’t pitched at a world-class level since spreading 29 starts across the 2010 and 2011 seasons in Japan with unimpressive results. However, Ohka, who signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays in December, is a different pitcher than the one who posted a 5.79 ERA in 10 starts for Toronto in 2007. That’s because he is building his comeback on his reinvention as a knuckleball pitcher.
Now you might say that knuckleball pitchers in general have no more impressive a track record than Ohka did as a conventional pitcher, but there was this one journeyman who bounced around four organizations for almost a decade and spent an entire season in the minors but who ultimately harnessed his knuckler and has posted a 3.28 ERA as a major league starting pitcher over the last four seasons. That guy is R.A. Dickey, and he not only became the 2012 NL Cy Young award winner, he and Ohka are now teammates, meaning Ohka couldn’t possibly be in a better situation to succeed with his knuckler. Not only can Dickey share his own wisdom, he could help Ohka build relationships with retired knuckleball legends Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield. Lightning is unlikely to strike twice, but both Ohka and the Blue Jays are hoping it will.
Bobby Abreu, OF, Phillies
Last MLB season: 2012
2012 Stats: .242/.350/.342 (257 PA), 3 HR, 6 SB
A sabermetric hero with a stronger Hall of Fame case than you might think (Jay Jaffe’s JAWS has him dead even with the enshrined Dave Winfield), Abreu is a career .292/.396/.477 hitter who averaged 20 home runs, 28 stolen bases and a 131 OPS+ from 1998 to 2011, the 14 seasons that he qualified for a batting title. However, he hit just .252/.352/.392 over his final three major league campaigns and settled for a part-time role with the Dodgers in 2012 after being released by the Angels that April. Never a strong fielder, despite one misbegotten Gold Glove, Abreu looked legitimately finished at 38 and did not land a contract for the 2013 season.
Abreu is not quite ready to hang ‘em up, however. The Phillies, the team with which he had his greatest seasons as their rightfielder from 1998 to 2006, are willing to give him one last chance.
When last seen, Abreu’s on-base skills were still intact. He had a .350 OBP in 2012 and posted a .352 mark over his three most recent seasons. However, his power, always the one overrated aspect of his game, vanished after the 2010 season, and he’s best used as a lefthanded pinch-hitter and pinch-runner who never actually takes the field. There might be room for that on Philadelphia’s bench, where righty John Mayberry Jr. is the current fourth outfielder, but it’s hard to expect much from Abreu after a year of inaction given that he’ll be 40 in March.
Chone Figgins, UT, Dodgers
Last MLB Season: 2012
2012 Stats: .181/.262/.271 (194 PA), 4 SB
When the Mariners signed Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract in December 2009, he was a Gold Glove-quality third baseman coming off a season in which he led the American League in walks (101), hit .298 with a .395 on-base percentage and stole 42 bases. Figgins’ time in Seattle, however, was a disaster. It’s unclear exactly what factor was most to blame — Seattle’s inexplicable decision to move him to second base? His run-ins with then-manager Don Wakamatsu? His age (Figgins was 32 in his first year with the M’s)? — but Figgins was lousy in 2010 and his game completely collapsed thereafter.
In 2011 and ’12 combined, Figgins hit .185/.249/.253 in 507 plate appearances, drawing just 40 walks and stealing only15 bases across those two seasons. The Mariners released him in November 2012, and he failed to make the Marlins out of camp last year, earning his release in late-March and failing to catch on with another team. This spring, Figgins is trying again with the Dodgers, who see him as a potential backup to Juan Uribe at third base who could double as a utility man. Despite that optimism, there was nothing in his performance in either of his last two major league seasons to suggest that he has something left to offer.
Guillermo Mota, RHP, Royals
Last MLB Season: 2012
2012 Stats: 0-1, 5.23 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 26 G, 20 2/3 IP
In his last three major league seasons, righty reliever Mota posted a 4.18 ERA (88 ERA+) and a 1.32 WHIP for the San Francisco Giants. He did have a career-high strikeout rate in 2012 (10.5 K/9), but he was limited to 20 2/3 innings that season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs for the second time in his career, triggering a 100-game suspension that bifurcated his season. It’s hard to believe that Mota offers the Royals something they couldn’t get from a number of other pitchers who aren’t 40 and one positive drug test away from a lifetime ban.
Brad Penny, RHP, Royals
Last MLB Season: 2012
2012 Stats: 0-1, 6.11 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 3.2 K/9, 22 G, 28 IP
Penny was part of the talented young starting rotation that helped the Marlins to their second World Series win in 2003, made two All-Star teams with the Dodgers (starting the game in 2006) and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in 2007. All of that likely overstates how good Penny was in his 20s, however, and since 2008, his age-30 season, he has posted a 5.16 ERA (82 ERA+) across five seasons for five teams. As a starter for Detroit in 2011 he had a 5.30 ERA (78 ERA+), 1.56 WHIP, and struck out 3.7 men per nine innings in 31 games. As a reliever for San Francisco in 2012 he put up a 6.11 ERA (58 ERA+) and 1.82 WHIP while striking out 3.2 men per nine innings in 22 games. Kansas City has one of the best bullpens in baseball (2.55 ERA in 2013, best in the AL). Bringing Penny to camp seems like nothing but a waste of everyone’s time.