New season an opportunity to bounce back to form
Lincecum, Lester, Uggla, Crawford among those who have chance at renewal in 2013
The dawn of a new baseball season means a clean slate for players, a prospect that makes the beginning of Spring Training exhilarating for so many.
For certain players, however, that fresh start excitement rings truer than for others.
If there's one thing baseball has taught us, it's that no two seasons are alike. Success in the past doesn't always breed future success, and struggles in past seasons can be quickly forgotten by answering the age-old question, "What have you done for me lately?"
This spring, there are plenty of players anxiously awaiting their opportunities to put 2012 behind them. Big names like Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester and Dan Uggla all struggled, while the likes of Ryan Howard and Carl Crawford weren't their old selves and were held back by injuries.
You won't hear Lincecum rue the final outcome of his 2012 campaign much. He did, after all, win his second World Series ring with the Giants, and he played a pivotal role in doing so with some vital bullpen outings in the postseason.
But there's no question he'll have to improve upon his regular-season performance in which he posted a 5.18 ERA and led the league in losses (15) and earned runs (107). That had the two-time National League Cy Young Award winner focused mostly on his mechanics during the offseason.
"Last year, I had a lot of questions," Lincecum said. "I was trying to change a lot of things at once. [I'm] getting my mind back to a stable point where I know what I'm doing, and I know why I'm doing it. I feel like my confidence is back."
If the key is confidence, there's no reason Lincecum shouldn't feel it following the two impressive scoreless relief outings he posted in Games 1 and 3 of the World Series. Sometimes the biggest key to a strong start can be a solid finish the year before.
Boston's Lester is in a similar situation. He's coming off a career-worst year that ended somewhat encouragingly. In the final two months of the season, Lester tossed eight quality starts in 12 outings and dropped his ERA from 5.49 to 4.82.
"I didn't really like what happened last year, as far as me and the way I pitched," said Lester, who until last season had never posted a full-season ERA higher than 3.47. "That's solely on me -- that's not on anyone else, that's not on the revolving door of pitching coaches, that's not on our manager, that's not on anybody but myself.
"There's a little bit of a chip there. I want to prove that last year was a fluke, and it's not going to happen again."
Such is the beauty of a new baseball season. When Lester takes the hill for the first time in April, he'll do so with a 0.00 ERA. There's no telling whether the 2011 Lester or the 2012 Lester will show up, but he controls his own fate.
Sometimes it's a change of scenery that can help put a down year or two in the past for good. The Dodgers' Crawford never found his form after signing a seven-year, $142 million contract with Boston. But he believes he left those struggles in New England.
"It was very frustrating," said Crawford, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. "I didn't play to expectations, pretty much failed for the first time in my life. It was the toughest challenge I ever had. A lot of times, I did [have regrets signing with Boston]. All the talk was about how much money I wanted. I just wondered if I made the right decision. At the end of the day, it's behind me, and I try to move forward."
Crawford isn't alone there. Jose Reyes (Toronto), Justin Upton (Atlanta), Ervin Santana (Kansas City), Dan Haren (Washington) and Heath Bell (Arizona) are among those who find themselves in new places coming off uncharacteristically subpar seasons.
Crawford also isn't alone in his looking to get past an injury -- even in his own outfield. An ailing shoulder forced the dependable Matt Kemp to miss about a third of the season and struggle a bit down the stretch.
Reyes, Howard and Chase Utley also had injury-shortened seasons during which their numbers plummeted.
As a result, Howard and Utley are eager for 2013, simply for the chance to put the Phillies' overall disappointing season in the past. They also want to dispel the notion that the current group of Phillies have their best years behind them.
"You can look at the clock all you want, but we're just focused on playing baseball," Howard said. "Hopefully at the end of the season, we can reign supreme and we can bring that clock thing up again, and then tell me what time it is."
Then there are the guys like Uggla, who don't have a change of scenery or an injury recovery to inspire them. Instead, the start of a new season will do the trick.
"I feel great," Uggla said. "I still feel like I've got a lot of 30-homer seasons left in me. I know I'm capable of hitting anywhere from .270 to .290. One of my biggest goals is to be more consistent. I think that is everybody's goal. But the way the past couple years have gone for me, that is a big goal for me."
Goals like Uggla's never seem more attainable than on Opening Day of a new season.