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02/12/11 10:00 AM EST
Still young, one-time stars aim to thrive again
Upton, Hill, Sandoval, Kazmir among those facing crossroads
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
In 2009, Pablo Sandoval nearly won a batting title and earned the cuddly nickname "Panda." A year later, he spent a good portion of the postseason on the Giants' bench, replaced at third base by Juan Uribe. In 2008, B.J. Upton commandeered October. In 2010, he had to be reprimanded by a teammate. In 2009, Jonathan Broxton was a mirage to batters. By the second half of 2010, he was a migraine to the Dodgers. They -- along with others for whom Spring Training will be the start of a critical campaign -- had game, name and fame. Now they have to fan the flames of stardom. They are former prime-timers who will check into camps in Florida and in Arizona and find themselves at crossroads. Will they take the path to renewal? Or the one that takes them deeper into the background? In considering players for whom the 2011 season will deliver such a challenge, we rule out those attempting to resurface solely after being waylaid by injury (such as Brandon Webb, Mark Prior or Grady Sizemore), or seasoned vets who perhaps have hit the natural down slopes of their careers. Rather, we focus on young players (arbitrary ground rule: under 30 years old) who raised bars and expectations with their early track records, and who now get a fresh chance to live up to them. Your Re-Start All-Stars: First base: Casey Kotchman, Rays Kotchman gets a shot at replacing Carlos Pena for manager Joe Maddon, who was the Angels' bench coach when the Halos made Kotchman the 13th overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft -- seven picks behind Mark Teixeira and 21 ahead of David Wright. Kotchman began to live up to the hype and the fabulous Minor League splash (he batted .541 as an 18-year-old in Rookie ball in '01) by batting a strong .283 in 2007-08. He was then dealt to Atlanta -- for Teixeira -- and his tailspin kicked in. Second base: Aaron Hill, Blue Jays One season after his All-Star breakthrough, it was all downhill. Coming off a 36-homer season, he may have been caught up in Toronto's homer craze, because he still cranked 26. But he lost everywhere else, from 40 RBIs to 81 average points to 164 OPS points. Third base: Pablo Sandoval, Giants Redefining "hitting your weight," Panda may have only barely cleared it -- if at all -- with his .268 average last season, a journey from finishing second in the National League batting race the year before. He spent much of the offseason with a dietician/nutritionist, with the aim of reclaiming his position and rank. Shortstop: Erick Aybar, Angels He crowned his steady rise in the Angels' plans and in fans' estimation in 2009, but took a disappointing step backward last season, when he drove in half as many runs in a greater number of at-bats, while his OPS shriveled from .776 to .636, lowest among the Majors' dozen shortstops with 510-plus at-bats. A turnaround season by him could be consequential for the Angels, since he has the ideal skill set to be the leadoff hitter they need to trigger their speed-and-situational offense. Catcher: Ryan Doumit, Pirates Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia has an even steeper climb to rebuilding his first-round Draft-choice reputation. But he has yet to have any real big-league success, while Doumit was one of the sport's rising catching stars a couple of year ago. In 2008, AL batting champ Joe Mauer was the only catcher with a higher average than Doumit's .318, and Brian McCann and Geovany Soto were the only NL catchers with more extra-base hits than his 49. Now Doumit must reclaim his job from Chris Snyder. Outfield: Nate McLouth, Braves; Upton, Rays; Melky Cabrera, Royals Since being an All-Star and the Pirates' Player of the Year in 2008 -- when he smashed 26 homers and drove in 94 runs as a Gold Glove center fielder -- McLouth has exactly equaled those numbers in two seasons while moving from Pittsburgh to Atlanta. He never got his average over .200 after Opening Day last season, and found himself back in the Minors. It's time to find himself, period. Upton's average has nosedived for four straight seasons -- .300 to .273 to .241 to .237. His funk extended to defense last season, when Evan Longoria had to call him out for going half-throttle after a ball in the gap. It's time for him to channel the big-time player who smacked four homers and drove in 11 runs in the 2008 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. In the Kansas City outfield, Cabrera will neighbor another former young star looking for a fresh beginning, Jeff Francoeur. But although Francoeur broke in as a hometown-boy-makes-good sensation with the Braves, he didn't play in the New York spotlight like Cabrera. Cabrera's speed, bat and particularly his defense in his 2006 debut prompted the Yankees to part with Bernie Williams, and Cabrera responded by hitting a strong .273 as an everyday player in 2007. Two years later, after winning the World Series with him in center field, the Bombers gave him up for Javier Vazquez, and the Braves flat-out released him after one season of seeing him hit .255 and create a mere 80 runs. Starter: Scott Kazmir, Angels In 2006, as the youngest Opening Day starter in 20 years, Kazmir drew comparisons to Doc Gooden. By last season, he needed a pitching doc, being responsible for the fewest quality starts (six) of any pitcher with 28 or more starts since Sid Hudson of the 1948 Washington Senators. He's just 27, so Kazmir has a running start on returning to his upside. His career record is 66-61. That other "K" lefty -- Sandy Koufax -- was 68-60 through his age-26 season. Closer: Broxton, Dodgers The Georgian's resume is quite brief -- he moved into a full-time closer's role in the second half of 2008 -- but Broxton is in that make-or-break mode thanks to the specter of quick-fade closers, like Bobby Thigpen, Mark Davis and B.J. Ryan. After converting 19 of 21 save opportunities before last summer's All-Star Game, Broxton went 3-for-8 in the second half, along with six losses and an ERA of 7.13. Maybe new manager Don Mattingly only has to change Broxton's routine; he has a history of wearing down whatever his role.