The five players below are all good-to-excellent players, but all five enter 2013 with a lot of pressure and expectations. Will they meet them?
1. James Shields, SP, Royals. The Royals paid a steep price in prospect Wil Myers to acquire the pitcher they hope will front their rotation. Shields has been one of the most consistent and durable starters in recent years, topping 200 innings the past six seasons while maintaining excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios due to his command of his four-pitch arsenal -- a 90-94 fastball, cutter, changeup and curveball. He's arguably coming off his best season after a career-best strikeout rate of 24 percent and career-high ground ball rate of 52 percent.
So why the concern? Let's start with the shift in ballparks. Shields has been a huge benefactor of Tropicana Field over the years, usually posting an ERA at least a run lower at home. His home ERAs the past five seasons: 3.25, 2.36, 4.53, 3.75 and 2.59; his road ERAs: 3.83, 3.35, 5.82, 4.62 and 4.82. Of course, playing in the AL East for the Rays, Shields had to pitch a large percentage of his road games at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, against good offensive clubs. He moves to the easier division, but in limited sample sizes, he hasn't pitched great in some of the AL Central parks (6.38 ERA at Kauffman Stadium in four starts, 4.44 ERA in Cleveland and 4.09 in Chicago).
Shields moves from a generally excellent defensive team in the Rays to the Royals, who have actually improved their defense in recent years with the likes of Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar in the infield and Alex Gordon's stellar play in left, so I actually don't think that's a huge issue. But I do worry about the heavy workload Shields has carried through the years. Only Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez have thrown more pitches the past three seasons. He leaves one of the best managers in the game in Joe Maddon for a guy who isn't one of the best managers in the game in Ned Yost. The Royals want a guy who can post an ERA in the low 3s, but they may be getting a guy who will post an ERA in the low 4s.
2. Josh Hamilton, OF Angels. It's not that Hamilton won't be a valuable asset for the Angels, just that Angels fans shouldn't expect Hamilton to hit 43 home runs again. He obviously moves from one of the best hitting environments in baseball to one of the more difficult ones. And while you may think Hamilton's enormous raw power will translate anywhere -- and according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, he did lead the majors with 15 "no doubt" home runs -- his 12 "just enough" home runs tied for fourth most in the majors -- just behind Rangers teammate Adrian Beltre. How many of those home runs that just cleared the fence in Texas will be caught on the warning track in Anaheim?
The other red flag was Hamilton's strikeout rate -- it increased from 17.3 percent in 2011 to 25.5 percent in 2012. (In raw numbers, from 93 to 162 in 98 more plate appearances.) No major league hitter swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone. You can check out the heat map to see how often he expanded the strike zone.
That approach didn't catch up to him in 2012, but it may in 2013.
3. Brian McCann, C, Braves. McCann had the worst season of his career, hitting .230/.300/.399 while battling a bad shoulder that required labrum surgery in the offseason. The Braves decided to exercise a $12 million option, hoping McCann can bounce back to being the .800-plus OPS hitter he was the previous four seasons.
McCann's decline in 2012 could simply be a result of the injury -- his walk and strikeout rates were right in line with his career norms, but his BABIP fell from the .295 range to .234. But McCann has also caught a lot of games at a young age -- he's in the top 10 for games caught since 1950 through age 28. He's had a lot of wear and tear. There's no guarantee he returns to being the elite hitter -- and six-time All-Star -- that he was.
4. Alex Rios, OF, White Sox. Simply put, I'm not buying into a repeat season. Rios had his best offensive season since 2007, hitting .304 with 25 home runs. What to expect from one of baseball's most inconsistent players? Maybe not a season as bad as 2011, when he hit .227, but I foresee a significant drop from his 2012 numbers. Unfortunately, with the loss of A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko's decline in the second half perhaps signifying age is finally catching up with him, the Sox can ill afford less production from Rios.
5. Anibal Sanchez, SP, Tigers. This may be more a situation of tempering expectations after the new big contract and his excellent postseason performance. Let's not forget this is a guy with a 3.75 career ERA, nearly all of his seven years in the majors spent with the Marlins in a pretty good pitchers' park. Don't get me wrong: He's a good pitcher, but with 167 strikeouts in 195.2 innings last year, also a guy who does rely to a certain extent on his defense to make plays behind him. And this is still a team playing Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta in the infield.
After joining the Tigers midway through last season, he did cut down his walks (just 15 in 74.2 innings). If he can maintain that level of control, he can survive a few extra hits here and there. But in his first full season in the American League, I wonder whether he can keep his ERA under 4.00.