Earlier, I wrote about 10 players facing the most pressure in 2013. The following five players have a different kind of pressure (if pressure does actually exist), one perhaps even more intense: This may be their last chance to prove themselves as major league regulars and get on track to receive that multi-million dollar payday that will allow them to buy a large house in a gated community. A slow April and May and they could find themselves sitting on the bench.
Domonic Brown, LF, Phillies (age 25)
MLB career: 492 PAs, .236/.315/.396
Top prospect ranking: No. 4 Baseball America, 2011
Supposed to be: Power/speed threat
ZiPS projection: .265/.335/.461
After hitting .327/.391/.589 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010, Brown looked like he would be a key to the Phillies' continued run of NL East dominance. Instead, he's been injured at times, hasn't hit when he has played and there have been reports about the Phillies allegedly not being too pleased with his hustle or work ethic. Aside from that final question, there are three issues here: (1) He's never played more than 116 games in any season; (2) He hasn't received consistent playing time with the Phillies; (3) Maybe he's just not as good as advertised.
So what is he now? His defense is suspect, he was probably never going to be a big basestealer (17-of-24 in the minors and 2010) and his power hasn't played up since fracturing his hamate bone at the base of his right wrist in spring training 2011. Still, he has fewer than 500 plate appearances in the big leagues and is just 25.
Justin Smoak, 1B, Mariners (26 years old)
MLB career: 1421 PAs, .223/.306/.377
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 13 (2010)
Supposed to be: Patient switch-hitter, good glove, moderate power
ZiPS projection: .230/.318/.383
The Mariners acquired a bunch of DH-types in the offseason, but for now the plan appears to have Smoak opening at first base, with Mike Morse in left field, Kendrys Morales DH-ing and Raul Ibanez filling in (with Jason Bay potentially in the mix if he has a big spring training). At 26 and with nearly 1500 plate appearances under his belt, Smoak is getting too old to project much growth; he probably has three months to prove he's a starting first baseman.
The questions here: Can he improve against offspeed pitches? (He hit .194 against "slow" stuff in 2012.) Will moving in the fences at Safeco improve his production and confidence? (He's hit .210 with a .343 slugging percentage there in his career.) After getting sent down to Tacoma last year, he returned in September with a shorter swing from the left side and hit .341/.426/.580 with five home runs in 26 games. An adjustment that will stick? We'll see.
Brett Wallace, 1B, Astros (age 26)
MLB career: 792 PAs, .250/.323/.424
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 27 (2010)
Supposed to be: Hitting machine
ZiPS projection: .242/.313/.387
The 13th pick in the 2008 draft -- two slots after Smoak -- Wallace entered pro ball with doubts about his body type and fielding, but everyone believed in the bat. He was traded three times before reaching the majors, but he's certainly with the one team where he has a chance of some guaranteed playing time.
Wallace showed some signs last year, hitting .253/.324/.424, but a strikeout rate of 28.7 percent is way too high for a guy who was supposed to hit for average. Couple that with a poor walk rate and he's not going to make it as a starter unless his approach improves.
Travis Snider, OF, Pirates (25 years old)
MLB career: 1062 PAs, .248/.309/.415
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 6 (2009)
Supposed to be: Big-time run producer
ZiPS projection: .253/.312/.403
Snider was just 20 when he first reached the majors with Toronto, but he's been back and forth between Triple-A and the bigs ever since. The Jays finally gave up on him last summer, trading him to Pittsburgh, so the Pirates will see if he can finally tap into his power potential. Snider has hit .333/.412/.565 in various stints in Triple-A -- but that was in Las Vegas, where everyone puts up monster numbers.
Snider may not have the bat speed to excel at the major league level. Since 2010 in 346 plate appearances ending in fastballs, he's hit just .234 with nine home runs. That's well below the major league average of .280 against fastballs. If you can't hit the fastball, you're not going to make it.
Brian Matusz, P, Orioles (26 years old)
MLB career: 368 innings, 5.36 ERA
Top prospect ranking: Baseball America No. 5 (2010)
Supposed to be: Top-of-the-rotation starter
ZiPS projection: 8-11, 144 innings, 5.16 ERA
The fourth pick in the 2008 draft, Matusz's strong finish to his 2010 rookie campaign (7-1, 2.60 ERA over the final two months) had him on track to develop into the Orioles' ace. Instead, everything fell apart in 2011, beginning with a painful intercostal strain in spring training. In 12 starts, he went 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA and other ugly numbers. Given another shot at the rotation in 2012, he was 5-10 with a 5.42 ERA in July when he was sent down to the minors.
He returned as a reliever and excelled -- two runs in 13.1 innings with 19 strikeouts. While many guys end up throwing hard in relief, Matusz's average fastball velocity wasn't actually much different out of the bullpen -- 91.4 mph versus 91.0 -- so the Orioles will give him another chance in a potentially crowded rotation (he'll battle Jake Arrieta, another guy running out of chances, among others). Matusz has a spot in the bullpen if he's not starting, but that would be a disappointing scenario for a young pitcher who looked as good as he did in 2010.
Which of these guys is the best bet to prove himself? I'll go with Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection and go with Brown. He's the youngest of the five and has the least amount of major league experience.