The impression of a bad season is created by many things. Sometimes a truly great season is impossible to duplicate the following year. Sometimes injuries or age cause a decline in statistics. And sometimes players are just inexcusably bad.
The good news is that most of them have an opportunity the next season to erase the memory of their slump and be praised for their return to greatness. Here are 30 players, one from each team, who are primed for a bounce-back season in 2017.
Greinke's contract pays him more per season than any player in history. You'd think such a player would be coming off an epic season. That may or may not be true of Greinke. If so, it was epic for all the wrong reasons. His ERA skyrocketed from 1.66 to 4.37, his strikeout rate fell and his homer rate soared. He's due to earn 35 percent of the Diamondbacks' reported salary budget for this season, so obviously, they need him to bounce back in a big way.
Only a knuckleballer could be called a comeback candidate at age 42, but Dickey isn't even close to being the oldest knuckleballer in Braves history. Phil Niekro made his last appearance for the Braves at 48. Heck, he won 78 games after his age-42 season. Dickey won't even be the oldest starting pitcher on this year's Braves. That honor will go to newly signed Bartolo Colon. So, relatively speaking, Dickey is a tenderfoot. But whereas Colon had a fine 2016 season for the Mets, Dickey struggled to a 10-15 mark and a 4.46 ERA for Toronto. The Braves need their veterans to buy some time for Atlanta's promising stable of pitching prospects to develop.
OK, Kim needs to make only half a comeback. His overall numbers -- .302/.382/.420 -- were very solid for a player making his debut in the U.S. after a long career in Korea. But here's a fun fact: Kim's next hit off a lefty will be his first in the big leagues. He went 0-for-17 with four walks off southpaws in 2016. Sure, he'll be platooned, but Kim looks like the favorite to be the Orioles' primary left fielder, and you'd like to be able to send him to the dish against a lefty without covering your eyes.
You know your standards are high when you can be called a comeback candidate after a season in which you won 17 games and led the league in innings pitched. Still, Price's 3.63 ERA was his highest since 2009, a figure driven by a career-worst 30 homers allowed. His ratio of ground balls to fly balls was on target with career norms, but a higher percentage of the fly balls left the yard (9.4 percent, per baseball-reference.com). This could be a simple matter of dumb luck, and the Red Sox certainly hope it is.
Heyward's travails at the plate were written about so often last season that it was easy to forget that he was an every-day player and an elite defender on baseball's best team. But there's no glossing over his .230/.306/.325 slash line. After a bad start, things never really got better, as Heyward's corkscrew-like swing would sometimes dink balls into play that wouldn't be out of place in a youth league. He planned to spend the winter making adjustments, and it shouldn't take long before we see if those will make a difference. Don't bet against him -- there's a reason the Cubs gave him that eight-year, $184 million contract, and he's still just 27 years old.
By any measure, 2016 was an abysmal season for Shields, especially after he joined the White Sox in June. His 5.85 ERA was easily a career worst, and it was even worse in Chicago at 6.77 over 22 starts for the White Sox. Since the Padres ate a little over half the remaining value of Shields' contract to get the White Sox to agree to the deal, there is less pressure for him to regain ace-like status going forward. He has been in decline since the latter part of his time in Kansas City and, at 34, it may simply be he has too much mileage on his arm. Still, Shields was so good for so long, you can't rule out a bounce-back. His problems -- an inability to throw soft stuff for strikes or to keep his fastball down in the zone -- seem fixable. His stuff is still serviceable, so you never know.
Just two years ago, Mesoraco looked like a budding star. At age 26, he hit 25 homers with a .893 OPS and made the NL All-Star team for the first time. He was rewarded with a four-year, $28 million deal to hold down the Reds' catcher position for the foreseeable future. Instead, thanks to torn labrums in both hips and another one in his shoulder, Mesoraco has played in just 39 games during the first two years of that contract. Mesoraco has been penciled in as Cincinnati's top backstop for the coming season. It feels like 2017 is a now or never proposition for him.
In 2014, his age-26 season, Gomes hit 21 homers with a .785 OPS and, according to Inside Edge, saved 7.08 runs above average for his pitch framing. He declined in 2015 and then the bottom fell out last season. Gomes hit .167/.201/.327, his framing was roughly average, and his postseason playing time was usurped by Roberto Perez. A separated right shoulder cost Gomes more than two months, but let's face it, he wasn't hitting even before that happened. The Indians don't have many weaknesses, and they hope that Gomes doesn't remain one.
Once, not so long ago, Holland was perhaps the game's most dominant reliever. During 2013 and 2014, he headed up Kansas City's fearsome bullpen by posting a composite 1.32 ERA, 93 saves and striking out 13.4 batters per nine innings. Then his elbow went sour, costing him a World Series appearance in 2015 and the entire 2016 season. The Rockies signed Holland to a one-year, $7 million deal loaded with incentives as he tries to rebuild his career. During a showcase workout early in the offseason, Holland's velocity was down. How much of it can he recover by spring?
Sanchez's 11th big league season was his worst, with a career-high 5.87 ERA that was not at all misleading. After surrendering 29 homers in 2015, Sanchez did one better with 30 last season, a primary source of his maddening inconsistency. It was the second straight season Sanchez has allowed homers on more than 12 percent of his fly balls, a problem when he's also producing fewer ground balls than earlier in his career. According to Inside Edge, Sanchez threw high pitches nearly 7 percent more often last season than the previous two seasons. Therein lies his spring training tasks: Keep the ball down and keep his spot in the Detroit rotation. The latter probably won't happen without the former.
The Astros keep digging for another front-line starter but perhaps the biggest upgrade to the rotation will be Keuchel returning to his 2015 form. After going 20-8, posting a 2.26 ERA and winning the Cy Young, Keuchel's ERA bloated to 4.55 last season. His league-leading total of 232 innings fell to 168 before he went on the shelf in August with shoulder inflammation. There should have been some regression expected after Keuchel's breakout season, but there was not much in his underlying indicators to explain an ERA spike of that magnitude, save for a bit of decline with men on base. Offseason reports have been positive, so expect a rebound.
There are a number of Royals who could fill this space, perhaps most notably Alex Gordon, but we'll go with Moustakas. Many hitters enjoy their career seasons at age 27, and there were signs that Moose was headed for just such a season a year ago before he went down with a knee injury. His power numbers -- seven homers in 27 games -- were at an apex. And while he was hitting just .240, he was putting the ball into play at a higher rate than ever and just getting a bit unlucky. Now recovered and heading into a contract season, can Moustakas pick up where he left off?
If the Angels can get a pre-2016 version of Street to go with the 2016 version of Andrew Bailey and up-and-comer Cam Bedrosian, the back of the L.A. bullpen will be strong. Street has a longer track record than Bailey, but his injury-riddled 2016 season was so poor that you have to wonder if the 33-year-old fireman is simply running out of water. Street's top-end velocity was way down last season, his walks soared and, according to Inside Edge, his rate of inducing swings-and-misses fell from 30.2 percent to 19.4. Street needs to reverse course in a hurry to entice the Angels to pick up their $10 million club option on him for 2018.
We all yearn for a return to our younger selves, but perhaps no one more than Puig. After putting up a .925 OPS at 22 in 2013, his subsequent decline has been steady: from .863 in 2014 to .758 in 2015 to .740 in 2016. Last season, Puig battled hamstring problems, and, after reportedly trying to move him before the trade deadline, the frustrated Dodgers sent him to Triple-A Oklahoma City. In September, Puig was recalled by the Dodgers. He put up a .900 OPS the rest of the way and made the postseason roster. Maybe the age-22 Puig is never coming back, but the Dodgers would love a full season of that September version.
Over the past two seasons, Stanton has averaged 46 homers and 119 RBIs per 162 games. The problem is that he started just 35 post-All-Star games during 2015 and 2016 combined. He has missed an average of 38 games per season during his six full big league seasons. For the Marlins to become a surprise contender and for Stanton to put up the MVP-caliber season of which he certainly seems capable, he needs to stay in the lineup from stem to stern in 2017, his age-27 campaign. He and the Marlins deserve a break.
How can a player who has hit 124 home runs over the past three seasons be a comeback candidate? Well, he has hit all of those homers in Korea, that's how. Thames last appeared in the big leagues with Seattle in 2012. For his big league career, he has hit .250/.296/.431 over 684 plate appearances. Some of the power he flashed in Asia was there during Thames' first big league stint, but the ability to make consistent contact was not. The Brewers gave Thames a three-year, $16 million contract in hopes that has changed.
This time a year ago, Park was a buzzy-type of acquisition for the Twins, a guy who hit 53 homers in Korea and generated plenty of suitors when he was posted by his club in Asia. While he did show some power on contact, Park hit just .191, struggled with hand problems and was ultimately sent to Triple-A. He's not generating much buzz this time around, but if he has a big spring, that could change in a hurry. How optimistic are the Twins that will happen? They designated him for assignment last week, though new GM Derek Falvey told reporters he hopes Park remains in the organization. If he makes it through waivers, the Twins might be glad he did.
Harvey is probably the king of the comeback candidates entering this season. He didn't pitch particularly well last season. There were glimpses of his prior dominance, but they were fleeting. But then the terrible news hit: Harvey was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and didn't pitch again after July 4. Reports have been good since, and he's expected be ready for spring training. That is encouraging, but the history of pitchers with that diagnosis is not too good. The sooner Mets fans see Harvey blowing away hitters with top-shelf stuff and consistent location, the better.
Bear with me a moment. Yeah, it's weird to put Sanchez here when, save for six scattered at-bats, he more or less made his debut in the majors last Aug. 3. And what a debut! Starting on Aug. 10, when Sanchez hit his first homer, through Aug. 27, he hit 11 homers in 15 games and posted an OPS of 1.668. After that though, Sanchez put up a good but unspectacular .813 OPS, and he finished the season in a 4-for-35 funk. Exactly no one thinks he's the 1.668 OPS guy since no human being is. His projected slash line from ZIPS is .255/.313/.490. If he can catch, that's fine. The problem is that the Yankees already have seen more than that, so everyone will be watching to see at least a glimpse of 1.668.
Gray looked like an emerging pitching star after two-plus stellar seasons to begin his big league career. He took a big step back in 2016. Forearm inflammation limited him to 117 innings and 22 starts, and, when he did throw, his 5.69 ERA was 138th out of 144 pitchers with at least 100 innings. The A's need Gray to resume his burgeoning ace status, either to lead a run to surprise contention or to become a magnet on the trade market.
Durability has always been an issue for Buchholz, who topped out at 189⅓ innings during his Red Sox career. That stint ended this winter when the pitching-rich Red Sox dealt him to Philadelphia. Buchholz posted a 4.78 ERA last season, continuing an every-other-year pattern of struggles. If that pattern continues, his acquisition could prove to be a steal for the Phillies.
First, Andrew McCutchen was the easy answer here, but there will be plenty of chances to write about him, so I went in the direction of Cole and Taillon, the Pirates' touted young starters. Both missed a chunk of last season, at least in terms of filling big league rotation slots. Taillon started the season in the minors, then hit the Pittsburgh rotation midseason and put up some solid numbers. Cole was up and down before being shut down with elbow problems on Sept. 12. It was a step back for Cole after his All-Star campaign in 2015. If Taillon can build on his finish, and Cole can re-establish the combination of quality and quantity he showed two years ago, Pittsburgh will have a top of the rotation that can match anybody's.
After emerging as a lights-out bullpen option for the Cubs in the latter part of the 2015 season, Cahill fell back to earth in 2016. He battled consistency during the regular season in lower-leverage roles and was ultimately left off the Cubs' postseason roster. (Though he did win a ring while watching from a pretty sweet vantage point.) Cahill signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Padres this winter and is slotted for the San Diego rotation. If he does well, he could re-emerge as a trade target this summer.
It has now been three straight abbreviated seasons for Cain, the one-time ace who finished an injury-muddled 2016 season in the Giants' bullpen. The Giants have a powerhouse top four in their rotation, and any semblance of a comeback from Cain would be icing on the cake. However, if Cain doesn't regain some of his form, Bruce Bochy might turn to younger options such as Ty Blach. Either way, it seems like a long shot that San Francisco will pick up Cain's $21 million club option for 2018.
The Mariners did a lot of re-arranging around their core players over the winter, but the success of this makeover might simply depend on King Felix recapturing his throne. Hernandez's 3.82 ERA wasn't quite his career worst, but his FIP (4.63, per baseball-reference.com) was by far the highest of his career. Most disturbing is that his strikeout rate (7.2 per nine innings) has fallen by 2.3 over the past two seasons and his fastball velocity was down, both in average mph and top-end speed. While you might suggest that, at age 30, Hernandez needs to reinvent himself, you also can argue that he's already three years into a transition that has been marked by an increased reliance on the changeup. What would really hearten Seattle fans would be for Hernandez to recover some of his dominant stuff.
Wong is a fine defender and baserunner, but the Cardinals are still waiting for their young second baseman to put it all together at the plate. He was hitting .222 in early June when St. Louis shipped him off to Triple-A Memphis for a couple of weeks to get right. He was better after that, hitting .251 with a good mix of power and patience. That's a good sign for Wong. With more consistent pop, maintenance of an improved approach and better luck on balls in play, he could be poised for a modest breakout in 2017.
The good news is that Cobb even made it back for five late-season starts after working his way back from Tommy John surgery. His results were wildly uneven, with three good outings punctuated by two stink bombs to finish the season. The physics on his stuff weren't all the way back. According to Inside Edge, his top-end velocity was down a couple of ticks, his spin rates were down and he wasn't getting the same break angles. But again, the important thing is that he was pitching at all. After another offseason to rest and prepare, Cobb will be a player to watch early on.
Choo hit the disabled list four times last season with maladies all over his 33-year-old body, the last a forearm fracture suffered when he was hit by a pitch in August. Overall, he logged just 210 plate appearances and put up an OPS+ of 99. The Rangers have plenty of bats to wedge into the lineup, possibly including slugging prospect Joey Gallo, so if Texas follows through with its plan of using Choo more as a DH, he'll have to prove his worth from the outset.
It's fair to wonder just what Smoak is "coming back" from. His slash line over the past three years, an aggregate .216/.297/.403, suggests he never really arrived. Toronto signed lefty masher Steve Pearce to share the first-base job with Smoak this season, and if Smoak falters, Pearce could get plenty of starts against righties as well. This is a crucial position for Toronto, which gave about half its time at first last season to departed Edwin Encarnacion. If Smoak, now 30, has something like a breakout season, the Jays can better leverage Pearce's positional versatility, something of which the other Encarnacion replacement -- DH Kendrys Morales -- has none.
Harper will be one of the most scrutinized players in the majors early in the season, but then again, he always is. In some respects, his 2016 down season wasn't quite the total disaster that you so often read about. Yes, it paled in comparison to Harper's historic 2015 breakout, which was so dominant that teams basically quit pitching to him. That, as much as any unreported physical malady, might explain his fall from a 1.109 OPS to .814. But he still hit 24 homers, drew 108 walks and stole 21 bases. All of our terrible seasons should be so productive. I, for one, expect a monster season of heartbreaking proportions.