Ten guys facing the most pressure in 2013
March, 4, 2013
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on Jose Bautista this season as the Blue Jays are expected to contend.Does pressure exist in baseball? We've made heroes and goats of those who performed -- or didn't perform -- in the game's biggest moments. But those are usually isolated snippets of time in a postseason game, when the results of one at-bat or a few games serve to define your character (fairly or not).
Pressure in the regular season is different; it's more about external expectations and a player's importance to his club. Some players thrive under that spotlight; some pretend it doesn't exist. Tommy Lasorda put it another way: "Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it's because you've started to think of failure."
For the most part, major leaguers are oblivious to pressure because they are good; they expect success, not failure. But that doesn't mean pressure isn't out there in some form. For example, did Albert Pujols struggle last April because of the pressure of his new contract? It's certainly possible.
Here are the 10 guys I would suggest are facing the most pressure this season.
10. Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Marlins moved Ramirez off shortstop not just because they signed Jose Reyes a year ago but because they also believed Ramirez no longer had the range required to play the position. The defensive metrics back up that assertion -- minus-39 defensive runs saved over the three seasons, in what amounts to about two years' worth of innings at shortstop -- but Ramirez wants to play short and that's where he'll open the season. After hitting .313 over his first five seasons, Ramirez also has to show there's some potency left in his bat after hitting just .252 over the past two seasons.
9. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
It's easier to be the big man on campus when winning results are hoped for more than assumed. But now that the Blue Jays are expected to be relevant, the spotlight will shine more intensely on Bautista. Is he the guy to carry a Jays team that many believe can -- or should -- reach the World Series? He's reportedly healthy after last year's wrist injury, but he has to prove he can come closer to 2011's monster numbers (.302/.447/.608, 43 home runs) than 2012's more pedestrian ones (.241/.358/.527).
8. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
The pressure on Wainwright won't come from a heavy-handed local media or fan base with unrealistic demands, but from the knowledge that Kyle Lohse won't be here and Chris Carpenter's career may be over. With young pitchers like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly battling for the starting rotation, the mantle of staff leader falls on Wainwright's shoulders -- and surgically repaired right elbow. He obviously had a positive return from Tommy John surgery a year ago (14-13, 3.94 ERA), but it's important to note it wasn't really that great of a year -- his ERA ranked just 31st among qualified National League starters. But a strong second half has many believing Wainwright can return to his pre-injury Cy Young contender status.
7. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox spent enough money in the offseason -- Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes -- that club officials certainly expect a rebound from last season's disaster and a return to contender status. To do that, however, they'll need a year like Ellsbury gave them in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and finished second in the MVP vote. Ellsbury hasn't hit more than nine homers in any other season, so as an impending free agent he's also looking to earn a mega-payday by showing that power spike wasn't a fluke.
6. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton will have to face the pressure of playing for a $125 million contract in Los Angeles.
As always, there's a lot of pressure on Longoria to lead a Tampa offense that isn't going to scare a lot of opponents. Aside from that, he has to prove he can stay healthy after missing significant chunks of action the past two years -- and rejoin that discussion of being one of the top five players in baseball -- and show that $100 million extension the Rays gave him in the offseason wasn't a mistake.
5. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
With no Josh Hamilton and veteran leader Michael Young jettisoned to Philly, this is now Beltre's team, so to speak. He's the star of the Rangers' show and with that comes the pressure to carry a lineup that scored 47 fewer runs in 2012 than it did in 2011. Beltre hit .321 with 36 home runs, but he turns 34 in April, that precarious age when decline often starts setting in.
4. Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
Speaking of Hamilton, when you leave a winning franchise to sign a $125 million deal with your former team's biggest rival, yeah, I'd say the intensity of expectations will be pretty high. Will the money affect him? How will he hit outside of Texas? What was up with all the strikeouts last year? Sure, it helps having Pujols and Mike Trout around to help carry the offensive burden, but Pujols' struggles suggest pressure to live up to a huge contract can arguably affect even the biggest stars. Anything short of Hamilton helping lead the Angels to a division title will be considered a disappointment.
3. Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves
Considering the months of trade rumors surrounding Upton -- and then everybody saying the Braves stole him from the Diamondbacks -- he has to show he was worth all the hype. He has hit .307 with a .937 OPS in Arizona in his career, .250 with a .731 OPS on the road. Did the Braves trade for a guy who was an MVP candidate in 2011 or merely a good, but inconsistent, player?
2. Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
No Nick Swisher. No Russell Martin. No Curtis Granderson for April. No Alex Rodriguez for who knows how long. A declining Mark Teixeira and an aging Derek Jeter trying to return from a broken ankle. Two outfielders in Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner with little power. Oh, yeah, you're also playing in the toughest media market in the sport, coming off a postseason in which you hit .075 and playing for a huge contract as an impending free agent. Enjoy the season, Mr. Cano.
1. Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
When you admit you signed with the Dodgers because of the hefty paycheck ($147 million over six years) it's not just a refreshing bit of honesty (although I respect him for saying it). With that comment, Greinke put the bull's-eye on himself. Heck, Dodgers management believes they're starting a dynasty here; they already have Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, but it's Greinke -- a guy with a 3.83 ERA over the past three seasons -- with the most pressure on the team.