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Thursday, May 5, 2011
Berkman, Martin lead comeback players

By Jim Bowden

Russell Martin and Lance Berkman
A change of scenery has done wonders for Russell Martin and Lance Berkman.
One of the great storylines of the 2011 season has been the comeback stories across both leagues. Often called "reclamation projects" when they are signed, these comeback players can make a general manager look brilliant if they succeed.

Comeback players can return to success for myriad reasons, including but not limited to: finally getting healthy; mechanical adjustments; a change of scenery; a weightlifting or conditioning program; getting a second chance from off-field problems; taking a year off and wanting to come back; or even improvements in their personal life like a marriage or birth of a child.

When a general manager signs a player with the intent of him becoming a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, he normally has a reason behind it. Here are some of those guys, plus a couple who didn't change organizations.

1. Lance Berkman, St. Louis Cardinals

Berkman had spent his entire career with the Astros, averaging 30 home runs, 110 RBIs and a .410 on-base percentage over a 12-year career as one of baseball’s top OPS guys. However, at 34 years old, he saw it all crumbling down last season, in which he hit just .245 with 13 HRs and 49 RBIs before being traded to the Yankees. Once he arrived with the Yankees it got worse, as he finished the year batting .255 with just one home run in 106 at-bats. His lower half looked old. His legs were slow. His bat was slow. His torque in the middle wasn't the same. He looked finished. He was embarrassed. He also did something about it. Ed Wade, his former GM in Houston, told me this past winter that he ran into Berkman in the Houston area and he had lost 15-20 pounds and looked to be in great shape. He was excited about being able to return to right field with the Cardinals -- a position he hadn’t played in over four years. His hard work in the offseason has paid off early this season, as he’s hitting .390 with nine HRs and 27 RBIs. In the case of Berkman, the reasons he has been able to make a successful comeback can probably be attributed to conditioning, weight training, change of scenery and the wake-up call that he appeared not only in decline but possibly near the end of his career. Whatever the reason, he’s back, and Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is no longer answering questions about why he signed Berkman to a one-year, $8 million deal. By the way, Berkman also has looked impressive in the field, getting good jumps on balls and covering enough ground to be called close to an average defender.

2. Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

The Royals have taken a lot of flak for drafting Gordon ahead of such players as Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Jay Bruce, and rightfully so. However, Gordon was always a talented player and most clubs had him in the top five that year. Gordon has had to overcome injuries, positional changes (3B, 1B and now finally a home in LF) and mechanical changes. More importantly, he had to overcome being rushed to the major leagues before he was ready. He really struggled with major league pitching, leaving a lot of evaluators scratching their heads. However, he made a mechanical change this spring that allowed his hands to start further back and higher, giving him the ability to let the ball travel further, and that has put him back on the map as one of the top, young, potential left-handed power hitters in the game. Gordon presently has an OPS of .900 with 20 RBIs.

3. Aaron Harang, San Diego Padres

Harang won 16 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 and 2007 and was considered the ace of the staff. However, after three years of averaging six wins per season, the Reds let him go via free agency at the end of last season. Jed Hoyer, the GM of Padres, took a chance on Harang on the recommendation of pitching coach Darren Balsley, and it has paid off. Harang told me that Balsley changed his leg kick back to where it was in '06 and '07 and changed the timing of his hands splitting. The results added velocity, a crisper breaking ball, a much-improved WHIP and two wins away from Petco Park.

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano has been one of the few bright spots so far for the Cubs.
4. Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs

Last summer, Cubs GM and then-manager Lou Piniella told me Soriano will never be the player he was in Washington. Because of bad knees, Soriano hasn’t hit 30 home runs since 2007, when he hit 33 in his first year with the Cubs. But 2011 is a new season, and Soriano, after spending the winter working on his legs, knees and lower half, is back. He has an NL-leading 11 home runs and is presently on pace to hit more than the 46 home runs he hit for me in Washington back in 2006. Amazing what happens when a talented player gets healthy again. Another good comeback story.

5. Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees

This one’s the hardest one for me to believe. Colon is throwing a 92-96 mph fastball, painting the corners and keeping it down or elevating when needed with a good breaking ball. This can’t be happening, can it? I feel like Michael J. Fox is going to soon tell me we are back to the past. Colon won 21 games in 2005 for the Angels. He won a total of 14 games over the next four years ... four years! The great Branch Rickey once said, "If you see it once, you can see it again." Colon is 2-1 with a 3.00 ERA but giving the Yankees important innings in the rotation. The key will be how long can he maintain this; how long can he maintain velocity; how long can he maintain command? A phenomenal story.

6. Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians

Hafner’s shoulders have been so bad that he hasn't been able to do any offseason weightlifting the past few years. However, this offseason was different. With better health on his side, Hafner worked hard in building up strength and flexibility. The result has been outstanding, as his bat speed is back and so is the thump in his bat. His sweet spot contact is loud again, and his face is smiling. And it should be after starting this season with a .404 OBP, including four home runs. Hafner is presently nursing a sore right foot but fortunately is not heading to the disabled list, according to Indians manager Manny Acta.

7. Russell Martin, New York Yankees

I watched Martin closely the last two years with the Dodgers. He showed no power in games and no power in BP, and questions about the health of his hip and knees never ceased. When the Dodgers decided to non-tender Martin, it wasn’t met with surprise, but rather with understanding. Remember, he hit five home runs in 2010 and seven in 2009. When Yankees GM Brian Cashman signed Martin, he took a lot of criticism. With Jorge Posada, Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, the signing didn’t appear to make sense. However, Cashman is now looking brilliant. Martin already has six home runs and 20 RBIs to go with a .939 OPS and has done an admirable job of calling a game and stopping the running from a defensive standpoint. He is clearly one of the better free-agent bargains of 2011, and the Red Sox and Dodgers should be kicking themselves for not pursuing him more aggressively. This comeback story has as much to do with a change of scenery as health, but both have played a major factor.

Comeback players can make an impact on pennant races and they already have this year for teams such as the Yankees (Colon, Martin and Eric Chavez) and Indians (Grady Sizemore and Hafner).

You can follow me on Twitter @JimBowdenESPNxm, and I look forward to your input, feedback and ideas. Thanks for reading.