Former award winners look to return to prominence
Pujols, Lincecum, Hamilton, Dickey among those aiming to get back on track this year
Five years ago, Albert Pujols and Tim Lincecum were both at the acme, back-to-back winners of the top individual awards for their profession, Pujols having won the Most Valuable Player Award and Lincecum the Cy Young Award in the National League in consecutive seasons.
But much has since changed, and both will head into the 2014 season hoping to rekindle at least some of what made them the best of the best not all that long ago.
They are just two of several former award winners looking for an upswing in performance this coming season. Consider Josh Hamilton -- Pujols' teammate with the Angels -- and hobbled Phillies star Ryan Howard. Or, fallen star Ryan Braun, rejoining the Brewers after losing most of last season to a PED suspension. They don't have to be MVPs in 2014, but something close would help their clubs, to be sure.
On the mound, R.A. Dickey would like to bounce back with the Blue Jays, at least taking a step toward the ways that won him an NL Cy Young two years ago, when he pitched for the Mets. Going a little deeper into the annals, this might be two-time Cy winner Johan Santana's chance to get on track again, once he signs as a free agent following shoulder surgery.
The point is, even with the magnificent consistency of Miguel Cabrera and Clayton Kershaw the past few years, there are no guarantees of repeat success for MVPs or Cy Young winners. For some, it's a high bar to reach.
Lincecum is a prime example of a player who started his big league career on top of the world but has found himself scratching and clawing to regain that sort of dominance.
One thing The Freak has is the faith of his franchise. The Giants signed him to a two-year, $35 million deal to keep him off the open market this past offseason, a deal that followed two seasons that were a far cry from his stellar campaigns in winning the Cy Young in 2008-09.
Lincecum's 4.37 ERA in 2013 was better than his 5.18 ERA in 2012, a mark that was the league's highest among qualifiers that year. But he has been a vital and widely respected part of two World Series championships, and his July 13 no-hitter last year was a good sign that he's finding his way with less velocity and more experience.
"I think everybody on our baseball side evaluating it said this was the right thing for the Giants," San Francisco president and CEO Larry Baer said of the Lincecum signing. "Hey, Timmy is a very popular guy. But I don't want it to be misinterpreted that this was done because he's popular. It was done because we think he can excel and get us to be where we need to be in the future."
For Pujols, the results on the field haven't matched the 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Angels prior to the 2012 season. After overcoming a horrible start to record another 30-homer, 100-RBI season in 2012, Pujols missed much of last season due to injury and saw it end in August with a tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot. He underwent treatment on the injury in lieu of undergoing surgery, and he's hoping for a healthy 2014.
To his credit, Pujols has been one of the most durable players in the game throughout his career, having played at least 143 games in each of his first 12 seasons. After a career-low 99 games last season, he plans to come back healthy and strong.
"Since it happened when it did, I had six, seven weeks out," Pujols said in an interview with ESPN Deportes Radio in November. "I missed the [end of the] season, but at least I now feel 100 percent, where I can do the things I want to do to prepare for 2014."
Hamilton, the American League MVP in 2010 when he was with the Rangers, joined Pujols in Southern California on a five-year, $125 million deal signed last offseason. He batted .250/.307/.432 with 21 homers and 79 RBIs in his first season under the Halo. Suffice to say, a return to form for both Angels will be crucial to the team's hopes of returning to prominence in the AL West.
The case of Braun, the NL MVP in 2011, is unique. He faces the challenge of regaining his status in the game following his suspension for the last 65 games of last season for violations of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
But, following an offseason that included remorseful comments publicly and apologies privately, Braun will back in a Brewers uniform for the start of Spring Training. He'll be shifting to right field this season -- just part of the air of uncertainty heading into 2014.
"I think he's wondering what it will be like," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said last month. "I'm wondering what it will be like."
Another Ryan -- the Phillies' Howard -- missed much of last season for a completely different reason, losing the last two-plus months to knee surgery. It has been since 2006 that he won MVP, although he was a front-runner in 2008-09, but his past two seasons have been plagued by injuries.
Bottom line: The Phillies need their Big Piece back in the middle of their lineup puzzle.
"We've missed him for really the past couple years. Just him in the middle of our lineup creates a lot of different things for the opposing team," veteran second baseman Chase Utley said recently, amid reports that Howard is looking trim and fit for a rebound in 2014.
Aside from Lincecum, there is Dickey and Santana. For Santana, the opportunity will be tricky -- he hasn't signed with anyone, so he might have to complete his rehab from shoulder surgery without a contract. An AL Cy Young winner in 2004 and '06 for the Twins, Santana already scratched his way back from injury to register the only no-hitter in Mets history in 2012, and at 35 is poised to get back in action.
As for Dickey, he's part of a Blue Jays team that would like to get on a winning track. Part of an influx of veteran talent into Toronto following his 2012 Cy Young season with the Mets, Dickey will enter the season having seen what adjustments he needs to make to have the type of success in the AL East that he had in the NL East only one season earlier.
"I do feel like I gathered a lot of information I can apply to next season that should be helpful," Dickey said at the end of the season.
Dickey has been there and done that, on a high level, and he's aiming to do it again. He's not alone.
There are quite a few former award-winning talents hoping to bring their games back to the elite level in 2014.