The Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Year award has been interesting to me since it was conceived by MLB — and Viagra — in 2005. Certainly it’s not an award a player aspires to when beginning a career, but it can be quite an honor for someone who’s struggled but then overcome. In the award’s brief history, the winners have run the gamut. Some have been a one-year blip on the radar — like Aaron Hill or Francisco Liriano. Others have been superstars who’ve had a year away from typical production, only to return to that previous level. Guys like Jim Thome, or Ken Griffey Jr., surely fit that bill. Other times, the award can be a harbinger, like when Cliff Lee won in 2008.
This year, there are a several viable candidates in both leagues: Jacoby Ellsbury, James Shields and Alex Gordon seem like excellent options in the American League. In the NL, Ryan Vogelsong, Carlos Beltran and Matt Kemp all are strong contenders. In the process of thinking about who would get my votes this season (Gordon and Vogelsong) I began considering some players who could be candidates for the award next year. Here’s my list:
Pedro Alvarez – 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go for top prospects, especially not for one who already had nearly 400 major-league plate appearances that implied there was a developing star in the batter’s box. Yet injuries and ineffectiveness marred Alvarez’s sophomore season, holding him to fewer than 250 plate appearances and an OPS in the .550s. There were questions about Alvarez’s long swing in 2011, but his troubles seem mostly due to bad luck. Not only has the health bug bit Alvarez, but he also owns a .275 BABIP – among the 15 lowest of all players with 200-plus plate appearances – despite an incredible surge in GB/FB, LD%, and GB%. Sure, Alvarez is going to strike out a lot, but it’s safe to say that his rates foretell a return to form for the 24-year-old. He might never become the superstar many folks though he would become, but Alvarez should be an asset next season.
Franklin Gutierrez – CF, Seattle Mariners
To say the least, it’s been an exceptionally rough season for “Death to Flying Things.” If his .224/.261/.273 slash line hadn’t put him in cahoots with Chone Figgins, Gutierrez was hampered by a mysterious stomach illness that required trips to the Mayo Clinic and cost Franklin the first six weeks of the season. An oblique injury later cost him almost all of September. As a result, Gutierrez started slow — with a 467 OPS after a month — and never really recovered. On the plus side, Gutierrez had a .266 BABIP — this, despite no obvious disparity in his batted-ball rates. If he can gravitate back to his .306 career mark — and stay healthy — he should show marked improvement.
Joe Mauer/Justin Morneau – C/1B, Minnesota Twins
If Gutierrez’s season has been bad, the Twins have gotten a double dose. With both Mauer and Morneau shut down for the season, the duo will have missed 173 games for a team that’s probably the worst in the franchise’s 51-year history. With Morneau, there’s plenty of doubt about whether he’ll ever resemble anything close to the All-Star he once was. With Mauer, though, a healthy off-season – which is far from guaranteed – should go a long way to helping him return to his .300/.400/.500-type glory. With $37 million tabbed for this pair in 2012, the Twins simply can’t rebuild.
Adam Dunn – DH, Chicago White Sox
Dunn has had a horrific 2011, but he’s not this bad. His wOBA is nearly 100 points worse than his previous-worse season; his ISO is still only about half what it was in his previous-worst full season; and the same goes for his wRC+. In a nutshell, Dunn’s batted-ball rates are almost identical to his career rates across the board. And while he’s never been a BABIP monger, his .244 mark is still 50 points below his career mark. For one last bit of context: If Dunn magically improved his 2011 OPS by .300 points, it STILL wouldn’t match his career OPS. Even a modest return to form for Dunn should help him lock down this award.