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When April Isn’t Early

Every April, a few players get off to a bad start to the season. Last year, Derek Jeter [1] (.250/.311/.272), Dan Uggla [2] (.194/.250/.380), and Adam Jones [3] (.218/.260/.414) all struggled out of the gates, but because of their strong track records, they were able to play the “it’s early” card, and their numbers improved significantly as the season wore on.

In general, you don’t want to evaluate a player based on the small sample of less than 100 plate appearances, and overreacting to an early slump is not a good idea. However, for these five players, if they don’t come out of the gates strong to begin the year, they might not get any more chances to turn it around.

Daniel Bard [4], SP, Boston

A mediocre spring training from Bard didn’t do much to calm the critics who think that his power repertoire plays up better in the bullpen, but the Red Sox opted to continue with his conversion into the regular season and give him a chance to stick as a starting pitcher. Their lack of reliable alternatives in the rotation likely helped Bard stick as a starter, but the thumb injury to Andrew Bailey [5] – he’ll reportedly be out for 3-4 months – leaves them with similar issues in the bullpen, and the calls for Bard to move to the closer role will only grow louder if he doesn’t pitch well early in the season. With a clear need for another strong end-game reliever, the Red Sox won’t have the luxury of letting Bard get his feet wet as a starter. If he has a poor April, he’ll likely find himself back in the bullpen by May.

Chone Figgins [6], LF/3B, Seattle

Since signing a four year, $36 million contract to join the Mariners in 2010, Figgins has been nothing short of a disaster. Given a chance to bounce back last year, he hit .188/.241/.243 and was -1.2 WAR, meaning that the Mariners would have been a full win better had they just given his playing time to a random guy from Triple-A. However, the organization wants to get some value from Figgins’ contract, so they’ve shuffled their batting order in an attempt to give him one last chance with no excuses. Now back in the leadoff role, where he thrived in Anaheim, Figgins needs to show something offensively in a hurry. If he struggles again in April, the rebuilding Mariners won’t be able to justify keeping young players on the bench behind an unproductive 34-year-old. It’s fair to say that this is Figgins last chance at redemption, but he has to hit well early or that chance won’t last very long.

Jeff Niemann [7], SP, Tampa Bay

Hopes were high for Niemann when the Rays took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, but between injuries and mediocre performances, he’s never lived up to his draft position. Now 29-years-old, Niemann had to battle Wade Davis [8] for the final spot in the rotation, and while he was proclaimed the winner of the spring training face-off, the Rays won’t hesitate to go back to Davis if Niemann doesn’t pitch well. Few teams have a ready made replacement sitting in the bullpen looking over their fifth starter’s shoulder, but Davis’ presence is intensified by the four year contract he signed with the team last year. The Rays have a lot of incentive to get value from Davis, and a slow start from Niemann could easily push the team into flipping the two and sticking Niemann back in the bullpen.

Josh Collmenter [9], SP, Arizona

One of the better stories of 2011, Collmenter went from being a non-prospect who posted a 5.77 ERA in Triple-A the year before to a rotation stalwart for the Diamondbacks, and his success was a large part of the reason they ran away with the NL West. However, Collmenter’s success was probably not sustainable, as his 3.38 ERA was significantly lower than the 4.18 xFIP he posted, and the latter is more predictive of future performance than the former. Arizona fans are already clamoring to see top prospect Trevor Bauer [10] in the big leagues, and the D’Backs may need to speed up his timetable if Collmenter gets off to a slow start. His spring training struggles have already sounded the alarms, so if Collmenter gets rocked a couple of times in April, expect Bauer in the big leagues by May.

Barry Zito [11], SP, San Francisco

Unlike the four situations above, the Giants don’t really have a great alternative to Zito, as presumed back-up starter Erik Surkamp is going to begin the year on the disabled list. The lack of options and the remaining $45 million still left on his disaster of a contract are allowing Zito to get one more chance to show he can still get hitters out, but the team is clearly tired of watching Zito take the hill. After another awful spring training where scouts reported that Zito was “throwing batting practice”, Zito is going to be on a very short leash, and if he struggles to begin the year, the team will find someone to take his place.