â€‹1. Lance Berkman
To win this award twice, which has been done more than one might expect, is to endure a series of career trajectory swings that make for great television. To win it twice in three years, which Berkman has a chance to do this year, is to ride life’s sine curve at a nauseating speed. A career of mostly highs came crashing down in 2010 with a knee-pain-induced awful season between the Astros and the Yankees, and his excellence for the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals earned him his Comeback Player of the Year Award. Then it was another freefall in 2012, again injury-related as he was held to just 97 plate appearances. But the Rangers were confident enough that there’s a guaranteed $11 million waiting for Berkman in his age-37 season in hopes that he rides his career wave to the top again.
Since MLB started giving out this award in 2005, no player has won it twice. However, the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year Award has a surprising history of two-time winners with those dramatic career paths. Norm Cash, Boog Powell, Rick Sutcliffe, Bret Saberhagen, Andres Galarraga, and Chris Carpenter have all won that publication’s award twice since it began in 1965. Nobody’s two honors came within less than five years of each other, though, making Berkman’s ride potentially the wildest of all. —Zachary Levine
2. Ugueth Urbina
The last time Ugueth Urbina pitched in the majors, it was 2005. He struck out more than 11 batters per nine, had a wild streak, and gave up too many home runs, but the cumulative result was a 3.62 ERA that was, adjusted for context, about 20 percent better than the league average. He was 31. It's 2013 now, and Urbina has been locked up for attempted murder, but he's out and he's throwing. If we imagine a world where Urbina had never gone away, would he still be around today?
Since 1990, there have been 15 other pitchers who have: struck out at least 9.5 per nine; walked at least 3.5 per nine; pitched at least 40 innings, a majority in relief; and had an ERA+ between 105 and 135, while in an age-30, -31 or -32 season. One is Jose Veras, who just did it last year. Here's how the others were doing eight years later, or, if they did it within the past seven years, how their prospects look:
- Brad Lidge did it six years ago. He's still active, but threw just nine innings and gave up 10 runs last year. Not likely to be around at the eight-year mark, especially since he plans to retire.
- Luis Vizcaino did it seven years ago. He hasn't pitched since 2009.
- Kiko Calero did it seven years ago. He hasn't pitched since 2009.
- Bruce Ruffin did it twice. He was out of baseball five years after the first time, and three years after the second time.
- Damaso Marte did it twice. He was out of baseball five years after the first time, four years after the second.
- Francisco Cordero did it seven years ago. He had a 7.55 ERA last year, and does not look likely to be an effective reliever in 2014 at the eight-year mark.
- Eight years after Roberto Hernandez did it, he had a 99 ERA+, and followed that up with three fairly effective and full seasons.
- J.J. Putz did it in 2008. He's got to survive three more years to reach the eight-year mark but is in a strong position to do so.
- Fernando Rodney did it five years ago. It's anybody's guess whether he will be the Cy Young winner or out of the sport in one year, let alone three.
- Doug Creek was out of the game five years after he did it.
- Arthur Rhodes had a 2.04 ERA in the eighth year after he did it, starting a very successful three-year run.
- And Randy Myers pitched just three more seasons.
So if these are comps, we could say that it's unlikely Urbina would still be an effective pitcher today even in the best of circumstances. But I'm torn. I don't want a convicted attempted murderer to get paid millions of dollars to play baseball. But I do want to see how people will react to him if he is physically able to. Would a team really sign him? Would a fan base cheer him? Would teammates slap his back? Professional sports have been a fairly tolerant place for sociopaths of all sorts, often disturbingly so. It would be fascinating to see where the limit to that is. —Sam Miller
3. Kevin Youkilis
Some players are blessed with health and rack up huge streaks of consecutive games played. Then there are the Nick Johnsons and Kevin Youkilises, who always seem to be banged up and bruised. Youkilis' injury page at BP takes more than a full page, and that doesn't even fully cover the last two seasons. The most severe of these injuries were a sports hernia and lower back problems, and they took a huge toll on the third baseman's stats, as he hit an uncharacteristic .235/.336/.409 in 2012 with the Red and White Sox.
Perhaps because he wants to make an American flag out of team socks (or because $12 million is a lot of money), Youkilis has chosen to don blue socks for the Yankees in 2013, and he could be in for a rebound. Following his trade to Chicago, Youkilis hit .236/.346/.425, which might be on the low side of his actual performance; TAv pegs his performance with the White Sox at .271. Though he struggled mightily in September and October, Youkilis did manage to stay healthy, and he did hit well during July and August. The Yankees almost assuredly took a very close look at Youkilis' medicals and are certain he is healthy enough to play on a daily basis while filling in for the injured Alex Rodriguez, and Joe Girardi will probably give the 33-year-old his fair share of days off and time at DH. Though he's not beating Father Time, a healthy Youkilis should put up a strong, productive season for New York. —Stephani Bee
4. Jeremy Bonderman
Perhaps Jeremy Bonderman’s legacy will be as the player who caused Billy Beane to throw the chair in the book version of Moneyball. The memorable scene in Michael Lewis’ bestseller came when the Athletics selected Bonderman in the first round of the 2001 amateur draft as a high school pitcher from Pasco, Wash., during a time when Beane thought the best value came from selecting college players. Beane was so incensed by the move that he grabbed a chair in a conference room in the Athletics’ offices and hurled it against the wall.
Not surprisingly, Bonderman never pitched for the Athletics; he was traded to the Tigers 15 months later. However, he reached the major leagues in 2003 and spent eight seasons with Detroit. Among his highlights was leading the American League with 34 starts in 2006, when the Tigers won the AL pennant. Bonderman recently signed a minor-league contract with his home-state Mariners and will try to make a comeback after being away from baseball for three years and undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. While it might seem like the Mariners are taking a bit of a long-shot gamble on Bonderman, remember this: Though he has seemingly been around forever, Bonderman will be 30 years old throughout the 2013 season. With that in mind, maybe it’s not such a long shot after all. —John Perrotto
5. Mariano Rivera
I'm convinced that Mariano Rivera is not actually human. Last year, when the news broke that Mo was out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, I did a double-take. Baseball is a tough game, and these sorts of injuries do happen from time to time. For some reason, I found it hard to believe that such a thing could ever happen to Rivera. The mystique and aura surrounding him is so great that I forgot that he was actually mortal. In 1997, when the number 42 was retired league-wide in honor of Jackie Robinson, anyone wearing the number at the time was allowed to keep his number so long as he stayed with that team. Quickly, the rest of the 42s faded away (I wonder if any of them are still in the majors…). Sixteen years later, Mariano Rivera is still wearing #42 and come April, he will trot into a game to Metallica's greatest hit. And he will throw his magic cutter that everyone knows is coming and they still won't hit it. Rivera has been doing this since I was a sophomore in high school. Hopefully none of my friends are reading this, because I'm about to say something nice about a member of the Yankees. It felt weird not to have Mo pitching last year. I sincerely hope that he's back out there being himself again in 2013. And if he is, he's got Comeback Player of the Year all wrapped up. —Russell A. Carleton
6. Ryan Howard
Thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon, Ryan Howard didn't play his first game in 2012 until July 26. Ten days later, he hit his first home run. After 14 games, his OPS stood at 926. After 40, it stood at 812, the last time it would be above 800. He hit .181/.250/.351 in September and struck out at an alarming rate even by his standards. Howard had been in decline before the injury. After averaging 3.9 WARP from ages 26 to 29, he slipped to 1.6 for each of the next two years before last season's disaster. And now he's 33.
If the situation sounds bleak, it is. On the other hand, he isn't the first to do this. Adam Dunn, an inferior hitter, recovered from his 2011 nightmare. Why can't Howard do the same? Admittedly, Dunn wasn't great last year, but at least he didn't stink, by which I mean he had only twice as many strikeouts as hits.
The point is that Howard used to be very good. It wasn't that long ago, and he isn't that old. He probably won't return to his age 26-29 levels, but it's reasonable to think that he could duplicate his age 30-31 campaigns. If he does, he becomes a strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. —Geoff Young
7. Roberto Hernandez
A sinker-changeup guy from Distrito Nacional, D.R., with a checkered past and a recent history of underachievement, who rediscovers his magic with the Rays under pitching coach Jim Hickey? No, not Fernando Rodney, although the above describes him. Instead, welcome to Fausto Carmona 2.0, now known as Roberto Hernández after spending most of the year settling his false-identity (name, age) criminal hash in the Dominican Republic.
To complicate matters further, this is not the pitcher who was the (Devil) Rays’ inaugural closer in 1998. (The elder Roberto Hernández, now a Rays pitching advisor, racked up 101 saves for Tampa Bay over three seasons.) Hernández the Younger was a standout youngster for the Indians in 2007, his 64.3 percent ground-ball rate second in the majors among starting pitchers. His work has been less convincing since, some of it apparently the result of a spike in home-run rate; but many pitchers who work down the zone need only modest mechanical adjustments to find themselves again, as Rodney—and the Rays—proved last year. Initial expectations were that Hernández would fill the workhorse setup-man role played in 2012 by Wade Davis, since traded to Kansas City with James Shields. But given the Rays’ $3.25 million commitment to Hernández —a lot of money for the Sternberg-Friedman trust to throw at a reliever—it’s easy to picture him getting plenty of chances to work his way into the team’s densely-contested starting rotation mix in 2013, and easy, too, to picture him thriving there. —Adam Sobsey
8. Chris Carpenter
At some point, another comeback won’t be in the cards for Chris Carpenter. The “Injury History” section on his player card fills more than one screen. The right-hander has endured nine surgical procedures to his pitching arm, including five to his elbow and four to his shoulder. The latest, performed in July, corrected a shoulder condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome, which caused numbness down his right arm and hand. The problem limited Carpenter to just 17 innings in three September starts in 2012. After a victory against Washington in the Division Series, Carpenter faltered in the NLCS, allowing 10 runs in two starts against the Giants.
But Carpenter reported improved velocity and command during his work last fall, and he’ll have the benefit of a full spring training this season. He won comeback honors from the Sporting News in 2004 and MLB in 2009, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he does it again at age 38 in 2013. —Jeff Euston
9. Javier Vazquez
Javier Vazquez sat out all of last season, and he's yet to sign with a team, but according to MLB Trade Rumors, he has the “itch to pitch” again. He's been excellent in winter league ball in Puerto Rico. Vazquez has made five starts totaling 23 innings, allowing 23 hits, walking six, and striking out 30. The sterling component stats have resulted in a 3.52 ERA.
Perhaps more encouraging than the raw stats is that according to Bob Nightengale, scouts are raving about Vazquez and say he's throwing his fastball 92-95 mph. His fastball velocity is kind of a big deal. Brooks Baseball calculated Vazquez's average four-seam fastball velocity in April 2011 at 88.89 mph. He was pummeled that month, and he continued to get crushed in May while his average four-seam fastball velocity remained below 90 mph. By June, Vazquez’s velocity had climbed to 91.44 mph, and while his ERA remained high that month, he started missing bats. From July through the end of the season, Vazquez was dominant. He pitched 109.1 innings to the tune of a 2.06 ERA and 0.88 WHIP with a 1.40 BB/9 and 8.48 K/9. Probably not coincidentally, his four-seam fastball velocity was at its peak those months, averaging 91.62 mph in July, 92.33 mph in August, and 92.01 mph in September. If Vazquez is able to retain the velocity he's showing off in winter ball over the course of a season, he'll be a favorite for Comeback Player of the Year. —Josh Shepardson
10. Jemile Weeks
After producing nearly three WARP in 100 games as a rookie, Weeks gave A’s fans hope that maybe their organization could successfully develop a hitting prospect. He took away most of that hope in 2012, however, when he failed to play above replacement level and was forced back down to Triple-A as a 25-year-old.
Heading into this year, Weeks will be the underdog in a position battle with another comeback candidate, Scott Sizemore, for the A’s second-base job. My belief is that Weeks will be given the opportunity to win over that spot a month or two into the season—either because of injury or impressing enough in the minors. If given the chance, Weeks still possesses the bat speed, plate discipline, and gap power to be a productive leadoff or No. 2 batter. Considering that many of the other A’s hitters are likely to regress from impressive 2012 seasons, Oakland needs guys like Weeks to step up if it plans to repeat the magic of last year’s 94-win campaign. —Paul Singman
11. Victor Martinez
When healthy, Victor Martinez has been incredibly consistent. Here’s what his TAvs have looked like in seasons without a serious injury since he earned a starting job at age 25:
That’s a range of only 17 points in his seven full seasons. Since he reached baseball maturity, a healthy Martinez has almost always been a well above-average hitter, which was very valuable when he was a catcher and still somewhat valuable even as he transitioned into his 1B/DH phase. Of course, adding that caveat—“when healthy”—makes the “incredibly consistent” mostly meaningless, since staying healthy is important part of what constitutes consistency. Martinez has actually had two lost seasons in the last nine. Missing from that nice, neat list of .290-ish TAvs is 2008, when he played through a series of injuries (including an elbow ailment that required surgery) and managed only a .245 TAv in 294 plate appearances. Also absent is last season, which Martinez missed after tearing his ACL while working out in January and undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee.
Eventually, most players who have a history of being either hurt or very productive have a season in which they aren’t hurt but also aren’t as effective as they once were. Maybe 2013 will be that season for Martinez, who’s now 34 years old. But even if it is, his comeback will still be a boon to the Tigers. Remember last January, when Prince Fielder signed and everyone wondered what Detroit would do with its DH logjam when Martinez returned? As it turns out, there isn’t one, at least for now. As Zachary Levine observed last week, Tigers designated hitters (read: Delmon Young) were the worst in the AL last season, so even if Martinez’s TAv sinks to his PECOTA-projected .280, he’ll be a big upgrade. —Ben Lindbergh