Rake or break for promising but unfulfilled talent
Alvarez, Rasmus, Smoak, Brown, Gamel at crossroads
Some players make it right away. Some make it later. Some don't make it at all. One of the tricks of being successful is figuring out the difference between the latter two categories.
"I can't say it's a gut call," said Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick, a winning general manager with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Phillies. "I think the clubs I've been with, we sort of operated on the idea that if we felt the player had the ability but for one reason or another wasn't putting it together, that as long as he didn't give up on himself, we didn't give up on the player.
"Sometimes it does take longer. Sometimes it takes a second opportunity. Sometimes it takes a trade to get them going. You can't put your finger on it."
Here are five players who for one reason or another appear to be entering crossroads as this season approaches.
FIVE TO WATCH
|Five we can't wait to see|
|Five who will make an impact on new team|
|Five who can leap to stardom|
|Five who need to get it together|
|Five who need to get and stay healthy|
|Five who could bash or crash|
|Five facing rake or break seasons|
Pedro Alvarez, Pirates: He was the second overall pick in the 2008 Draft and was signed for a $6.335 million bonus. He was in the Major Leagues less than two years later. He showed his potential by winning the National League Rookie of the Month Award in September 2010. Last season his face was plastered on billboards all around Pittsburgh, along with Andrew McCutcheon and Neil Walker.
Then the third baseman went out and batted .191 in 74 games while spending some time on the disabled list and some at Triple-A Indianapolis.
Alvarez is just 25 years old, but as far as the public is concerned, the honeymoon is over. The Pirates will be more patient.
"We're looking for him to have a big year. If he doesn't, we'll regroup," said general manager Neal Huntington. "We don't want to make too much of this season or next. Guys don't typically make an impact until their fifth or sixth season. Even college players.
"The public perception is never as patient as we are. That's the hardest part of our game. In the NHL, Sidney Crosby goes from being the best amateur player to one of the best professional players overnight. LeBron James. In the NFL, Andrew Luck is going to make an impact on his team. In baseball it takes years."
Huntington is right. He's also pragmatic. That's why he traded for third baseman Casey McGehee during the offseason.
Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays: There are times when a change of scenery is all a player needs. That was supposedly the immediate answer for Rasmus. Admittedly unhappy in St. Louis, he was traded to the Blue Jays at midseason. Instead of blossoming, he injured his right hand and batted just .173 in 133 at-bats.
The Blue Jays have written it off. They say he was pressing. Manager John Farrell pointed out that Rasmus was making the transition to a new country, new team, new city, new clubhouse, new league. And there's some validity to that. It's also a fact that expectations have always been extremely high for the Cardinals' No. 1 pick in 2005.
It's also true that Rasmus has three years in the big leagues, is a career .251 hitter with a .754 OPS and has seemed to regress each season since finishing eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009.
The center fielder is also just 25 years old. The Blue Jays haven't given up on him, although they have Anthony Gose waiting in the wings. And then there's this from Rasmus himself in an interview this spring with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"I guess I don't want the responsibility of being [a great player]. I'd rather just be a man on the team," he said in a startling bit of candor. "And with such high expectations, I was never going to do as good as they thought."
Justin Smoak, Mariners: For about a month last season, Smoak was everything he was supposed to be. Then his father died. Then manager Eric Wedge, responding to need, moved him into the cleanup spot. Then he hurt both thumbs.
Smoak wasn't cut much slack. He was a first-round Draft pick of the Rangers in 2008, the 11th player taken overall. He was publicly identified as the key player the Mariners had to have in order to deal Cliff Lee to Texas at the 2010 Trading Deadline. He was the face of what Seattle hoped would be a resurgence.
The 25-year-old first baseman still has a prominent spot in Seattle's blueprint. The fact that he ended up hitting just .234, however, with 15 homers and 55 RBIs, adds a little bit of hurry-up to the situation, though.
"I expect a lot from Justin," Wedge said. "It takes time to become the player you're ultimately going to be, but I know he's going to make a strong step in that direction this year. He's too good a player, too good a hitter. He gets it. The experience he gained last year, both good and not so good, is going to help him, going to be part of who he is. I think he's a tough kid. There's a lot inside of him that maybe people don't see."
Domonic Brown, Phillies: The Phillies' one-time top prospect was scratched from the lineup for a game against the Pirates on Saturday. It seems he had a stiff neck after sleeping awkwardly on the pillow he brought along for a bus ride to Kissimmee earlier in the week.
That's the way it's gone lately for Brown. In 2010, the Phillies needed to rush him to the big leagues when Shane Victorino was hurt, even though he had started the season at Double-A Reading. He didn't go back down when Victorino returned, was sidelined with a tender right quad and missed significant development time.
Last spring he came to camp to compete for the starting right-field spot, but broke his hand when he was hit by a pitch and ended up shuttling between Philadelphia and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. In the meantime, the Phillies traded with the Astros for Hunter Pence and Brown was moved to left field. This spring he wrenched his thumb trying to make a play in the field.
It's important to remember that not only is Brown just 24, he was primarily a football player before the Phillies signed him. He's still a little raw. He doesn't have to be a smash in the Major Leagues this season. The organization would be more than satisfied if he spent all year at Lehigh Valley and put up stellar numbers.
"I think it's an important year for him," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "But the road to the big leagues is never a smooth one. It's never a straight one. So even as talented as he is, there are a lot of things that have to happen for him to be a quality big league player. We still think he has the ability to do that, but he's going to have to go through some growing pains. And he's going through them. But I think he's handling them pretty well."
Mat Gamel, Brewers: Milwaukee has been waiting for Gamel for a while now. He has nothing left to prove in the Minors, where he has spent seven seasons. In four years at Triple-A, he's batted .301 with an .886 OPS.
He'll turn 27 in July. The Brewers are giving him another chance. Not just any chance, either. He has the inside track to replace Prince Fielder at first base.
Gamel has had opportunities before, but hasn't been able to take advantage. He's been hurt each of the past three springs, partly because of conditioning issues. In parts of four Major League seasons, he's been a .222 hitter with five homers and 23 RBIs in 85 games.
"At this point in time, I felt like I owed it to myself and the club to show up in the best shape of my life and show them I'm willing to do whatever it takes to stay," he said. "It's time to get it done."
Added manager Ron Roenicke: "The mentality of playing in the big leagues when you get this opportunity is you need to succeed to have that confidence and know you belong. Mat has not been in that position yet. So, whatever it takes for me to get him confident and knowing he can hit at the big league level, that's what our aim and our goal is."
Paul Hagen is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.