It’s not that long ago when these seven players were among the very best in the baseball world. All-Stars, Cy Young contenders and even an MVP winner – they all appeared to be on the road to superstardom.
But so much can change in this game over just a year or two. During that time, these headline names have seen their production wane and their doubters increase. Injury concerns now follow most of them. They are young and talented enough to be productive Major Leaguers for many more seasons, but without a bounceback, their future in the game could suddenly appear nebulous.
They all are also on teams with realistic playoff aspirations in 2023, and each player will most likely be a free agent following the season. So, yeah, this group has a lot at stake and a lot to prove in the games ahead.
Cody Bellinger, OF, Cubs
Bellinger received multi-year offers as a free agent this offseason, according to his agent, Scott Boras. But the aim all along was to ink a one-year pact with the hopes that the man who hammered 47 homers en route to 2019 NL MVP honors can rehabilitate his value and cash in on the open market next winter. He got such a deal from the Cubs.
Bellinger’s production fell off in 2020, but he was still an above-average offensive player (112 wRC+) who played outstanding defense. Although his high-quality fielding has remained, his play at the plate has cratered amid a rash of injuries. It began when he separated his right shoulder while celebrating his go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. Bellinger then had three stints on the injured list in 2021. He remained healthy for the bulk of 2022, but his bat never recovered and he was ultimately benched during the postseason. Over the past two seasons, he recorded a 69 wRC+ through more than 800 at-bats.
Bellinger is only 27 years old and his contract contains a mutual option for 2024. Given his recent results, he knows 2023 will be an important year in his career.
Mike Clevinger, SP, White Sox
Clevinger and Chicago joined forces early in the offseason on a one-year, $8 million contract that contains a mutual option for 2024. The former Cleveland pitcher is hoping his familiarity with the AL Central assists in a personal revival.
From 2017-19, he ranked sixth among qualified starters with a 152 ERA+. In that final year, he was at the 90th percentile or better in average exit velocity, strikeout percentage and wOBA. But Clevinger’s right elbow began to bark shortly after an August 2020 trade to San Diego and he ultimately required Tommy John surgery that November, effectively ending his 2021 season before it began.
This past season got off to a bad start in Spring Training with a knee sprain that nagged him throughout the summer. He did make 22 regular-season starts, but Clevinger’s fastball velocity was down by nearly 2 mph. He finished with a 4.33 ERA, a career-worst 4.97 FIP and saw his strikeout rate plummet to 18.8 percent, well below the MLB average of 22.1 percent. Clevinger doesn’t anticipate his velocity being a problem this season. At 32 years old, he can’t afford another lost year.