Baseball is the only sport where a professional player can look as though he has no idea how to play the game one year and come back a dominant force the following season. Recently, we've seen Hanley Ramirez go from being an afterthought in Boston after a disaster 2015 campaign to being a cornerstone of the franchise following a 30 home run, 111 RBI season. And you don't have to look far to find the pitcher's equivalent of Ramirez as the Red Sox's Rick Porcello followed up a season in which he had an ERA of 4.92 with a dominant 22-4 record and 3.15 ERA campaign. He was the runaway winner of the American League Comeback Player of the Year.
There were plenty of players last year who had similar seasons to those recorded by Ramirez and Porcello and plenty of teams hoping for similar rebounds. Not all will be so fortunate; for some, the rocky 2016 season was the beginning of the end, the realization that they no longer have it. Some, however, will bounce back so well that they might be singing their own variation of the Big Sean song: Last year I took an L, but this year I bounce back. Wake up every morning, by the night I count stacks. Knew that ass was real when I... OK, maybe scratch that last line. Unless we're talking about Bartolo "Big Sexy" Colon.
15 Jordan Zimmermann
If there's a "he's only here because there's absolutely no way he can get any worse" section in this list, it starts and ends with Detroit Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. The former Washington Nationals hurler put together four dominant seasons where he recorded a combined 58 wins prior to signing a massive five-year, $110 million with the Tigers. If his first season was any indication, it's going to be a long next four years.
Zimmermann posted the worst numbers of his career in nearly every possible statistical category, though he did post a winning record of 9-7. The worst ERA he recorded in his previous four seasons was 3.66 in 2015, but that number ballooned to 4.87 last year. It's much tougher to pitch in the American League and Zimmermann should feel more comfortable in his second year with Detroit.
14 Carlos Gomez
Carlos Gomez looked to be finished as an MLB player midway through the 2016 season. Playing for the Houston Astros, the 31-year-old Dominican outfielder was a shell of his former self, hitting only .210 through 85 games with five home runs and 29 RBI. He has never been a strong on-base player, but the .272 OBP was the worst of his career. The Astros, not surprisingly, designated Gomez for assignment in August and soon after released him.
Looking to add a spark to their lineup, the Texas Rangers signed Gomez to a minor-league deal. Few expected much out of the former National League All-Star, but here we are months later and he's the proud owner of a one-year, $11.5 million contract thanks to his play down the stretch with the Rangers, where he hit for a .284 average with eight dingers in just 33 games. Expect more of the same from a rejuvenated Gomez in 2017.
13 David Price
Incoming Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Ross Atkins had one of the toughest jobs in baseball last year in replacing beloved Canadian GM Alex Anthopoulos after he guided the Blue Jays to their first postseason appearance in more than 20 years. That was only multiple due to the fact that he made a big trade to acquire David Price at the trade deadline and, although the impending free agent left the door open for a return, he ultimately ended up in Boston when the new GM decided to let him walk. It wasn't a good start for the new regime in Toronto, but when Price struggled throughout the first half of 2016, few people were happier than Blue Jays fans.
The former first round pick turned it around toward the end of the season and finished with a 17-9 record and a career-worst 3.99 ERA, which for most would be an unbelievable season. Price, however, is a former Cy Young winner and two time runner up. He has six years left on the seven-year, $217 million contract he signed with the Red Sox and, just like Ramirez and Porcello in 2016, he'll bounce back with a career year.
12 Dee Gordon
Some players made this list because they're simply too talented to have another down year, others spent considerable time on the disabled list, and Dee Gordon, well, he missed 80 games for PED violations and probably cost me a fantasy baseball championship (no bitterness here, none at all).
The 28-year-old second baseman ultimately couldn't gain any momentum throughout the season and even posted relatively awful numbers compared to his previous two full seasons. The year prior, Gordon led all National League players with a .333 batting average and 58 stolen bases. He hit just .268 in 79 games in 2016, but actually had a better success rate at stealing bases and improved his patience and discipline at the plate. He should continue to get better in that area and once again excel on the base paths.
11 Trevor Rosenthal
It's never easy to project relievers' success. It's a tough role to begin with, where one bad pitch can make your ERA shoot up astronomically; a starting pitcher, however, can chip away at improving that number in low-stress situations. If you're a reliever not named Mariano Rivera, you're likely going to go through some rough patches. Trevor Rosenthal experienced just that in 2016 after coming off three dominant seasons (two of which as the St. Louis Cardinals' closer) in which he recorded 96 saves.
The strikeout numbers were still there in 2016, but his command was shaky at best. The former 21st round pick walked 29 batters in 40.1 innings as opposed to 25 in 68.2 the year prior. His ERA was 4.46 and, by June, he lost his job as closer. He's coming into 2017 preparing for a new role with St. Louis; there were rumors that they might be converting him to a starter, but it appears he'll be stretched out to work more innings out of the bullpen. It's not a bad idea. Rosenthal is just 26-years-old and, if he stays healthy, should rebound well with less pressure in 2017.
10 Pablo Sandoval
Sure, it might be tough to imagine Pablo Sandoval bouncing anywhere, but we're confident he's going to rebound just as Porcello and Ramirez did in Boston during the 2016 campaign. It can't get much worse for the Kung Fu Panda. The two-time National League All-Star had only six at bats last season and infamously snapped his belt on a swing and miss against the Toronto Blue Jays. That was the belt that broke the Panda's back for the Red Sox. He later underwent shoulder surgery and missed the entire season.
It's dangerous to read too much into those offseason photos where players look a little pudgy or, in Sandoval's case, incredibly slimmed down, but it's not hard to tell he has shown an increased commitment to working out. Sandoval looks to be in the best shape of his life heading into spring training and ready to compete for the starting job at third base.
9 Sonny Gray
Sonny Gray was hurt for part of last season and he does have the misfortune of playing for the Oakland A's, but you can't disregard his disaster of a season in 2016. The former first round pick finished third in Cy Young voting in 2015 with a 14-7 record, 2.73 ERA, and 1.08 WHIP, but was a gas van in 2016, finishing with a 5.69 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. His strikeout ratio was down considerably and his walk ratio was up.
Bad as he was, Gray was one of the most unlucky pitchers in 2016 as his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was 4.67 and he continued to produce ground balls at a high rate. If he can stay healthy and gain some traction next season, there's no way he doesn't rebound to become one of the top pitchers in the American League West.
8 Travis d'Arnaud
Once expected to be a future All-Star catcher, Travis d'Arnaud hasn't exactly met expectations through three-and-a-half seasons in the league. His first full year in 2014 was a success as he finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting and hit a career-high 13 home runs and 41 RBI. He posted similar numbers in 2015 in less games, but 2016 was not his year. d'Arnaud had just four home runs and 15 RBI in 276 plate appearances.
There are reasons to suggest the Mets catcher will rebound in 2017. To begin with, the team has no other options at the moment. As bad as he was last year, d'Arnaud was still a much better option than backup Rene Rivera. He's coming into 2017 with a clean bill of health and on a one-year contract, which always seems to motivate players. If he stays healthy, it wouldn't be surprising to see a career year from d'Arnaud.
7 Joe Panik
Joe Panik's greatest asset is his ability to make contact and avoid strikeouts. He isn't necessarily a walk machine, but in the past two seasons he has walked 88 times and struck out 89 times. The problem last year, however, was that he simply couldn't find the gaps. After hitting .312 with a .833 OPS in 2015, Panik hit just .239 with a .695 OPS in 127 games in 2016. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) combined in his first two seasons was .336, while in 2016 it dropped to .245.
Sure, he hit a career-high 62 RBI but that number is misleading when you consider he was given a larger role with the team higher in the lineup. He missed some games with a concussion in 2016 which can certainly affect a player's confidence and timing at the plate, but he showed signs of his old self in the Giants 2016 playoff series against the Chicago Cubs, going 6-13 with two doubles and two walks. He'll have no trouble bouncing back in 2017.
6 Jose Bautista
Jose Bautista might be the most ornery player in baseball and he'll be even more so in 2017 after taking a one-year deal from the Blue Jays at far less than he was demanding the year prior. The author of the bat flip heard around the world proclaimed prior to the start of the 2016 season that he was seeking a hefty, long-term deal after giving the Blue Jays a hometown discount for the past few seasons. He wasn't wrong. But his play in 2016 wasn't enough to warrant that contract. So instead of the reported five-year, $150 million Bautista was seeking, the 36-year-old settled on a one-year, $18.5 million contract (with options for another two years), just a shade above his qualifying offer.
In the past eight seasons with Toronto, Bautista has twice led the American League in home runs and walks, though he had his worst season in recent memory in 2016 with just 22 home runs, 69 RBI and a .234 batting average. He also struck out more than he walked for the first time since 2013. Yet, an angry Bautista is better than a relaxed Bautista and that's exactly what he'll be on a one-year, prove-it contract. And with Edwin Encarnacion gone to Cleveland, he's going to have to bounce back if the Jays are going to be relevant in the AL East.
5 Miguel Sano
OK, now we're just getting crazy, right? Miguel Sano was a second-year player who hit 25 home runs and 66 RBI for the Twins in 2016, both of which topped the totals he set as a rookie in 2015. Was it a disappointing season? Not exactly. Should we expect a much better year in 2017? Absolutely.
Had he played more than 116 games, Sano would have likely topped 30 home runs, but the underlying numbers were far from what many expected. His OBP dropped from .385 to .319; his OPS dropped from .916 to .781; and his OPS+ went from 149 to 110. He also finished fourth in the AL in strikeouts with a whopping 178, which isn't completely terrible for a power hitter, but it is when you consider the three players above him - Justin Upton, Mike Napoli, and Chris Davis - all had at least 100 more at bats. His 65.8 contact rate was third worst in the league, while his contact outside the strike zone was a league-worst 41.7 percent. If his numbers in those areas improve even the slightest, his power will be enough to make him one of the most feared hitters of 2017.
4 Zack Greinke & Shelby Miller
If there was ever an instance we could justify putting two players in one spot, it's right now with Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller. The two pitchers were acquired by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason and many pundits immediately pegged the team as division winners. And why not? Greinke had just come off a dominant season with the Dodgers in which his league-leading 1.66 ERA was good enough for second in Cy Young voting, and Miller had recorded a 3.02 ERA the previous season for an awful Atlanta Braves team.
Of course, we now know how that worked out for Arizona. Greinke and Miller combined for a 16-19 record, and while Greinke improved in the second half to finish with a mediocre 4.37 ERA, Miller was downright embarrassing, posting a 6.15 ERA to go along with the worst strikeout rate of his young career. It always seems to take players a year to adjust to new surroundings and that should be the case with both pitchers as they rebound big time in 2017.
3 Yasiel Puig
Has any player in baseball been more polarizing than Yasiel Puig? The Cuban outfielder was a Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2013 after hitting .319 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI and his on-field flair and antics seemed to rub some people the wrong way. He had some off-the-field issues plague his 2016 season and as a result he finished the year with a career-worst .740 OPS and just 24 walks in 368 plate appearances, also a career-worst. He was even demoted to the minor leagues for a portion of the year.
The 22-year-old is going to have to compete for a starting position in the Dodgers' outfield alongside Andre Ethier, Trayce Thompson, and Andrew Toles, but he's the most skilled of the bunch. It appears the 2016 demotion has helped him mature a tad, so it should be interesting to see what a motivated Puig can accomplish in 2017.
2 Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward had the most amazing, disappointing 2016 campaign out of everyone on this list. Despite hitting a near career-worst .230 and having a career-worst .306 OBP, career-worst .631 OPS, career-worst seven home runs, career-worst 70 OPS+, and costing me a spot in my fantasy baseball playoffs (again, not bitter), Heyward will still receive a World Series ring from the Chicago Cubs. Sure, he didn't come close to living up to the massive eight-year, $184 million contract he signed in the offseason, but that's the beauty of sports.
In fact, Heyward only had five hits in 50 plate appearances in the postseason, bringing his career playoff batting average to a measly .158. Still, the Cubs have plenty invested in the 27-year-old outfielder and he has proven himself a capable contact hitter in the National League over the past five seasons. We're willing to chalk his 2016 season up to the new surroundings factor.
1 Andrew McCutchen
The subject of trade rumors for much of the current offseason, former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen could very well find himself somewhere else to begin 2017, though it seems likely the outfielder stays in Pittsburgh. And the Pirates would be wise not to deal him with his value at the worst it has ever been.
The 30-year-old finished top-five in National League MVP voting in four consecutive years until his below-average 2016 season. Like Bautista and Sano earlier, McCutchen's numbers weren't awful, but for him they were; he had just 79 RBI, his worst total since 2010, struck out a career-high 143 times, had a career-worst .256 batting average, and a career-worst .766 OPS. His WAR dropped from 4.9 to an abysmal -0.7. It wasn't a banner year for the Pirates in general, but surely McCutchen could have been better. Rather than throw him off even more, the trade rumors should result in a more motivated McCutchen to start 2017.