Bouncebacks could be rewarding
Former All-Stars, Cy Young winner among preseason Comeback candidates
PHOENIX -- For Rafael Furcal, the 2008 season was almost a total loss. The Dodgers shortstop had back surgery and missed 125 regular-season games. He hopes 2009 will be a lot friendlier."I feel pretty good. I feel 100 percent, as good as I was hoping I would," Furcal, 31, said recently at the Camelback Ranch complex. "I've had a little struggle with the bat, but that will come around. Physically, I'm strong. I even made a backhand play the other day. Before, I was afraid of that. Now I feel a lot more comfortable."
If Furcal comes around, he could be one of the top candidates for Comeback Player of the Year in the National League, along with pitcher Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals, first baseman Todd Helton of the Rockies and Mike Hampton of the Astros. "I hope so, I wish," Furcal said.In the American League, it might be first baseman Travis Hafner of the Indians, who missed 105 games because of shoulder weakness that led to arthroscopic surgery. Hafner, also 31, could have stiff competition from catcher Jorge Posada of the Yankees, third baseman Eric Chavez of the A's, and perhaps pitcher John Smoltz, now with the Red Sox after a 20-year run in Atlanta, depending upon how the season pans out for those players. Cleveland manager Eric Wedge said he doesn't want any more pressure on Hafner than there needs to be. "The last thing we want, and the last thing he should even think about, is feeling the pressure of the world," said Wedge about Hafner, who fell from 24 homers and 100 RBIs in 2007 to five homers and 24 RBIs last season. "That's just silly. We don't need him to be great. We just need him to have a nice, solid year for us. If everybody does their part, we don't need to rely on any one person." The player who wins Comeback Player of the Year depends on how voters define terms of the award. Should it go to someone who overcomes injury or illness to return to form? Or should it go to a guy who turns it around after a bad year? Jeff Weaver falls into the latter category. The veteran 32-year-old right-hander spent the entire 2008 season in the Minors after going 7-13 for the Mariners in 2007 and seems a sure bet to make the Dodgers' bullpen out of Spring Training. "As an athlete, you always try to make improvements and sometimes you have to take a couple steps back," Weaver said. Last year's winners, voted upon by MLB.com reporters, were two pitchers -- Cliff Lee of the Indians and Brad Lidge of the Phillies -- who rebounded from poor seasons in 2007. Lee overcame a demotion to the Minors that season to dominate the AL in 2008. He went 22-3, his .880 winning percentage tying Preacher Roe of the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers for the third highest by a 20-game winner in the modern era. Lidge, on the rocks in Houston in 2007 when he lost his job as closer, was traded to the Phillies and went 48-for-48 in save attempts last season. The year concluded with Lidge getting the final out of Philadelphia's five-game World Series win over the Rays. "This season was a grind," Lidge said. "Nothing was easy." It won't be easy for any of the top comeback candidates. Helton, 35, had back problems all through the 2008 season, missed 79 games, and dipped from 17 homers and 91 RBIs in Colorado's 2007 pennant-winning season to seven homers and 28 RBIs last season. He took only two at-bats (both strikeouts) after July 3. But the lefty swinger is having a super Spring Training. Through Tuesday's action he was batting .515 (17-for-33) with four homers and 14 RBIs. "I feel good," Helton said. "I'm swinging the bat pretty well. But we still have to wait until we get into the season. It's still a long season. It's not about going out and being productive in Spring Training. It's about going out and doing it for the length of a 162-game season."
Carpenter, nearly 34 and the NL's Cy Young Award winner in 2005, has made just five appearances (four starts) for the Cards since they won the 2006 World Series. He's had Tommy John ligament replacement in his right elbow, nerve replacement surgery in the same elbow, plus nerve problems in his right shoulder. Where he goes from here may be up to the baseball gods."There's always maybe a bit of doubt just because of everything that's gone on in the last two years," he said earlier in the spring. "There have been a lot of ups and downs. There's been a lot of excitement and a lot of letdowns. And as much as that goes for the organization and the team and everybody else, it's harder on me than it is on anybody else." Ditto Hampton, the left-hander who's back in Houston, trying to resurrect his once-thriving career. Since 2004, Hampton, 38, has been on the comeback player possibility list because of elbow, hamstring and pectoral issues. He made 12 starts for the Braves in '05, sat out both the '06 and '07 seasons, and made 13 starts in '08. A 148-game winner in his 14-year career, Hampton has only won eight games since 2004. But he's bullish on the possibilities of the coming season. "There's a renewed excitement," he said. "Sometimes you're in situations in baseball where things get kind of bogged down a little bit. I'm just genuinely excited about being back. I feel great, I'm excited about the prospects of making 30 starts and helping this team win and maybe relive my glory days. Some of the best times of my career were spent in Houston and I'm looking forward to some of the same this time." Because of a sore right shoulder, the 37-year-old Posada missed most of the Yankees' season, eventually opting for surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Posada, a big part of the heart and soul of the Yankees for a decade, threw out just three of 37 basestealers and didn't play after July 27. Despite experiencing shoulder soreness on and off all spring, the Yankees are counting on him to contribute heavily this season and catch upward of 100 games. And Posada, who threw out a couple of runners in a recent Spring Training game, said his arm is back to 100 percent. "Now you know that you can trust your arm again," Posada said. "That's the only thing I wanted to do. Come out of Spring Training, knowing that I can throw somebody out and trust my arm again." Because of a variety of injuries to his shoulders and back, Chavez has been limited to 113 games during the past two seasons. His 2008 season began in Spring Training with Chavez recovering from back surgery and ended on Aug. 13 because of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He didn't play again after being placed on the disabled list on July 1. The shoulder was his fourth surgery in less than a year. He had three surgeries on his back and shoulders during a 10-week period in 2007. Chavez, 32, hasn't played a full season since 2006, when he appeared in 137 games, batted .241 with 22 homers and 72 RBIs and won his sixth Gold Glove. "This is as healthy as I've been in a long time," said Chavez, who began playing third base regularly in Spring Training games last Friday. "I feel good. It's definitely going in that direction. Last spring was brutal. When I got here it was just brutal. This is a lot better." Smoltz may not be back until June. The 41-year-old right-hander underwent right shoulder surgery last June to repair labrum damage and made one appearance last season after April 27. He has been throwing off a mound, doing so every three days, is hoping to face hitters in a couple of weeks and start a Minor League rehab assignment in late April. From there the Red Sox will see how it goes. "We're looking at the big picture here," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "The reason we acquired John Smoltz is to put him in a position to get back to 100 percent and dominate at the most important times of year. For us, that works backwards from October and the stretch run and the second half of the season."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.