Nicholson-Smith: Comeback players around MLB

Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir and Vernon Wells are among this year's comeback players.

Comeback seasons can represent the beginning of career turnarounds, as pitchers like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter have shown in recent years.  But Dmitri Young could tell you that comeback years don’t always portend future greatness.

Either way, they’re a lot of fun to watch.

As always, some former stars have rebounded from recent struggles to produce on the field in 2013. Here’s an early-season look at former MLB All-Stars who are making comebacks:

Vernon Wells, New York Yankees

All-Star selections: 2003, 2006, 2010

Recent low point: Removed from Angels’ starting lineup, sent to New York in a salary dump trade.

The 2013 edition of Vernon Wells looks a lot like his 2010 self and not much like his 2011-12 self. That’s a great thing for the Yankees, who have been playing without a long list of stars including outfielder Curtis Granderson.

Wells has used a familiar formula to hit nine home runs and post a .299/.349/.526 batting line in his first 36 games in pinstripes: swing a lot, miss a lot and pull a lot of home runs deep over the left field wall. The combination worked for years at a time in Toronto and has re-surfaced after two difficult seasons in Anaheim.

Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

All-Star selections: 2006-10

Recent low point: Spent extended time on the disabled list with knee, thumb and possible concussion issues, 2010-12.

While Chase Utley isn’t the MVP candidate he was five years ago, he’s a heck of a lot more productive than your typical second baseman. The average batting line for the position across MLB is .254/.312/.384 so far in 2013. Utley, 34, has recovered from various injuries to post a .289/.344/.514 batting line with seven home runs this year.

Utley’s now in the last year of his record-setting $85 million contract. He won’t establish a new standard for contracts for second basemen this winter — Robinson Cano has that covered — but he’s setting himself up for another substantial deal.

Scott Kazmir, Cleveland Indians

All-Star selections: 2006, 2008

Recent low point: Posted a 5.34 ERA for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League in 2012.

Scott Kazmir has always relied on an electric fastball to retire hitters, so he struggled immensely when his once-lively heater dropped off to 86 m.p.h. in 2010-11. After a tour through the independent Atlantic League, Kazmir is back — and so is his fastball.

The 29-year-old left-hander struck out 10 Athletics in his most recent start, finishing the outing with three 96 m.p.h. offerings. Armed with a fastball that averages 91.7 m.p.h., Kazmir is forcing more hitters to chase pitches and inducing more swings and misses.

It’s only been four starts, so Kazmir’s comeback is only just beginning. Still, he appears to be pitching better with each passing appearance, and has started to resemble a capable MLB starter instead of a washed up indy leaguer looking for one last chance.

Nate McLouth, Baltimore Orioles

All-Star selection: 2008

Recent low point: Released by the Pittsburgh Pirates, May 2012.

One year ago this time, Nate McLouth was playing poorly enough to be released by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s now a leading offensive contributor for a contending Baltimore Orioles team.

McLouth, who joined the Orioles last summer and re-signed for $2 million during the off-season, has been doing a lot of things right in Baltimore. He has more walks than strikeouts for the first time in his nine-year career, and a .375 on-base percentage. With three home runs and nine doubles, he is showing some power. And he has been aggressive and efficient on the bases, stealing 11 times in 12 attempts.

Carl Crawford, Los Angeles Dodgers

All-Star selections: 2004, 2007, 2009-10

Recent low point: Missed most of the 2012 season with wrist and elbow injuries before being sent to Los Angeles in a salary dump trade.

Conventional wisdom suggested the Los Angeles Dodgers took on Carl Crawford and his over-sized contract last summer to get Adrian Gonzalez from the Boston Red Sox. Crawford didn’t play for the Dodgers in 2012, but so far in 2013 he’s looking like much more than an afterthought.

The 31-year-old has a .321/.382/.496 batting line with five home runs and eight stolen bases in ten attempts. Improved plate discipline has translated into more walks and fewer strikeouts as well. When Crawford does swing, he hits the ball hard. He ranks 17th in all of baseball in line drive rate, hitting liners 25.9% of the time.

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