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Comebackers: familiar faces giving it a shot in new places

The world loves a comeback story…especially the sports world.

There’s just something special about it. That strangely awesome feeling you get when you see an athlete, perhaps forgotten about or written off, show up out of nowhere and prove to you and the rest of sport that they have something left in the tank.

Remember how excited you got when Michael Jordan stepped back on the court, when Mario Lemieux skated back out on to the ice, or how about when Peyton Manning got back under center after four neck surgeries?

Granted, those guys are all-time greats in their respective sports, but for every MJ, Super Mario, and Manning, there’s a Jaret Wright, an Eric Chavez, or a Bartolo Colon just sitting in an off-season bargain bin waiting to prove somebody wrong.

The upcoming 2014 season has no shortage of such players as names like Grady Sizemore, Brennan Boesch, Brad Penny and Jeff Francoeur have been able to latch on to teams with playoff aspirations in the hopes of rekindling the productivity that made them big contributors in seasons past.

Here’s a look at some notable players who were at one time considered major forces at their position, and will now look to catch lightning in a bottle in 2014…

1. Chone Figgins: It’s true that speed does deteriorate as a player gets older, but jet-fast players usually drop off to a point where they still offer better than league average wheels. After two dreadful years in Seattle in ’11 and ’12, Figgins was off the grid in 2013, but auditioned for teams earlier this winter and impressed the Dodgers enough to where they were willing to take a flier on him. Will he be the dynamic catalyst that made him one of the game’s best lead-off men for a six-year stretch with the Angels? No. But, he could be a valuable role player for a team that won its division and made it to the NLCS last year. He’s not going push any of the starters out of the way and earn an everyday gig, but he will provide speed on the bases and hopefully for the Dodgers, the ability to get on base at a reasonable enough clip from both sides of the plate. If he can be serviceable in those two areas, the people scratching their heads in January probably won’t be doing so come October. Figgins’ skill-set is comparable to that of long-time journeyman outfielder Dave Roberts. Ask the Red Sox how valuable it is to have a guy, who can come off the bench and steal a bag when needed in the playoffs.

2. Bobby Abreu: Who says you can’t go home again? After being an absentee player in 2013, Abreu has found his way back to the city of brotherly love with the Phillies, where he was once an on-base machine who played almost every day his team had a game scheduled. For 14 straight seasons from 1998 to 2011, Abreu never played fewer than 142 games a year, while reaching the 150 game mark 13 of those years, and 100-plus walks 8 of those said seasons. It’s true that part of his 2013 hiatus was due to lack of production the previous year. However, he was still able to compile a .350 OBP in 100 games played for both the Angels and Dodgers. He’s probably not as good of a defender as he was, he’s not going to steal as many bases as he once did, and he’s not going to play everyday anymore, but Bobby Abreu, 39, still knows how to hit. He also knows how to work an at-bat, and he’ll still get on base…meaning that he could flourish once again playing half his games at hitter friendly Citizen’s Bank Park. There’s no shame in taking a low-risk, high-reward gamble on a guy who was second in baseball to Barry Bonds in walks from 1999-2006.

3. Brad Penny:  Penny is a pretty far removed from his best days with the Marlins and the Dodgers. However, the 35-year-old hurler has managed to secure a deal with Royals for 2014 after taking off 2013. Now, I don’t know of anyone who thinks Penny will recapture the form that made him the All-Star game starter for the National League in 2007, and he won’t knock any of Kansas City’s incumbents out of the rotation…hell, he may only be able to contribute as a reliever this year. But if Penny can throw hard and heavy strikes as he has in years past, he might just carve out a spot for himself for this team that is really close to being a playoff contender. KC’s young core players are starting to reach expectations, they have quality starters in their rotation, and a bullpen that could be one of the best in the game next to Atlanta and Oakland. The old saying “you can never have enough pitching,” still holds true today, and a former innings eaters who throw hard are worth stockpiling.

4. Grady Sizemore: Has there been a guy in baseball in recent memory that’s had a harder time staying healthy than Grady Sizemore? Once one of the games most exciting players, Sizemore has seen his stock plummet over the past five years, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was in the discussion as the best center-fielder in the game before injuries began creeping up on him. During a four-year stretch from 2005 to 2008, Sizemore displayed great tools at the top of the Indians lineup, and seemed to be blossoming into the perfect combination of speed and power by scoring 134 runs while stroking 53 doubles in 2006, and  joining the 30-30 club in 2008. The wheels began to come off in 2009 though when Sizemore missed 56 games, and then subsequently missed a combined 220 games over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. His leg and knee injures continued after that, causing him to miss the 2012 and 2013 campaigns respectively. The rich potentially got richer this off-season after the Red Sox decided to bring Sizemore to “Beantown” on the heels of their third title in 10 years. At 31, Sizemore has father time a little more on his side than the rest of the players on this list, and he may be a great compliment to Bradley, Jr. in solving the Sox’ outfield reconstruction following the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury to the Bronx. With Sizemore, it’s never been a question about his tools…only the uncertainty about his health will keep him from reaching  his potential. With an outfield that already consists of Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino, and Bradley, Jr., it might be easier for Sizemore to stay on the field as a platoon guy rather than trying to play everyday as the face of the franchise as he did for those years in Cleveland.

5. Mark Mulder: To me, he’s the most intriguing guy on the list. Now, I know he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2008, but there was a five-year stretch from 2001 to 2005 where Mulder was one of the top 3-5 left-handed starters in the game. He compiled 15 or more wins those five straight years, and even racked up 21 wins in ’01. I wonder if he let the fungus grow on his shower shoes after that? Just me? Okay, nevermind. After shutting it down after the 2008 campaign due to arm and shoulder injuries, Mulder has decided to give it a go after five years off the job after seeing something in the delivery of Dodgers’ reliever Paco Rodriguez he thought he could emulate. Fast -forward a couple of months later, and Mulder is back in Cali with the Angels, a team that was  in a hurt for pitching last year. It’s unrealistic to think that Mulder could step off the ESPN set and onto a big league mound and contribute as consistently as he did pre-injury, but left-handed pitchers should be the ninth wonder of the world. If you’re a left-handed pitcher, and you’ve got a pulse, some team will find a spot for you. 36-years-old isn’t what it used to be either, especially for a lefty, and one who is as athletic stays in as good of shape as Mulder. Jimmy Key, Randy Johnson, Jesse Orosco, Mike Remlinger…they all pitched well and were productive as they approached 40. Some of them, like Johnson and Jamie Moyer, even exceeded that and pitched past 40, or in Moyer’s case to 50. Even last year, guys like Scott Downs, Tim Byrdak, and Darren Oliver made worthwhile contributions to teams while pushing or turning 40, with Downs having already parlayed last year’s success into a deal with White Sox. If Mulder can find the form that made him one of baseballs steadiest southpaw starters for a number years, he could once again find himself as part of a solid “Big 3” in the state of California.

Other players who just missed the list were outfielder Brennan Boesch, who will join Mulder with the Halos, Matt Gamel, who will try to get his legs back under him and provide some power off the Braves bench, and names like Jose Contreras, Chris Coghlan, Jeff Francoeur, and Guillermo Mota, who will go to spring training with the Rangers, Cubs, Indians, and Royals. Hopefully these players will be able to display the type of fortitude it’ll take to once again be successful in our great game, because like I said, the world loves a good comeback story.