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Comeback kids: Eight candidates to return to form

Jeter, Kemp, Hamilton, Dickey among those hoping to put disappointment behind them

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Great players usually have great seasons. Duh. Sometimes, though, even the best have down years. It could be because of an injury. Or it could be just one of those things that falls under the broad category of "that's baseball."

That's why the Comeback Player of the Year Award was invented. Last season, Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano (National League) and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera (American League) were recognized. Here are some 2014 comeback candidates, two pitchers and two hitters each for the NL and the AL.

NL PITCHERS

Ryan Vogelsong, Giants
Sure, there will be some who will think that the late-bloomer's 27-16 record and 3.04 ERA in 2011-12 was an aberration. And it's true Vogelsong wasn't pitching well before going on the disabled list with a fractured right hand last May.

Manager Bruce Bochy, however, is convinced that doesn't tell the whole story.

"Things couldn't have gone worse for him," Bochy said. "And if anybody can bounce back, figure it out, he's done it. I do think a couple of things came into play with him, like [pitching in] the World Baseball Classic. That, I think, was a factor."

Dan Haren, Dodgers
Many thought Haren's bounceback would come last season with the Nationals. Didn't happen. Instead his ERA rose again, to 4.67. Now with the Dodgers, Haren is convinced he's ready to re-establish himself, especially after posting a 2.89 ERA in his last five starts of 2013.

"It was more of a mind frame I had. I kind of went back to the basics of why I was successful as a pitcher, which was keeping the ball down," Haren told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "When I'm missing pitches, I miss down in the zone. The game was going so fast for me. I don't know if it was being 3,000 miles away on a new team and trying to do too much. I kind of just forgot why I was successful in the big leagues."

NL HITTERS

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
After being the runner-up for the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 2011, Kemp has been hit by a string of injuries that have limited his playing time and production. He's coming off both ankle and shoulder surgery. There have been rumors that the Dodgers -- who also have Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford in their outfield -- could trade Kemp. It's uncertain whether he'll be ready for Opening Day. But ...

If healthy, Kemp is one of the best players in the game. He's only 29. He told MLB.com at the team's recent FanFest that he still considers himself an elite player.

"You have to think you're one of the best to be one of the best," Kemp said. He later told the audience, "I'm not made of glass. I'm still a beast."

Ryan Howard, Phillies
In 2011, even though he was nagged by an ankle injury much of the season, The Big Piece hit 33 homers and drove in 116 runs. He made his third straight All-Star team and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting for a sixth consecutive season. On the last play of the Division Series, though, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and hasn't been the same since.

Now, finally, the Phils are cautiously optimistic that Howard is fully healed.

"He feels normal for the first time in a long time," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "That's obviously the key element for him."

AL PITCHERS

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
It wouldn't have been fair to expect this knuckleballer to repeat his 2012 season, when he won the NL Cy Young Award for the Mets. But the Blue Jays certainly expected more than they got: Fewer strikeouts, more walks and 35 home runs allowed, which all led to a 4.21 ERA.

Dickey admitted late last season that he'd been pitching through back problems.

"It affects the way I throw," he said. "Mechanically, I'm having to alter things to avoid the pain of it."

Dickey also was making the adjustment of changing leagues and pitching in the American League East. But here's the good news: In the final two months, Dickey's ERA was 3.35.

Neftali Feliz, Rangers
Feliz was a very good closer before being moved into the rotation in 2012. Then he hurt his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery

Feliz is expected to compete to be the Rangers' closer this season. and the early indications are positive. He pitched in the Dominican Winter League, allowing six hits and two walks in 9 2/3 innings with a 2.79 ERA and 11 strikeouts.

"I feel 100 percent after the surgery, finally," he told MLB.com. "I feel like me again."

If Feliz pitches like he's capable of pitching -- with a fastball that can approach 100 mph and devastating breaking stuff -- his comeback would be a huge boost for Texas.

AL HITTERS

Derek Jeter, Yankees
Yes, he's 39 years old and coming off a season in which a series of injuries hampered his comeback from a broken ankle that ended his postseason in 2012 and limited him to 17 unproductive games. Two things, though: The Yanks saw firsthand last season what Rivera was able to do when he was 43. And Jeter has been written off before. It happened in 2010, when his batting average plunged 64 points to .270. But Jeter's numbers improved each of the next two seasons.

"I remember when I turned 35, everyone said, 'That's it, he can't play anymore, end of my career,'" Jeter told reporters in Tampa, Fla., this week after taking live batting practice for the first time since last year. "So it's really nothing different ... Last year was like starting over from scratch -- not even starting from scratch, because I had to build back up to where I was before I got hurt and then try to build up, so I never really got on track."

Josh Hamilton Angels
The Halos signed Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract after he hit 43 homers with 128 RBIs and a .930 OPS for the Rangers in 2012. In Hamilton's first year with his new team, his production dropped to 21 homers, 79 RBIs and a .739 OPS.

Manager Mike Scioscia believes Hamilton is poised to return in a big way.

"I think Josh is going to move back to left field and just stay in left field, and I think he'll be more comfortable with that aspect as opposed to switching him to right field," Scioscia said. "But I do feel, from the way he finished up the second half of last season (.801 OPS) and made some adjustments, that he understands what his role is a little more, what our team is about and what he can bring, Josh is going to have a big year for us."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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