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Five players off to hot start after chilly 2011

Five players off to hot start after chilly 2011

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Five players off to hot start after chilly 2011
Opening Day means renewal, second chances and all that good stuff. A six-month grind starts with everybody's stats set at zero. That's unfortunate for players coming off great years, but for some guys there's no better news than resetting the numbers.

A few of them are already taking advantage. MLB.com takes a look at five players who aren't quite dead yet, who got off to good starts in their quest to put unhappy 2011s behind them.

Adam Dunn: Nobody looked more cooked last year than Dunn, formerly one of the most reliable power hitters in the game. Everything about "Big Donkey's" offensive game fell off. His average cratered. For a second straight year he walked less frequently than he had in the past. Most of all, his power vanished. A player with seven straight seasons of at least 38 home runs hit 11 in nearly 500 plate appearances. It was the definition of a lost year.

On Friday, Dunn looked like himself. He homered and drew a walk in four plate appearances, showing the two offensive skills that have made him so valuable over the years. He didn't face a lefty, and same-side pitchers were the true bane of his existence last year. But a take-and-rake, patient slugger is who Dunn is. If he's back to embracing that rather than worrying about contact and hitting singles, it's a great start.

Rafael Furcal: Most of the talk around Cardinals camp this spring centered on Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and all of the familiar faces who have moved on. As the spring wore on, another topic emerged: worry about Furcal. St. Louis is hoping the player it saw in August and September is the real Furcal, and not the player who scuffled for the rest of the year. If Furcal is not right, it's a major problem for the Redbirds. When he labored through Spring Training, concerns grew.

Two games in, he looks very right. He followed a three-hit showing in the opener with three more hits, a walk and his second stolen base on Friday against the Brewers, and suddenly the spring seems a little less ominous. The stolen bases are as encouraging as anything, though obviously the hits are nice. But many of Furcal's health issues have been located in his legs. If they're healthy enough for him to be turned loose regularly on the bases, it's a very good sign that the rest of his game should be intact.

Nick Markakis: A hotly hyped prospect who was a star-level player in his early 20s, Markakis stagnated just as he was reaching what should be his prime. Last year, in his age-27 season, Markakis had his least effective season since he was a rookie. His extra-base power slipped again, his on-base percentage was tied for the second-lowest of his career, and despite winning a Gold Glove, even his defensive statistics were subpar.

But when a player still in his physical prime -- and the age-28 season certainly counts -- has thousands of big league at-bats under his belt, really good things can happen. It's far too early to forecast a resurgence or breakout (take your pick) for Markakis, but he's one of the players on this list most poised to return to his old levels. On Friday, he tripled, homered, walked, scored two runs and drove in three. Markakis has never been a big homer threat, but he's always racked up extra-base hits, until last year. If that element of his game returns, everything else will look a lot better.

Buster Posey: Here's a guy who didn't really have a bad 2011. He just didn't really have a 2011. Posey played 45 games before his season was ended in a home-plate collision with the Marlins' Scott Cousins. His numbers were down a bit from his brilliant rookie season, but it's unwise to make much of what 45 games really mean. On Friday, in his first regular-season game since the injury, he contributed like always.

Posey singled twice and walked on Friday night, and while it wasn't an explosive showing, he looked healthy, and that's the main matter with him. Few players are more instrumental to their teams' success in 2012 than Posey is to San Francisco. It's no secret how well the Giants can pitch. What they need are runs, and having Posey at his best in their lineup would add a lot of them to the ledger.

Alex Rodriguez: It's worth pointing out that Rodriguez's down year would be awfully good for a lot of players. He hit below .280 for the second straight year and the second time since 1995. He walked a little less than the year before, and his power continued a troubling downward slide, and the decline accelerated rapidly. His isolated power, a measure of extra-base pop (slugging percentage minus batting average, in case you're wondering), fell to 185 -- his lowest mark since that same '95 season, when he was a 19-year-old making fewer than 150 plate appearances.

On Friday against James Shields, Rodriguez had a game that had to encourage the pinstriped faithful. He singled, doubled and drew two walks, keeping the line moving in the middle of an offense that has the potential to be extremely dangerous once again. It's hard to imagine Rodriguez returning to the dizzying heights of his heyday from the late '90s and early '00s, but it's not that hard to conceive of him looking like the 2008-09 version of himself. That would be a nice boost for the Bombers.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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