March 10, 2010
Hot Spots: Outfield
Stop me if you've heard this one: “Andruw Jones reported to camp in the best shape of his life!” Unlike when Guillen sniped about Kenny Williams obtaining Griffey 20 years too late, Guillen is the one with fond memories of a tremendous athlete patrolling CF and bashing homers like a Hall of Famer. And so far, he's passing the auditions in spring training, continuing to see playing time in center field. He has just 9 PA, but has started 3 times in center field, and has 2 stolen bases already – giving some indication of how hard he's working to impress, if nothing else. PECOTA loves Rios' chances of bouncing back strong, and it would take a continuation of September's nightmare for him to lose much playing time. But Pierre's noodle arm (something like -40 runs “contributed” over his career, depending upon the calculations used) is safely in left field for now, as early indications are that the team is serious about using Andruw as the backup in center field.
Normally, spring stats mean little; and preseason reports on health mean less. But Andruw Jones is competing for playing time with Mark Kotsay. And, while (Sox radio broadcaster) Ed Farmer can say that he likes Mark Kotsay better in every way than Johnny Damon, PECOTA doesn't envision him posting stats commensurate with a starting outfielder or DH. In 2009, Matt Diaz had undergone a fitness transformation, and was stealing bases in spring training, and ended up stealing 14 bases in just 425 PA, easily his career best. With the new emphasis on “speed and defense” on the South Side (which ironically involves their two best base thieves from 2009 going to Kansas City), Andruw's chances of adding some steals to his stat line this season aren't bad. He won't approach his career-high total of 27, but now that the team has confidence in his ability to play defense, he could see enough playing time to crank out 15 or more home runs and steal 10 bases. The fly in the ointment is that the team is still overloaded with righty bats, and Kotsay will be very tempting to play somewhere against almost all right-handed pitchers; since Pierre, Rios, and Quentin will play as much as their health allows, that limits Jones to about 60% for now.
Mets fans everywhere would probably dip into their savings accounts to get PECOTA's 623 PA for Carlos Beltran, but it's not going to happen. Instead, there will be a battle between newcomer Gary Matthews, Jr. and Angel Pagan until he returns.
Given the huge “error bars” around defensive metrics - which Field F/X should reduce in a groundbreaking manner in ensuing years - it's dangerous to assume that a fielder (call him “Gary Matthews” for example) is terrible, just because he posts a -17 FRAA in a single season (or -14.5 UZR fielding runs courtesy of fangraphs.com). But when said fielder has a 3-year pattern of allowing balls to drop in zones where they are supposedly easy to catch, and failing to make up for it with plays in “tough” zones, it's as close to utterly certain that he's an albatross to the defense as is possible. Well, Matthews is such a player, racking up -31 FRAA (-36.1 UZR runs) in 3 years in LA. Meanwhile, Angel Pagan has tallied +9 defensive runs according to either system in his career, shuffling around all three spots. While the sample size is limited, these numbers and scouting reports indicate that he should be able to cover center field with something like an average MLB range. That would make him many runs (and hence tenths of wins) better than the higher-paid Matthews on defense.
PECOTA's projection for Pagan may be a wee bit rosy, but certainly not far off. He's the sort of player a shrewd fantasy owner picks up before the other owners realize what hit them. On skill, he's clearly the 2nd-best healthy option in the outfield now. Matthews can't hit, and even a move to the friendlier NL won't change that; and Francoeur's inability to hit righties could allow Pagan to soak up lots of AB even after Beltran returns. In short, Pagan is a league-average hitter and a league-average defensive center fielder, and he has enough speed to help in a fantasy SB category too. That's a valuable player in any system, though he'd be nothing better than “replacement level” in shallow mixed leagues.
In a foreshadowing of what is shaping up to soon be a Michael Jong column (Hot Spots: Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop), Ben Zobrist is projected to get more time in right field now. This is due, of course, to middle infielders Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac hitting a combined 14-for-28 so far this spring, with “S-Rod” leading all players (3-way tie) with 3 HR. What results is that Crawford will play as much as he's able (nearly 100%), as will Upton, and so will Zobrist – though he'll shift to either second base or right field depending on whether Matt Joyce or Sean Rodriguez wins the spring training battle. Rodriguez's PECOTA indicates that he'll hit just .233/.319/.437, and while there's the chance he'll steal Joyce's playing time, we think it's more likely his free-swinging ways will return him to Earth and AAA. The recent addition of Hank Blalock further reduces Joyce's chances of being the 2-star right fielder which Marc Normandin projects, and his current 65% playing-time estimate should be viewed as having a high “risk” factor.
Despite being the buzz in camp, and impressing his manager with his approach as well as his results ("The most impressive thing he's done with his at-bats to this point is he's been laying off the breaking stuff outside the zone," Maddon said of Rodriguez – MLB.com), Rodriguez has options remaining and will likely begin the year in AAA, as Zobrist was better than expected at second base last year, posting fantastic defensive stats and gaining positive comments from his manager about his defense. The Rays have a clear path ahead with Desmond Jennings taking a full-time outfield spot as soon as the team can safely defer his arbitration by one year (June); and with Jennings' arrival, Kapler is likely gone, and Joyce will either become the best-fielding DH in the league (if he's out-hitting Burrell or Burrell is traded), or join Rodriguez in bolstering a tremendous AAA team.